If you went back 5 to 10 years and questioned a member of a Local Government Sustainability Team on how they established their emissions targets they would likely respond by licking the end of their finger and holding it high in the air. The reality is that in the past, the majority of emissions targets in Local Governments have been informed by an educated guess at best. 

However, due to intensified public scrutiny and tightening budgets, Sustainability Teams are now under increased pressure to justify any proposed targets with an evidence base for how they were defined and an action plan on how to achieve them.

While this process can be relatively straightforward for corporate emissions targets, the challenges around governance, measurement and forecasting make the establishment (and adherence to) community emissions targets a much more treacherous exercise.

This process of setting, monitoring and communicating community emissions targets has proven to be both friend and foe to Local Government.

If done strategically, it can have massive benefits in driving internal momentum towards a collective vision. The most notable example of this is City of Sydney’s 2030 vision, which over the last 7 years has helped reposition the City (and its leadership) as one of the most progressive in the world on climate change and sustainability policy. Conversely, the establishment of unachievable or unambitious targets has the potential to derail internal momentum before it can begin, not to mention any potential backlash from local constituents.

Empowered by our suite carbon management software, over the past several years Kinesis has worked with a number of Local Governments to help establish community emissions targets that are both achievable and ambitious enough to generate the levels of change required.

While there is no ‘one-size fits all’ methodology to achieve this, there are few simple principles that have been consistent through all of these engagements.  

Drawing from this experience, we thought we’d share our 5 key principles to setting effective community emissions targets.

Note: This process cannot be done by the environment or sustainability team alone. To be effective and implementable it must involve the input and ownership by all internal council stakeholders, including planners and development managers.

1. Establish an appropriate baseline

This seems obvious but all too often councils will choose a baseline year that aligns with a wider corporate reporting timeframes while ignoring the quality and content of the data of this baseline year. The basics for this include:

Choosing a year with a complete data set: This refers to choosing a year that has both complete data (ie, minimal amount of estimates) and contains the right granularity of data for future benchmarking. At a minimum this should include a detailed breakdown of your emissions profile and any intensity metrics (emissions per person, emissions per suburb).

Transparency over assumptions: It is possible to adjust your baseline in the future as long as you are clear about your inclusions and exclusions in your baseline data set. Figure 1 below outlines the scope of data that was used to establish a baseline for recent community emissions study.

Figure 1: Example of included scope of community emissions data

Establish a future BAU: Any actionable target will need to be benchmarked against your future ‘business as usual’ baseline. For community emissions this can be estimated through projected increase in floor space. Also, impacts of existing federal and state policies should be taken into consideration when estimating future BAU emissions.


2. Assess the potential

Before you can establish a feasible target you first need to define what is possible, i.e. what is the possible emissions reduction through existing available technologies or policy mechanisms. (Future technologies may be considered however obvious issues arise in the ability to predict future impacts). This should be considered in isolation to any other extraneous factors such as existing budget or internal political agendas.

There are various methods to achieve this, however most will involve the integration and analysis of existing and future land use and demographic data alongside the analysis of technology and policy interventions. At Kinesis, much of this analysis is done using our integrated land-use, resource and carbon management software CCAP City. This spatially integrates transport, land-use, demographic and resource data allowing users test and visualise city performance against various policy and technology scenarios.

Figure 2 outlines the emissions reduction potential resulting from an assessment of the impact of exiting technology given existing land-use and demographics of the studied area. This outlines a total potential of a 35% reduction.

 Figure 2: Example of potential emissions reductions


 3) Determine the role for council

A common concern of Councillors and senior council management around community emissions is being held accountable for targets that they have little control over. Naturally, Local Government cannot be held solely responsible for the emissions from the wider community and any action will inevitably need to be support from other levels of government, the private sector and ultimately residents.

However, given their unique role as community based leaders and facilitators, Local Government do have access to an arsenal of mechanisms that make them more effective at addressing particular opportunities over others.

Therefore, in order to help guide the efficient allocation of council’s finite human and financial resources, it is important to contrast Councils ability to influence against the potential emissions impact, associated financial cost and implementation mechanisms.  

Figure 3 shows a bubble chart from a recent study comparing council  ‘influence’ against emission reduction potential and cost to society.

Figure 3: Bubble chart comparing Councils level of influence (x axis), emissions reduction potential (y axis) and cost to society of various opportunities. .


4) Define a shortlist of strategies

Only once you have a clear picture of where council can have the greatest impact is it possible to establish a list of strategies. These strategies may combine various technologies or opportunities into project areas targeting specific audiences. The sum impact of these strategies will help define a clear picture of the emissions reduction potential directly resulting from Council led actions and a road map to achieve it.

 For example:

  • Business Engagement Strategy (retail solar, commercial solar, energy efficiency): 6% reduction.
  • Waste Strategies (waste diversion, energy from waste): 8% reduction.
  • Planning controls (BASIX Targets, Incentives): 5% reduction.

Note: While a Council might not be held solely accountable for the achievement of the total community emission target, it can be held accountable for the strategies that are put forward to help achieve this target. Given this, the more fine grain, action oriented the strategies the better.


5) Set a target

Naturally, any agreed target will be highly dependant on an individuals Councils willingness to allocate resources to tackle the issue at hand.

However, using the information gathered from the previous steps, the Sustainability Team will be empowered to clearly demonstrate what is both technically feasible in a ‘best case’ scenario, as well as the various levels of intervention that Council could realistically employ to help achieve this potential.

Considering that any action by Council will likely be supported by additional government policies and future advancements of technology in the long term, a well balanced community emissions target that is both realistic and ambitious should sit somewhere between ‘reduction potential’ and ‘council enabled potential’.

Figure 4: Target in comparison to potential and Council led action. 

While seemingly straightforward, these principles demonstrate that there are simply no shortcuts when establishing informed community emissions targets. By following this level of rigour and analysis Sustainability Teams will be empowered to more clearly forecast the impact of Council actions on community emissions and more importantly build the business case for the appropriate resources to help achieve this.

 After all, the establishment of targets alone are meaningless unless they facilitate tangible action aimed at achieving them. As the marketing and technology guru Seth Godin says “If you're not prepared to change your diet or your workouts, don't get on the scales.

Note: The data used in this article is for demonstration purposes only and is not related to any particular client or case study.