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To get to net zero, policymakers need to listen to communities. Here’s what they can learn from places like Geelong


While the federal government was to announce The flagship Net Zero Authority, in the Victorian city of Geelong, hundreds of people – including community groups, trade unions, faith organizations and business representatives – were preparing an announcement of their own this week.

Over the past six months, Geelong has hosted one of Australia’s largest-ever local “listening campaigns” on the climate transition. It is part of the University of Sydney Real Deal for Australia project. The goal is to give local communities a real say in the changes they face.

a report actions to be included, based on community feedback, was launched on May 10.

So what can this policy experiment teach the Net Zero Authority about planning for Australia’s climate transition?

A clear message is that housing and its role in this transition is an overwhelming concern. Housing quality and safety, cost of living and climate change are all linked by the impact of extreme weather, energy costs and emissions, and unequal access to solar energy. Job security is similarly intertwined with climate policy.

But when climate is presented as a separate issue separate from these other sources of stress in everyday life, people withdraw and see action on climate as too much to bear.

Transition works best as a cooperative process

The climate transition to clean energy is just the latest transition for Geelong.
HxChester/Flickr, Author provided

The idea of ​​transition is not new to Geelong. The collapse of the Pyramid Building Society in 1990 and the closure of the Ford plant and Alcoa’s aluminum smelter in the 2010s brought major changes. For many, those transitions were made “to” Geelong and not “with” Geelong.

Climate change brings with it a new transition. How can we make sure people don’t get left behind this time?

Community-led research is an approach that has gained popularity in recent decades. The term covers a wide range of methods, all based on the principle that communities should be at the center of any research or policy process concerning them. like a editorial in the journal Nature said:

Knowledge generated in collaboration with the public and policy makers is more likely to be useful to society.

Rather than treating people as subjects of policy, this approach involves communities in policy design. It asks ordinary people to guide the research process. They shape the questions asked, the methods of engagement, the analysis of data and the creation of research and policy outcomes.

Read more: ‘We know our community better than they do’: why local knowledge is key to Gippsland disaster recovery

How does the Real Deal approach work?

The Sydney Policy Lab started the Real Deal for Australia project in 2019, following a period of divisive, polarized climate politics in Australia.

The aim is to test whether community-driven policy solutions can provide an alternative strategy amid the uncertainties of the climate crisis. Real Deal projects have also begun in Western Sydney and the Queensland port city of Gladstone.

In the Real Deal approach, “relationships must precede action”. In practice, this process has led to the building of a network of national climate groups, trade unions and civil society organisations. Together they have developed a distinctive approach to community-led research, described in a 2020 Real Deal Report.

Between September 2022 and March 2023, the Real Deal for Geelong team conducted 38 “table talks”. These small group talks were held in church halls, community centers, union meeting rooms, and even a local bar. Achieving this level of participation was not easy.

It gives communities time to set the agenda and come up with solutions that meet their needs. In a world focused on quick results, some Geelong leaders were skeptical of a lengthy listening process. The engagement was complicated by post-lockdown exhaustion and interrupted by the Victorian state election and school holidays.

Despite the challenges, the strength of this study with 238 residents lay in the way it was conducted. Members of the local community, supported by a team of researchers, led the process. It was different from traditional ‘consultation’ where so-called experts present ready-made policy solutions.

Small discussion groups of people sitting at tables
Participants in one of 38 ‘table talks’ held in Geelong, February 2023.
Mike Aidt, Author provided

So what are Geelong’s findings?

The listening process found the path to net zero requires more than just creating new industries and new jobs. In Geelong, the biggest issue was housing concerns – 92% of participants mentioned it.

Housing was closely linked to climate. The poor housing stock, especially rental properties, could not cope with the increasingly erratic weather. There were stories of flooded houses after extreme weather events. The problem of mold alone was discussed in 20% of the table conversations. A local community service participant said:

In our organization, we have reports of substandard rental homes experiencing leaks during extreme weather events and sewerage surfacing through pipes when stormwater systems fail in older areas.

Housing is linked to both the cost of living and climate change. For example, people in rental properties did not have access to cheaper, low-emission electricity through rooftop solar systems.

Participants spoke of a two-pronged system: the wealthy could protect themselves with better homes, retrofits, and solar power; the less fortunate couldn’t (like Tuesday’s federal paper approved budget).

Read more: Budget relief for energy bills and financing for home renovations is a great start, but falls short of the scale of the task

The listening process also revealed the importance of good housing as a source of security in a time of uncertainty. As the climate changes, unsafe, expensive, inaccessible, poor-quality housing contributes to people’s fear and instability.

In addition to housing, jobs, cost of living and quality care services were considered essential in the transition to net zero.

How the policy is established is important

The findings provide a very useful lesson for the Net Zero Authority. When planning for climate transition was linked to the other daily pressures people face, participants felt more confident in their freedom of choice. They became more convinced that transformative change was possible.

As Australia ramps up investment in the transition, Geelong’s experience shows that how policy is made matters. When communities play a role in shaping the course of change, climate action can reduce rather than increase stress in their lives.

Geelong has shown that local and regional community-led approaches can be a powerful way to develop more holistic, equitable and popular transition policies.

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