09 June 2011
Local government areas are readily typecast. The City of Playford, north of Adelaide, is known as home to several of South Australia's largest industries. Manningham, north-east of Melbourne, on the other hand, is associated with bushland, river and creeks.
While foregoing the dryer is one step, Dr Susie Moloney's research shows we need more than just individual change.
The two have this much in common - each has played host to a study by researchers from RMIT and the University of South Australia on innovative methods to help communities take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"We put out an expression of interest to a number of local government authorities and those two came back to us and said that they would like to put resources into the project and have some carbon footprint assessment done," says Professor Ralph Horne, director of RMIT's Centre for Design, which coordinated the Carbon Neutral Communities - Making the Transition project.
They completed the three-year project late last year with partners including the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action, Moreland Energy Foundation and Community Power, the International Council of Local Environmental Issues (ICLEI) and Consumer Affairs Victoria.
The research team used three methods to estimate greenhouse gas emissions at suburb level, including one developed by the ICLEI Cities for Climate Protection program. They then undertook renewable resource assessments, taking into account land available, housing types with different amounts of roof space, and existing energy demand.
They wanted to know to what extent existing energy demand could be substituted with renewable technologies. "We found that although there were differences between the two local authority areas, in each case around half of the household energy demand could be met by renewable technologies which are currently within market cost parameters," Horne says.
They arrived at a set of renewable technologies that were both simple and familiar, such as solar panels on housing. A PhD student had worked on a project to measure the area of residential north-facing roofs. The researchers also worked on ways to accommodate small wind turbines without contravening planning controls.
"We found that both the local authority areas could indeed be so-called carbon neutral communities from the point of view of generating the bulk of their energy demand from within the local area," Horne says.
The team has since set up the Beyond Behaviour Change Research Group, which advises government, community organisations and commercial clients on social change programs, from green retrofits to changing air travel practices.
"It's a great example of how one project leads to another and how we can apply our new knowledge from a local authority-based project out into completely different sectors," Horne says.
Dr Susie Moloney, a research fellow at the Centre for Design when she worked on the project, now draws on the research findings in her lectures. She concentrated on social dimensions. "You can have people living in six-star houses who are not living six-star lives," she says.
Moloney put together a database of about 100 programs across Australia aimed at changing household energy use and interviewed organisers and householders involved in several of the initiatives. New approaches to changing behaviour were presented to a range of organisations and local authorities around changing social practices.
"The transition to carbon-neutral communities will require change at a number of levels and will involve collective effort," she says. "Targeting individual behaviour without addressing the factors that shape behaviour is just not adequate."
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Cities Work magazine.