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Tackling climate change in Victorian communities

VCOSS welcomes the Legislative Assembly Environment and Planning Committee’s inquiry into tackling climate change in Victorian communities. Climate change is likely to lead to an increase in extreme weather events, disruption to industries, loss of livelihoods and displacement of people. These changes will affect all Victorians, but the greatest impacts will be borne by people with the least capacity to respond, who face poverty and disadvantage.

In responding to climate change, government and community need to prioritise reducing inequity and supporting vulnerable communities, households and individuals to reduce their energy use, adapt to climate change and manage the associated health and wellbeing risks.

Recognise people living on low-incomes are disproportionately impacted by climate change

Recommendation

  • Prioritise equity and reducing disadvantage in responses to climate change

Climate change will affect low income households and disadvantaged communities disproportionately. The Sustainable Development Goals acknowledge that ‘the poorest and most vulnerable people are being affected the most’ by global warming.

People living in poverty have increased vulnerability and limited ability to adapt to the negative impacts of climate change due to their high risk of exclusion from the economic and social life of society.

774,000 or 13.2 per cent of Victorians live in poverty.[i] People living in regional Victoria are more likely to live in poverty than people living in Melbourne. Women, children and people with a disability are more likely to live in poverty than other Victorians. People who rely solely on income support are some of our most financially disadvantaged community members, although 28.2 per cent of Victorians living in poverty have a job.[ii]

People living in poverty have less resources, social support, mobility and housing options at their disposal. They also tend to live in areas more likely to be adversely affected by climate change, and have far less ability to move or make other necessary adjustments to their living circumstances.

People living in poverty are less able to prepare for climate change impacts, such as being unable to afford to retrofit homes, run air-conditioning or take out adequate insurance. For example, having insecure housing or no home at all makes you more vulnerable to extreme weather and disasters. They are also less able to respond to and recover from the impacts of climate change by relocating or undertaking repairs to homes.

“Mallee Family Care and other providers recorded a spike in health and wellbeing issues within public housing during periods of extreme heat, including family violence, alcohol and drug abuse, increased call outs of police and ambulance services, and higher rates of hospitalisation for tenants diagnosed with mental health issues.”[iii]

Low-income households also spend a greater proportion of their total weekly household budget on energy and water than wealthier households. People who cannot afford their energy bills face the risk of compounding debts and energy disconnection. This means people resort to reducing their energy use, not using their cooling, heating, cooking, lighting and appliances. During extreme weather events such as heatwaves, avoiding the use of appliances to cool the home can mean people’s homes can be uncomfortable and unhealthy.

“I only shower about once a week to save on water and electricity costs. I only flush the toilet when necessary. I am no longer purchasing food that requires refrigeration, so that I can turn the fridge off.”[iv]

Strengthen community service organisations’ resilience to climate change

Recommendations

  • Develop a well-resourced community services framework for emergencies and climate change
  • Support community organisations to transition to renewable energy and strengthen their resilience to climate change

Disasters and extreme weather events, such as bushfires, storms and floods, are predicted to increase with climate change. Extreme weather events and disasters seriously impact people’s social, physical and mental wellbeing. Bushfires and associated heat can lead to heat stroke, heat exhaustion, dehydration, burns and smoke inhalation. The trauma and upheaval of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires led to an increase in mental health issues, risky alcohol consumption, chronic and non-communicable diseases, family violence and environmental damage.[v]

Community service organisations are frequently among the first responders to an emergency, and are often on the frontline, providing resources, support and triage services to people in the recovery period. They also support long-term community development, cohesion, rebuilding and resilience.

[C]ommunity sector organisations mobilised, and were relied upon, to an extent never before seen… [I]t is clear to see that these organisations were flexible and creative in their response. Some had to put aside their own operations to assist, while others had to add dealing with bushfire relief to responsibilities already stretched by limited resources. And in many cases, community sector volunteers and staff, having lost their own relatives, friends or homes, rallied to assist those around them.[vi]

People who are connected with their communities are more resilient to climate change than people who are more socially isolated. Community service organisations are a vital source of community connection and cohesion. They make sure people are able to access the information, resources, services and other support they need.

For example, the Southern Grampians and Glenelg Primary Care Partnership’s Balmoral Fire Connect project tracked the flow of targeted fire-ready information via the local bush nursing centre in south-western Victoria to the most vulnerable people in the community. The project examined the networks of four key staff and how they took on fire-safety information without becoming ‘experts’, then integrated that information into informal conversations. It also involved a ‘pass the parcel’ of formal information throughout the community, based out of the nursing centre. The project showed the value of the relationships of nursing staff in sharing fire safety information.

The impacts of major disruptions to community service provision for people experiencing poverty and disadvantage are very serious: homelessness, deprivation, hunger and isolation.

However, community service organisations are highly vulnerable and not well prepared to respond to climate change or extreme weather events themselves. Many small and medium-sized organisations would risk permanent closure as a result of major damage to physical infrastructure and disruptions to critical services. For example, one week after an extreme weather event 50 per cent of organisations that sustain serious damage to their premises would expect to be out of operation; 25 per cent might never provide services again.[vii]

VCOSS surveyed community organisations in 2019 about their experiences of climate change. 44 per cent of respondents said their organisation had been affected by extreme weather or a disaster in the past 12 months. The most common impacts reported by these organisations included:

  • Staff transport was interrupted (50 per cent),
  • Clients access to services was affected (46 per cent),
  • Demand for services increased (42 per cent),
  • Staff were absent from work (37 per cent), and
  • Staff’s heath was affected (25 per cent).[viii]

The Victorian Government has a vital role in resourcing community organisations to be resilient to climate change, so that they can continue to support their communities. Community organisations need to be part of the Government’s response to climate change, to ensure their knowledge and needs are part of the plan. The Victorian Government can develop a well-resourced community services framework for emergencies and climate change. It can outline the roles and responsibilities of organisations, identify the skills and competencies requires, and document the activities for developing and maintaining these capabilities.

Make sure access to clean energy is equitable

Recommendations

  • Target subsidised renewables programs such as Solar Homes towards people on low-incomes
  • Remove the renter co-contribution under the Solar Homes for Renters program
  • Invest in large-scale renewables for people who cannot access rooftop solar (for example solar farms to benefit people living in high-rise public housing)
  • Support alternative ownership models such as community-owned renewables

Making sure everyone has access to clean, affordable energy is non-negotiable if we are going to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. The shift to renewable energy is rapidly gaining pace in Victoria and the uptake of rooftop solar is skyrocketing.

But despite the significant subsidies on offer, rooftop solar can be out of reach for many people. It is estimated that 30 per cent of Australians are excluded from household solar, including people who rent or who are on low incomes.[ix]

While some renewable energy programs in Victoria have prioritised people who most need clean, affordable energy (for example, Darebin Solar Savers targeted aged pensioners), several Victorian Government programs do not. The nation-leading Solar Homes subsidies program is only available to people who can afford to cover part of the upfront cost, and can disadvantage renters who are forced to contribute to the costs of upgrading a property they don’t own and may not live in long-term.[x] While renters may see the benefits of lower bills, many tenancies only last 12 months, which is not long enough to recover the upfront costs. Landlords will also receive the benefit of improved capital value and potentially higher future rents.

It means people who can afford to switch see the benefits while people who cannot afford it are stuck on an expensive energy grid, further entrenching disadvantage among low-income households.

The renter co-payment for solar homes should be waived, and the government share half the cost of solar panel installation with landlords. For public housing, we can investigate government support for community solar or buying into larger-scale renewables on behalf of public tenants.

Support communities in transition

Recommendations

  • Adopt a place-based approach that engages communities likely to be impacted by transition in social and economic development planning as early as possible
  • Invest in services for communities that will experience transition, including employment, training and community services
  • Develop workforce plans for communities in transition, that identify workers’ skills and match them with new opportunities

Communities with economies which are reliant on emissions-heavy industries will be affected by climate change and the transition to new energy sources. For example, the closure of the Hazelwood power station continues to impact on people’s jobs and lives in the LaTrobe Valley through higher rates of financial and emotional stress for families and individuals. As a result, there has been increased demand on local community services, including emergency relief, financial counselling, employment, housing and homelessness, family violence, mental health and community legal services.[xi]

VCOSS members in the LaTrobe Valley and inner Gippsland report that disappearing mining jobs are not the only causes of unemployment and disadvantage in the region. Equal attention must be given to people who rely on income from the local economy or who are experiencing entrenched poverty. A lack of public transport and local training and education options limit the community’s ability to transition.[xii]

For communities facing transition, early transition planning, and clear timings around closures can help minimise economic, social and community costs. Comprehensive social and economic development plans can be developed to manage the health, social, education and employment needs of affected communities. These plans must include government and industry investment, to help build social capital and expand the range of services needed by communities in transition, including education, training, employment opportunities and community services.

Workforce plans for communities can identify local workers’ skills and match them to new opportunities. Potential employment includes decommissioning and rehabilitation work, renewable energy industries, work in energy efficiency upgrades and in the growing health and community services industry.

Transition planning must be place-based, empowering local people to identify and develop innovative local solutions, and help build stronger communities that are better equipped to overcome poverty and long-term disadvantage. Decisions made should incorporate local community knowledge, build community trust and avoid applying one-size-fits-all solutions that might not fit the needs of a particular community.

Affordable, comfortable homes

Recommendations

  • Mandate effective energy efficiency minimum standards for rental housing, including public housing, under residential tenancy laws
  • Support improvements to the National Construction Code to ensure strong energy efficiency standards for new buildings
  • Improve the energy efficiency of homes where people are living on low incomes and/or are more vulnerable to extreme temperatures, for example, by expanding the EnergySmart Public Housing Program, Energy Savvy Upgrade and other programs

Climate change will lead to more extreme heat days and longer, protracted summers. Living in homes that are very hot can have significant health impacts. But with energy costs rising, VCOSS regularly hears reports of people restricting or foregoing air-conditioning, turning off the refrigerator, and using public places to stay cool.

One of the reasons people are vulnerable to health, wellbeing and financial impacts from rising energy prices is limited access to well-designed and well-insulated housing and energy-efficient appliances. For example, efficient, affordable heating and adequate insulation create a home that is less susceptible to mould and damp, lessening the risk of health problems like respiratory conditions and depression.[xiii]

Heating and cooling account for about 40 per cent of the average Victorian household’s energy costs, but much of that energy is wasted because most of our housing stock is relatively inefficient, averaging only 2 stars compared with the 6-star standard required for new homes.[xiv]

Renters, in particular, are often unable to improve their energy efficiency and reduce their bills, because they have little control over improvements like insulation and efficient heating that make the biggest difference to costs, use and comfort. Conversely, there is limited incentive for landlords to invest in upgrades, because the benefits are largely felt by tenants.

The residential tenancy reforms of 2018 include a requirement for minimum standards for rental properties. Energy efficiency standards must be central to this minimum standards regime. VCOSS is seeking a government commitment to achieving mandated minimum energy efficiency standards, via a staged approach to implementation. This would involve a feature-based approach to insulation and appliances initially, moving towards an energy efficiency rating minimum standard that is supported by a testing and compliance framework to ensure that dwellings achieve a “rent-worthy” certification.

The Victorian Government can also build on the good work of past and existing programs like EnergySmart Public Housing, Savvy Energy Upgrades and the LaTrobe Valley Home Energy Upgrade Program to ensure that everyone, including those on low incomes or in public housing, has a comfortable home.

 

[i] Robert Tanton, Dominic Peel and Yogi Vidyattama, Every suburb Every town: Poverty in Victoria, November 2018, p 6, https://vcoss.org.au/policy/every-suburb-every-town/.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Victorian Public Tenants Association, Public housing tenants struggle during hottest summer on record without a fair air conditioning policy, 18 April 2019.

[iv] Australian Council of Social Service, “I regularly don’t eat at all”: Trying to get by on Newstart, July 2019.

[v] Deloitte Access Economics, The economic cost of the social impact of natural disasters, 2016, http://australianbusinessroundtable.com.au/assets/documents/Report%20-%20Social%20costs/Report%20-%20The%20economic%20cost%20of%20the%20social%20impact%20of%20natural%20disasters.pdf

[vi] Department of Health and Human Services, There when needed: Victoria’s responsive community organisations – case studies, 2010, 6, https://providers.dhhs.vic.gov.au/sites/dhhsproviders/files/2017-09/There-when-needed%20%28word%29.doc.

[vii] National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Climate Risk, ACOSS, Adapting the community sector to climate extremes: Final report, 2013, 4.

[viii] VCOSS, Climate change resilience of community organisations, data from VCOSS Survey 2019, unpublished.

[ix] J Rutovitz et al, Social Access Solar Gardens for Australia, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, 2018.

[x] VCOSS, VCOSS unveils pre-budget blueprint to ‘deliver fairness’, 13 March 2019.

[xi] VCOSS, VCOSS submission to the Inquiry into the retirement of coal fired power stations, November 2016.

[xii] VCOSS, The voices of regional Victoria, 2018.

[xiii] ACIL Allen Consulting, Multiple impacts of household energy efficiency, report to Energy Consumers Australia, 2017.

[xiv] Environment Victoria, Bringing rental homes up to scratch: efficiency standards to cut energy bills, reduce pollution and create jobs, September 2017.