Lord Mayor Clover Moore at Sydney Town Hall with solar panels
Lord Mayor Clover Moore at Sydney Town Hall, which has the city’s largest photovoltaic solar panel installation.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore knows what it means to blaze a trail.

In 2004, she became the first woman popularly elected Lord Mayor of Sydney, having previously served on the Sydney City Council and in the Legislative Assembly.

Over her many years in politics, a steady stream of prime ministers and state premiers have failed to tackle greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling climate change, she has complained, even as Sydney has faced steadily rising temperatures. There’s been a “profound, even hostile, lack of long-term leadership on climate change,” she said, that drove her to act on her own.

In December 2016, after returning from the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico with a new sense of urgency, she stepped up Sydney’s efforts to reduce emissions and help Australia meet its targets under the Paris Agreement. She moved to fast-track a push for zero-carbon buildings and an Environmental Action Plan for the city. And to help pay for the accelerated city efforts, she recently scrapped plans for her usually lavish, invite-only New Year’s Eve celebration.

In our fourth and final interview in the Women Mayors Talk Climate Change series, Lord Mayor Moore talks with us about coping with increased heat in Sydney — with trees, among other things — and her ambitious targets for net zero emissions and 50 percent renewable power by 2050. Read on to hear how she plans to get Sydney there — with help from a rising chorus of women’s voices.

What are the greatest environmental challenges facing your city?

Our risk assessment for Sydney ranked extreme weather as the biggest potential shock facing the city, ahead of financial institution failure, infrastructure failure, disease pandemic, water crisis, digital network failure, cyberattacks and terrorist attacks.

Heat is the greatest of the extreme weather threats to Sydney, contributing to more deaths than bushfires, floods and storms combined. It creates a domino effect and every single person in Sydney is affected in some way. We classify it as Sydney’s silent killer. Heat sends more people to hospital than any other risk Sydney is threatened with, yet doesn’t seem to command the level of public concern that is should.

Last summer was our hottest on record. We sweltered through 11 days of temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). The surge of air conditioning machines being switched on at peak times overloaded our electricity grid and train lines buckled, leading to major delays. Thousands of people presented to emergency wards across Sydney with heat-related illnesses, and the evidence is extremely clear on the risk for the elderly, obese, babies, young children and pregnant women.

As mayor, how are you addressing these vital environmental and climate challenges?

Our best weapon against urban heat is trees, and we’ve set a target to increase tree canopy 50 percent by 2030, compared to 2006 levels. We’re investigating other options including cooler streets and reflective roofs, and advocating for higher sustainability standards in new buildings to improve their performance in the heat.

To really hit the brakes on catastrophic climate change, we need a comprehensive approach. In the absence of national action, we’ve knuckled down to the job ourselves – and if we can do it in Australia, it can be done anywhere.

So far we have cut the emissions of our own operations by 27 percent, and across our area by 19 percent. We’ve done that with a suite of measures, including switching our street and park lights to energy saving LEDs, overhauling the energy efficiency of our buildings and properties, and encouraging active transport with safe separated cycle lanes.

Lord Mayor Moore, CitySwitch Awards 2016
Lord Mayor Moore poses with CitySwitch Award winners, 2016.

We established the Better Buildings Partnership with the owners of more than half the commercial office space in the city center, and members have saved AUD $36 million (USD $26.6 million) in electricity costs a year and reduced their emissions by 45 percent since 2006 – over halfway to its target to cut emissions 70 percent by 2030.

We’ve now set targets for net zero emissions and 50 percent renewable power by 2050. We have scrutinized our budget and made tough decisions to prioritize funding to accelerate our action on climate change — including by discontinuing the annual Lord Mayor’s New Year’s Eve party.

Our new budget reflects our commitment to doing everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions. Over the next 12 months, we will increase our efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the city by expanding measurably effective programs like the Better Buildings Partnership and CitySwitch Green Office, encouraging the uptake of renewable energy, and working with residents and businesses to improve their environmental efficiency.

Was there an incident or moment in your life that drove you to focus on climate and the environment? Tell us that story.

I never intended to go into politics. I was a teacher, just back from several years living in England with my husband and two small children. My husband, Peter, was from Canberra, and neither of us wanted to move there. I grew up in Gordon, on the leafy north shore, and both of us knew we didn’t want to live there, either.

So we found a terrace on Bourke Street in Redfern. It was very different then. After our years in London, with its civilized inner-city living, community facilities and green parks, I found the state of the children’s playgrounds in Redfern and fast through traffic in every local street soul destroying. The playgrounds were run-down, dangerous, littered with broken glass, surrounded by barbed wire fences and padlocked at night by someone called “the lamplighter.”

But when I protested I got nowhere. I wrote letters and took up petitions that made no difference, so when it was time for council elections I decided to run. The Greek women of the neighborhood were at my elbow, saying: “You speak for us.” Much to the surprise of everyone, I was elected. People told me that as an Independent I wouldn’t have any power. But when I got onto council, no one else was interested in the things I was concerned about. So I was free to go around with the head of Parks and get trees planted and improvements made. Slowly — very slowly! — I began to make some headway. Some years later, the Labor Mayor said, “I wish we’d given her the grass for the park — then she would have gone away!”

What do women leaders like you bring to the table that’s different and important?

Some of the key drivers behind the way cities are changing are increasingly social — peer-to-peer platforms, social networks, behavioral economics, emotional intelligence, collaborations between unlikely partners such as big business and small producers — and women seem to be able to more naturally operate in this way.

So if this is really the way business and cities are going, then this is a fantastic time for women to seize the opportunity, to be leaders at all levels as well as encourage and support other women to start something that has positive social benefits for cities and the people that live there. I think that having more women’s voices will result in the weight of opinion on certain issues being very different to what we are hearing today.

Women still have to fight societal, personal and attitudinal barriers to get as many opportunities and have influence. Despite there being an abundance of women doing great things in our cities, we are still largely underrepresented — as leaders, as innovators, as voices in decision-making, as role models. There is hope though, and evidence of change — seven of our 10 city councilors are women and so is our chief executive officer.

We’ve made a long-term commitment to gender equity in the City of Sydney, and I’m proud to report women now account for 43 percent of all our management positions. Our first gender pay equity survey last year showed the city’s gender pay gap is 2.5 percent — well below the public sector average of 12 percent and the national gap of 16.2 percent. It might not be possible to say that having women leading the city is the key to the success we’re currently enjoying, but there is no doubting that our city is thriving at a time when women hold top leadership positions.