Ironbark Sustainability: Councils, climate emergency and COVID – how local governments can help economy recovery

Ironbark Sustainability

group of diverse people
The Ironbark Sustainability team

Councils all around the country are losing money as they are forced to close aquatic centres, community halls and libraries. At the same time businesses and homes are struggling to pay rates. So, how can local governments tackle the crisis?

Ironbark Sustainability – a growing consultancy with staff located around the country says COVID is being seen as an opportunity to reduce costs and emissions by many local governments, both in their operations and into the wider community.

Ironbark’s work with local government goes back a long way. Its managing director Paul Brown spent years working in the sector before founding Ironbark in 2004.

Since then, the team has worked with 260 councils in every state and territory on projects that will deliver an estimated 3.64 million tonnes of greenhouse gas abatement and more than $550 million in savings directly to local governments to reinvest in their communities. 

Projects have included everything from changing street lighting to LEDs, renewables on council facilities, and project managing building efficiency programs.

According to Paul, this is an ideal time for local governments to think about ramping up sustainability action. Ironbark is getting calls and emails on a daily basis from councils and regions to put together shopping lists of shovel ready projects that can deliver the trifecta of jobs, greenhouse reduction and cost savings into local communities.

Not only will it help create savings over the medium to longer term but it will help communities focus on positive action after the shock of the Covid-19 crisis. Historically low interest rates are another good reason to think about longer term investment.

So, what projects hit this trifecta in the short term?

“There are a small number of projects which hit the mark 99 times out of 100”,  business manager Alexi Lynch says.

“For example, a nationwide stimulus funding to councils for solar and batteries on community facilities, electric vehicle charging combined with subsidies for electric vehicles, and funding for smart LED street lighting.

“ Together, these projects would result in savings of over $150 million each year, which would then be reinvested in sporting clubs, health and wellness programs, libraries, roads and waterways all over Australia”.

What are the longer term priorities, post the COVID-19 stimulus?

According to Paul you first need to conduct a solid investigation of how to drive down emissions across the local government area. Then you need to understand the way the various pieces of the LGA fit together. 

Ironbark Sustainability managing director Paul Brown

Ironbark Sustainability managing director Paul Brown

This means understanding how planning applications fit in with the local transport planning and how that interacts with equitable community outcomes.

“There are things councils are already responsible for that directly affect community emissions,” he says, “and this means having a wholistic point of view with planning applications, transport planning in local municipalities, and efficient and equitable functioning of communities.”

For instance, has the council ensured not just the provision of public charging facilities for electric vehicles but that planning laws stipulate new buildings install EV charging points? Is council helping their major industries or local agricultural businesses control their emissions?

“That’s where our team of 34 local government climate, sustainability, data project management, smart lighting and smart cities experts step in,” Paul says.

“We use evidence from thousands of projects around Australia and overseas to help councils – many of which have limited resources –  and then embark on projects that will result in the most effective climate action in their LGA.”

The team starts by helping a council understand its community emissions profile. To do this they recommend councils use Snapshot, a tool that was developed by Ironbark and Beyond Zero Emissions to calculate greenhouse gas profiles for municipalities across Australia.

It calculates major sources of carbon emissions, including stationary energy, transport, waste, agriculture and land use change.

Ironbark business manager Alexi Lynch says key is for councils to understand where to

Ironbark Sustainability’s business manager Alexi Lynch

focus their energy.

“We have 20 years’ experience working with councils on climate change, and we see our role to take it to the next level, and look at the evidence base behind some of these projects, explaining what and why something is valuable,” Alexi says.

It is great to get solar on residential roofs, for example, but the evidence shows it is not necessarily a very smart use of council resources. Surely, we’ve all noticed that despite being a laggard on climate internationally, the one area where Australia leads is solar PV! If we look at owner-occupied houses, most of the barriers have been removed so this isn’t an area where a leading council should be focusing on.

“And, if you see a council anywhere in Australia saying it has a target of 50 per cent of new electric vehicles in its LGA by 2030, you should call it out because it will reach that target by doing nothing. That is the business-as-usual trajectory for EV in Australia.

“A council’s role is to look at how it can increase it above 50 per cent, or hit targets earlier than expected”.

Another thing Ironbark does is to transfer best-practice emissions reduction activity from one council to another, no matter the size of the council.

Since 2004, we’ve seen state, national and international climate programs coming and going. We’ve seen governments come and go. And we’ve seen funding programs come and go. But real action on climate always starts with a good idea and a good business case,” Paul says.

Ironbark might have been tempted at times to look at applying its technical and project management skills to other sectors, but it’s decided to stick to its knitting.

“We don’t work for other sectors; our mission is to help councils and their communities – and that is all we focus on. We will work with other stakeholders, but our clients are local government – councils, councils, councils. It’s the front line of responses to the challenges we face. It’s where significant emissions reductions and energy savings can be implemented. And we love working them”.

Ironbark Sustainability