WDC climate change journey – my address to the Bay of Plenty Mayoral Forum

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today to share some of our story about our climate change journey.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time with graphs and numbers. That is pretty dull conversation unless you’re a specialist and those are easily available from our website or by contacting our staff, who are all very keen to work with and support other councils. I thought it would be more interesting and helpful to talk about the human dynamics that shaped our journey.

Prior to 2016 if you looked at the WDC website you wouldn’t have seen anything about climate change. A search might have turned up a reference at the back of a planning document but there was no evidence that the council as an organisation understood the implications of climate change or that it was thinking strategically about how to either reduce local emissions or adapt to the climatic and ecosystem changes that are already baked in.

The problem, frankly, was political. There were a number of staff that were intensely interested in the issue with a base of knowledge and skill to work from, but there was a lack of understanding or will at the political level. Staff had developed off their own bat a sustainability strategy but it went nowhere.

Whakatāne District Council’s journey with Climate Change is, more than anything, a story about the power of unleashing talented staff on a challenging problem.

How we began

The journey began almost informally in the last term of council. A steering group was set up with hazy mandate, but it comprised senior staff at tiers 2 and 3 who put their hand up for it, and I was invited to chair. We brought in people from across the organisation, and this has been one of the features to this day, that we have taken a whole of organisation approach, recognising that all of our areas of activity have a part of play.

We also had a project group, that allowed staff at a lower level in the organisation to be involved and input into the program.

We spent a bit of time trying to define our understanding of the issue. One of the difficulties is the high levels of uncertainty. We know that we are warming the planet and we understand in broad terms some of what that means, but we do not know where the tipping points are, or exactly what the implications will be at a very local level. In fact I think one of the responsibilities of civic organisations like councils is to help our communities understand as best we can what the local effects will be, so they can start to make better decisions as they plan and go forward.

Because of that uncertainty it is important we take an adaptive approach – dynamic adaptive pathways they call it – where we try to make decisions that leave options open for the future as much as possible. So we decided that we needed to start with developing the principles that would inform decision-making.

At the same time, because of the lack of political leadership from Wellington at that time, LGNZ and some TAs were picking up the slack. The Mayoral Declaration on Climate Change, which was signed by our then Mayor Tony Bonne, was quite helpful in articulating some of the principles that we adapted into our draft climate change principles.

The other influential event was the Edgecumbe floods, which I think sharpened people’s thinking around what climate change might mean for a district like ours – generally low lying, at risk of sea level rise and inundation, with large areas of flood prone land protected by stopbanks. That’s without mentioning the fire risk with our large areas of plantation pine forest.

We joined up with the CEMARS programme (not known as Toitū) which helped us to understand our carbon equivalent profile

And we developed a set of 6 principles

1. We will act now.

This included commitments to emissions reduction, showing leadership in our community, and to change how we operate as an organisation

2. We will protect the environment
Which included some specific commitments around transport, resource use, procurement, biodiversity and circular economies

3. We will acknowledge those most affected
Recognising that the impacts of climate fall disproportionately on the poor, and often on the people who have least contributed to it

4. We will think long term
Acknowledging that climate change impact projections often stop at an arbitrary year but the impacts will continue to grow for centuries

5. We will learn
Recognising different knowledge bases, including positivist science, mātauranga māori and local knowledge. It is important to stay abreast of changing understandings and we have rolled out an education program among staff and councillors to get people onto the same level of understanding. We have also invested in sending key people to advanced training and education.

6. We will be part of the solution
In which we commit to working collaboratively with stakeholders in our communities, with other local authorities, and on a national and internation basis.

We took our climate change principles to our council, which signed them off for consultation. We engaged fairly deeply and got a very good response, perhaps especially from young people. We used our community engagement to gauge what our communities knew about climate change, understand where they got their information from and identify what they saw as trusted sources of information. While we had a small but significant minority of people who were still locked in denialism about climate change, the overwhelming response was enthusiasm for council to try to grapple with this stuff and a clear message to be stronger in our approach.

This term of the council the Strategy and Policy Committee, which I chair, has been given a specific delegation around climate change, and has supported the development of a set of strategies, targets and action plans.


Again these went out to our community for feedback and again the general response has been for us to be more ambitious.

As part of the work towards implementing our action plans we have sought outside advice. We have used EMSOL to do an energy audit, and continue to consult with them. There hs been a lot of interest in solar PV on council buildings, which avoid having to invest in a lot of battery storage because the energy is used during the day as it is produced. Although our civic centre refurbishment will include some PV as a showpiece for the community, we buy our energy at such a good rate, and most NZ energy is renewable anyway, that the business case is not as compelling as less visible changes, such as an energy management system. There are many relatively small actions that can be taken which pay for the investment within 5 or so years. Who would not invest in a 20% return on investment?

We also listen to the community, because there is enormous expertise available if we do. For example one general manager was really keen on solar for our swimming pool. It took a sharp eyed enthusiast to recognise that this would increase emissions because they were least productive when we most needed the heat, and so would rely on gas back up during winter. An energy efficient heat pump turned out to be a better solution in terms of overall emissions, and cost.

In fact our swimming pool has been the real star of our organisation, with the manager really taking on board the recommendations from EMSOL and implementing a series of changes that have massively reduced the carbon emissions from our swimming pools.

The other thing I’ll mention is our fleet management advice, which has given us a process for changing out ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles with hybrids or electric over a period of time – where this is viable. We have a number of vehicle, especially in the roading team, where there are no viable hybrid alternatives at this time. We expect this to change.

As I have said the key to the program has been a whole-of council approach, with clear and strong political leadership from our mayor and our councillors, strong support and mandate from our CE, and then working with people across the organisation who have the passion. It’s extraordinary what staff at all levels bring to the table when given the opportunity.

That has led us to winning the Trust Horizon Business Awards inaugural award for sustainability. I was told by one of the judges that they were highly impressed at the comprehensive and detailed approach taken by our council, and its a tribute to our whole staff.

Our next big challenge is how to begin to lead broader change across our community. My feeling is that the focus most be on helping those who already want to change, to identify their options. I think people in general do understand that a real transformation is needed, that we cannot keep doing what we have been doing. I think Covid has helped us understand that as well. As civic leaders we are in a unique position to be a catalyst for that change.

Thank you for your time.

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