Introducing Mel Miller-Yule, Sustainability Officer – Yarra City Council.
The challenge is huge and the targets are ambitious, but as Mel Miller Yule explains, they need to be.
We recently caught up with Mel to discuss the vital work she is doing at Yarra City Council to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and what attracted you to this role at Yarra City Council?
A. I was born and raised in the US and spent a couple of years teaching English in Japan. That’s where I met my husband who is Australian – which is how I ended up in Melbourne!
For the last 10 years, I’ve been working in not-for-profit sustainability organisations including seven years at the Australian Energy Foundation in a variety of different roles. When I was there, I worked closely with local councils, so I had some understanding from the outside, about how local government worked in this area.
When I spotted this role it looked like an interesting fit for me. I knew Yarra City Council had really ambitious climate targets and had been doing great work in sustainability for a long time – I was really attracted to that.
Q. Can you explain what those ambitious targets are, and what work is the council is doing to achieve them?
A. Yarra City Council has declared a climate emergency, and we have a plan with a number of targets along the way to get the net zero emissions by 2030.
There are different teams within the environmental sustainability area who are responsible for different aspects of sustainability and climate action. Some are looking at the council’s own environmental footprint and identifying ways we can reduce emissions within the council’s operations. There is another team who are focussed solely on the climate emergency plan.
My team is focussed entirely around household energy use, and our target is to double the number of households with solar panels by 2024. Specifically, my role is focussed on community engagement and working to educate and help the community switch to renewable energy.
Q. How do you engage and educate the community about the importance of renewable energy?
A. There’s a wide variety of ways we work in the community. And we do that deliberately – we know that people like to engage with council in different ways.
We run online events and webinars because we know that some people like being able to log in from home. We have videos online that people can watch, and there’s lots of content on the website where people can get guidance on how to undertake different climate actions or switch to renewable energy. We also do in-person events and we work with Yarra libraries and their community engagement teams.
We have programmes where the community can access different support – last year we had a partnership with an organisation where people could access a free 30-min energy consultation and ask questions about their renewable energy options. We’ve also run ‘solar bulk buys’ where you can get discounted prices on solar systems.
We’ve worked with council’s planning team to make it easier to install solar on existing homes that fall in Yarra’s many heritage overlay areas. If the panels are not going to be visible from the street, they don’t need to submit an application. If they are visible from the street, we’ve worked to wave the planning application fee.
Q. Outside of renewable energy, what type of community initiatives does the team run?
A. We’ve held a number of plant-based eating events over the past year. We worked with a local celebrity chef to run a cook-a-long where the community could join in cooking and we talked about the benefits of plant-based eating.
Community action is another area we’re active in. We encourage the community to get together and form groups and pursue a climate action project that is of interest to them. There are grants that you can apply for to get funding to do a project.
We run educational programmes with teachers and students in schools – ensuring we’re starting climate conversations early!
Q. What would a typical day look like for you?
A. There is no typical day! I run a lot of community events, so for example this morning I was getting ready for a webinar we have coming up. I was working with the speakers to make sure that’s all ready.
Sometimes I’m responding directly to questions the community may have about installing solar. Or, I could be planning a bigger project – like last year where I worked with Yarra’s Aged and Disability team on a project to install draft-proofing in the homes of their clients to improve their energy efficiency and make the homes more comfortable.
It can be so many different things, and I find that it’s really interesting and exciting.
Q. Is that what you find the most enjoyable about your role?
A. Absolutely! I also love the team that I work with. Everyone has the same values, and we’re all working towards the same goals. We recognise that the challenge is huge, but we’re committed to work together towards achieving the ambitious targets. Everyone is really supportive and collaborative.
Q. What challenges do you face in your role?
A. The biggest challenge is the scale of the problem – the targets we have are very ambitious which they need to be, but there’s also a lot that’s outside of council control. What makes it easier to keep focussed, and not get overwhelmed is that we have such a good team – we work together toward the same goals. We have a shared commitment to do it together.
Q. Are you seeing a shift in people’s attitudes and behaviours?
A. I’ve definitely noticed a change over the time I’ve worked in sustainability. And, what I have seen in the community and since working with Yarra is the desire to act regardless of the challenges people have faced over the past couple of years.
Today, a lot of what we do in my team is supporting people with HOW you take that action. There’s a little bit of conversation about WHY – but now the focus is on HOW to do it because people already know that it’s important.
Q. What does success look like to you in your role?
A. Things move slowly with community engagement and behaviour change. To me, success is where I feel I‘ve done everything I can do to move things along in the right direction. Success is where you can see that change is happening, even if it is slowly!
If you have a passion for protecting and improving the environment and want to feel a sense of purpose in your work, click here to discover the environment roles on offer in councils across Australia.