Ecological disaster area: Sydney's dirtiest little secret

Few placeson Earth have a carbon footprint to match that of Mosman, one of Australia's wealthiest enclaves. But now its civic leaders are going green. Kathy Marks reports

Mosman, on the north shore of Sydney Harbour, encompasses some of the city's most spectacular real estate, palatial houses with swimming pools and wonderful views of the water, along with scenic beaches, coves and peninsulas.

The municipality, home to some of Australia's most voracious consumers, also has the dubious distinction of having one of the country's biggest "ecological footprints". And since Australians are near the top of the global league table for per capita carbon emissions, that means well-heeled Mosmanites are among the most destructive people on the planet.

Some time ago, Mosman outed itself, with the local council revealing that the average footprint of each resident was a massive 14.7 hectares, almost twice the Australian average, and more than six times the global average of 2.3 hectares.

If everyone in the world had a lifestyle similar to that of Mosman folk, a study shows, seven extra Earths would be required to provide the resources. And if the resources to support them had to be found locally, only 58 people would be able to live in Mosman. In fact, the population is 28,000.

So the mayor, Denise Wilton, determined to restore Mosman's good name. She lobbied the Nature Conservation Council, a state environment body, to pick the municipality as the site of a "community climate challenge", inviting residents to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions drastically.

Ms Wilton was successful, and the challenge will be officially launched tomorrow afternoon on the village green, with a barbecue, children's entertainment, "eco-stalls" and talks and demonstrations. Nearly 150 households have signed up, and the goal is to recruit 1,000 for the three-month pilot programme.

Those who agree will get a kit outlining ways they can green their homes and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. They will be set specific goals, and stars will be awarded for ecologically sound behaviour. Limiting a shower to four minutes, for instance, or using a ceiling fan instead of air-conditioning, will earn one star. Parents who walk their children to school instead of driving them in gas-guzzling cars will earn three stars. So will executives who hold video-conferences rather than flying to other cities for meetings.

Four stars – the maximum – will be awarded for such activities as arranging a walking "school bus" with other parents. Raising funds to install solar panels at a local school will also earn four stars.

Mosmanites who have accumulated 35 or more stars by the end of June will have the chance to win prizes including a solar hot-water system and energy-efficient fridge. Mosman council itself is now collecting stormwater to irrigate parks and sporting grounds, and plans to be the first council in Australia to run all its street lights off green power.

The municipality saw off stiff competition from 14 other Sydney councils to be nominated as the venue for the climate challenge, which will be run in conjunction with the Nature Conservation Council, with state government funding.

"I put a really strong case to them," Ms Wilton said. "I said, 'Take us, because if Mosman can do it, anyone can'." She commissioned the carbon footprint study three years ago. The results came as "quite a shock, I have to say". When she published them, some constituents were "very angry that we had highlighted it, because it made Mosman look like a big consumer, but that is the reality".

She said: "We have the big cars, we have the big houses with few people living in them, we have the affluent lifestyle. We consume far too much, we buy too much. We also fly far too much, both for business and leisure. We must be among the highest consumers in the world; there's no use hiding that fact. By doing this challenge, we're admitting it and saying we want to do something to change it."

When the backlash died down, the council recruited six households as guinea pigs, and set them the task of reducing their footprints. It was the success of that exercise – the families collectively slashed 16 hectares over nine months – that made Mosman determined to take on the community-wide challenge.

Warren Yates, an engineer, and his wife, Judy, were among those who tested the ground. The couple live in a sizeable house in an area called Beauty Point. They run a large, family-sized car. The Yateses began by measuring their electricity, gas and fuel consumption, and then calculating their footprint. It was 7.7 hectares each, small for Mosman, but "embarrassingly large" by international standards. To reduce it, they began with simple measures requiring minimal lifestyle changes, what Mr Yates calls the "low-hanging fruit".

"The very first thing we did was cut back on water," he said. "We put in tanks, and changed the toilet cisterns to dual-flush. We replaced the washing machine and dishwasher with more efficient models, and also turned the thermostat down on the hot water, so we didn't need to use so much cold to mix it with. We took shorter showers, and used buckets to collect the water while we were waiting for it to get hot. Then we used it for drinking or washing up. We turned off the spare fridge, turned the computers to power-save mode, and replaced all the light bulbs with high- efficiency ones. We became much more conscious of lights and appliances left on for no particular reason, and didn't run the dishwasher until it was full."

Thencame the more difficult changes, in particular, sacrificing the convenience of driving to work. "We found out how to use public transport," said Mr Yates. And while he describes Sydney's public transport system as "woeful", he and his wife discovered that they got fitter just by walking to and from the bus stop. They also found the experience less stressful than driving, and enjoyed being able to read as they travelled.

The couple examined their purchasing habits. They began eating less meat, and avoided buying food that was out of season, or excessively packaged, or had travelled a long way. They borrowed books rather than buying them, and found a local business that upgraded computers and televisions that otherwise would have needed to be replaced. They planted a vegetable garden, and are now growing tomatoes and beans.

Recently, in the most expensive phase of the exercise, the Yateses installed solar panels. "We now generate more electricity than we use," Mr Yates said proudly. "It's a bit like losing weight. No one likes to live inefficiently, or make a bigger impact than you need to, and it's really just a case of knowing what things cause problems and doing something about it. And it's quite fun. I really became quite addicted to it. I got a little meter and looked at it every day to see how much energy we'd used, and figured out ways of reducing it quite dramatically. We set ourselves targets. It's like a game. After a while, we caught the bug. Rather like swimmers trying to improve their times, we found ourselves trying to improve our performance."

The couple reduced their water consumption by half, their electricity consumption by two thirds, and the mileage in their car by a quarter. Their footprint is now 5.9 hectares apiece.

"There's one thing we've not been successful in doing, and that's the biggest contributor of all," said Mr Yates. "We've got a daughter who lives in the UK, so we still fly over there once a year, which really makes a mockery of all the other things we're doing. But at least we're aware of it now."

Mosman is the first urban municipality to rise to the community climate challenge. Two other areas – the Clarence Valley, in northern New South Wales, and the Central Coast, north of Sydney – undertook it last year. The Nature Conservation Council is trying to secure funding to roll the scheme out across New South Wales, Australia's most populous state. Anne Miller, thecouncil's project co-ordinator, said: "People need to see they can make a difference as a community. They know climate change is happening, and they want to do something about it. Sometimes you just need the tools to get started, or to do more than you're doing already."

To those who pour scorn on the idea of awarding stars, she said: "Families have found it particularly engaging to do this together. The kids can see their progress and get rewarded immediately. It's a symbolic thing. It's about how much change you've made."

Ms Miller was diplomatic about Mosman's contribution to climate change. "I imagine that if other council areas were to commission a study, they might be surprised at the size of their footprint," she said.

Mr Yates believes he has gone as far as he can, and says that it is now up to the government to take action. "There's only so much ordinary people can do," he said. "We need a tax on carbon, and we need car travel to become much more expensive. We need a really stringent emissions trading scheme. We need it be much more economical to buy hybrid cars and put in solarpower." He added: "The Pope was talking recently about a new set of seven deadly sins, and I think this is the ethics of the 21st century. It's not about sex; it's about what we're all doing to the environment."

And how does he feel about his own achievements? "It's nice to walk lightly, and to feel as though you're having a really good life but not damaging the environment nearly as much as you could be."

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