New Zealand / Environment

Climate emergency declarations: Councils warned to proceed with caution

09:04 am on 13 June 2019

While Auckland City Council has become the latest to declare a climate emergency, four councils who have already made similar declarations are grappling with how to turn words into action.

Climate Conscious Mana Rangatahi Summit address Auckland Council ahead of its vote to declare a climate emergency. Photo: RNZ / Rowan Quinn

Auckland councillors voted on Tuesday to join the global movement after pressure from climate activists, but for councils who already made the declarations the pressure is on to act swiftly, while striking a balance with the interests of ratepayers - and that isn't proving easy.

The climate emergency declarations are largely symbolic, but meant to signal a commitment to urgently curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenpeace spokesperson Gen Toop said councils should quickly follow up their declarations with tangible actions and enforceable policies.

"These declarations cannot be simply a rebranding of councils existing climate policies, because they are inadequate to deal with the climate emergency. Councils will be held to account if they don't start acting like this is an emergency," she said.

However, she said Nelson City Council were the only group actively putting their money where their mouth is, so far.

It's using about $250,000 of ratepayer money to make a climate taskforce and employ a council 'climate champion' - and in an amendment put to councillors on Friday, another $500,000 will be taken from the Port Nelson special dividend for future climate change initiatives.

Similar changes could be in the pipeline in Auckland, where mayor Phil Goff has also pledged to re-prioritise spending. However, not all Nelson councillors were happy to be spending so much on climate change, so quickly.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff yesterday acknowledged that the council would have to act faster than it previously had on climate change policies and spending on initiatives. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Many who voted for a climate emergency declaration, like Nelson City Councillor Mel Courtney, now feel the council is rushing to act without enough public consultation.

"The report that was prepared by offices prior to the meeting - they did it through the night on Thursday evening, before the Friday's meeting. Very quickly," he said.

"You just do not make good decisions if you're under pressure and had these time restraints on you."

Mr Courtney has warned councils who have declared climate emergencies to proceed with caution.

"As one councillor said: if you're rushing to an emergency, you don't travel 30 kilometres an hour, but you've got to know what you're rushing to. And we had no information that where we were rushing to, what the half million was going to be spent on, what the climate warrior or champion was going to be tasked with ... totally unprepared for what we were facing," he said.

Another councillor, Bill Dahlberg, said councils need to stop and think before rushing into declaring a state of climate emergency.

He said he was pleased that the Canterbury Regional Council were first to declare a climate emergency - "because now everyone else can stop trying to get first and maybe put a bit more work into exactly how they're going to implement it."

"This is a major problem and it takes some serious thinking about how to get maximum impact for the ratepayer's money"

However, Ms Toop said the declarations simply reflected the demands of the public, so the cost of climate change initiatives should not be a major concern for councils.

"You just need to look to South Dunedin, for example, which has had a lot of flooding due to sea level rise ... it's going to have a financial costs as well as major disruption to people's lives," she said.

"So the climate emergency cannot be about the financial costs. The cost of not acting is much greater."