How net zero strategies differ across local governments [with video]

We’ve recently been asked by the NSW Government to present on our experience helping councils achieve net zero emissions. In our presentation, we looked at the big growth in net zero commitments, investigated the differences between NSW metro and regional councils in terms of their emissions and readiness to implement emissions reduction measures, and the top barriers to climate action. This article is a summary of the webinar content.

You can also watch a video of our presentation here:

Growth in net zero commitments

We have seen a huge growth in the number of local governments looking to lower their emissions, whether as a long term goal toward net zero, or in the short term through becoming carbon neutral.

Have a look at the figure below. In 2018, when we published our second report on ambitious commitments of local governments, a total of just 24 had declared commitments, nationally.

Figure 1. Ambitious commitments of local governments in 2018

By 2021, more than 140 councils across Australia had set targets to reduce emissions and/or increase renewables. The video below illustrates the growth in ambitious commitments across all Australian states and territories.

Figure 2: Growth in ambitious council commitments from 2017 to 2021

How regional councils differ from metro councils when it comes to emissions and climate action

Emissions and implementation of emissions reduction initiatives is not evenly spread across councils. In 2021, we assessed the plans, resources and achievements of 47 councils for the NSW Government, based on our experience working across local governments throughout New South Wales.

The table below is a summary of what we found.

Table 1. Assessment of the plans, resources and achievements of 47 councils in NSW

Councils with low resources typically means that there is no dedicated staff working on energy, renewables or climate action, and people in operational roles typically take on the task.

Councils with high resources typically equates to at least 2 people working on climate action, net zero or sustainability for their council operations. Often, this includes one or more FTEs working on helping their communities reduce emissions.

Resources tend to be higher in metro and large coastal councils. Small regional councils are less well resourced. This means that implementation varies and that the level of success is higher in councils that are more well resourced.


Differences in the emissions profile

Local governments are estimated to account for ~2.1% of the State’s emissions, or 2.8 Mt of CO2-e, including energy and waste.

The interesting fact is that regional councils emit a disproportionately high percentage of local government GHG emissions at 75%, compared with just 25% for metro councils.

There are three primary reasons for this:

  1. Many regional councils operate landfills and are responsible for accounting for and managing the associated emissions.
  2. Many regional councils operate water and wastewater services, which are energy-intensive to operate, and lead to direct nitrous oxide and methane emissions from treatment processes.

Regional councils cover large land areas with significant road networks that are usually managed by the local council. This leads to large fuel emissions for heavy trucks and road plant, and also longer distances travelled in pool and leaseback vehicles by staff.

Figure 3. Reasons why regional areas emit a disproportionately high percentage of emissions

While most of the emissions occur outside Greater Sydney, a much higher percentage of Sydney metro councils are committed to significant emissions reduction compared with other councils. 55% of Sydney metro councils have committed to ambitious targets, while only ~30% of regional councils have committed to an ambitious target. This is shown in Table 2 below.

If we look at population numbers, we can see that 62% of the NSW population live in LGAs where councils have set ambitious commitments to reduce emissions.

Table 2. Comparison of ambitious commitments between Sydney metro and regional NSW councils


Differences in emissions reduction scope and opportunities

There are many factors that influence the plans, targets and successes of councils that are working across their operations and value chain to reach net zero emissions; here are the most important ones:

  • Acceptance of climate change
  • Climate literacy
  • Understanding of the projected impacts of climate change
  • Council and Executive Leadership support for action
  • Adequate levels of funding and resources

In resource-constrained councils, staff tend to focus on project-based approaches to implement efficiency and renewable energy measures. They may progress to develop energy (master) plans or renewable energy plans that also consider renewable energy purchasing and low-emission vehicles. These councils focus mainly on their operations and how to source funding to pay for initiatives. This is shown in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4. Examples of emissions reduction opportunities for a council with few resources

Councils with more resources and greater climate change acceptance and literacy may develop operational emissions reduction plans, which usually include other sources such as landfill waste and wastewater. Another approach is to develop discrete plans for key emission sources, such as EV or gas transition plans.

Going further, some councils are developing comprehensive net zero plans, which include offsets and sequestration or becoming carbon neutral under Climate Active. Some councils, such as Northern Beaches Council, are also analysing their value chain emissions and are developing plans to reduce them.

In Figure 5, we show the scope of a comprehensive net zero plan.

Figure 5. Examples of net zero opportunities for a council with more resources


Example pathway to net zero

Below, you can see an example pathway that is constructed across a variety of emissions sources, such as energy consumption, transport emissions and emissions from the value chain. There is no single solution that can take a council to net zero emissions. Net zero emissions is reached through a combination of measures that are implemented over time.

Figure 6. Sample pathway to net zero emissions

While the example pathway above shows a comprehensive roadmap to net zero, not all councils develop net zero pathways based on a full scope 1, 2, and 3 carbon footprint. Many councils are still only focused on energy-related emissions to reduce their carbon footprint.

However, as I mentioned above, more councils are starting to include value chain emissions as well. Some even go carbon neutral right away via the purchase of carbon offsets. As these councils reduce their emissions over time, their offset purchases decrease. Councils are also looking at insetting pathways, by reducing their emissions via sequestration in trees, for instance.


Top 5 barriers to emissions reduction action

In 2021, the NSW Government surveyed numerous councils as part of the Sustainable Councils and Communities Program, which found that the major barriers to action are lack of money and resources among regional councils, which accords with our observations as outlined above.

These five barriers are likely to be applicable to all councils to some extent, but in many regional councils in particular these barriers are more acute and a greater obstacle to progress.

Figure 7. Top 5 barriers for councils progressing emissions reduction initiatives



Metropolitan councils

  • Serve the majority of the NSW population but with just 25% of local government emissions
  • Have the most ambitious targets, better funding and more resources to act on climate than their coastal or inland regional counterparts
  • Have had greater success to date in achieving emissions reductions through PPAs, streetlights, onsite efficiency and solar

Inland regional councils

  • Higher emissions from their operations than metropolitan councils (and similar opportunities for abatement), but a fraction of the funds and resources to respond to climate change
  • Unlike metropolitan and coastal councils, there is a lesser call for urgent action on climate (e.g. climate emergency declarations, ambitious targets, peer collaboration)
  • Small, low socio-economic inland regional councils generally have few resources to address emissions reduction opportunities
  • Implementation is lower/slower but lots of solar and streetlighting LED upgrades have been completed

Large coastal councils

  • Many are actively engaged in action on climate through setting of targets, planning abatement in operations, declaration of climate emergency, etc.
  • Larger coastal councils tend to be better resourced to plan their pathways to renewables and low emissions, whereas smaller councils tend to require greater support from the State government to help them plan, set targets and implement

There are several great examples of large solar rollouts, for example, Tweed Shire and Coffs Harbour City councils, as well as mid-scale solar farms (Newcastle), and a switch to LED streetlighting



100% Renewables are experts in helping councils and their communities develop their net zero strategies and plans, and supporting the implementation and achievement of ambitious targets. If you need help to create your net zero strategy, please contact  Barbara or Patrick.

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