PRECEDE: The Bunyip Renewable Action Group (BRAG) is celebrating after being named a finalist in Sustainability Victoria’s Community Champion awards for their local climate action. As Gazette journalist COREY EVERITT talks with secretary Helen Ross, the group has something to brag about after just three short years blossoming from a walking group into an established group of volunteers dedicated to making Bunyip carbon neutral.
BREAK-OUT QUOTE: “We were just chatting about the news and the environment and all that sort of stuff and just decided it was time to do something.”
Helen is like many Bunyip residents, arriving in the small town decades ago for work.
She put in 45 years of teaching to the local community and then retired to live out the quiet life in little Bunyip that she and many others fell in love with.
However, as she may have shaken off the needs of the work, the far from quiet state of the world was catching up with her and many of her friends.
In 2018 and 2019, as she went on walks with friends around Bunyip, the topics of conservation kept moving to the surging climate movement across the world led by youth.
With Greta Thunberg making international headlines railing against the inaction of the world’s governments on tackling the existential threat of climate change, inspiring tens of thousands of young people across Australia and millions across the world to take action in the School Strike for Climate, there was rumblings of inspiration in Bunyip.
“We were just chatting about the news and the environment and all that sort of stuff and just decided it was time to do something,” Helen said.
“We got inspired by the School Strike for Climate movement, they had a big campaign to fund our future not gas and we got on board with that.”
Helen and her friends decided to hang a ‘Fund our Future, Not Gas’ at one of their properties and asked locals in Bunyip to take photos at the banner showing support in Bunyip.
They were surprised to see the support given by locals and further inspired to take action.
The turn of 2020 was not the most ideal time to start a community group as the Covid-19 pandemic brushed the climate movement off major headlines and in the long run took significant momentum out of the climate movement.
Yet, Helen and friends were determined to see change in their little town.
“None of us really believed we would see major changes in our lifetime, and then you just had these massive fires in the beginning of 2020 and then floods,” Helen said.
“You just started to think, well we are seeing it and it’s just increasing exponentially.
“It’s happening, it’s happening now unfortunately and we should have been acting from the 1980s when we knew about it.”
Starting with just seven members, they officially launched the BRAG in September 2020.
The moment was timely as they would be boosted by a new State Government project that gave funds to established local climate groups to assist in the establishment of others across the area.
The pilot for the project saw Gippsland Climate Change Network take leadership in the area, which provided resources and assistance for BRAG to establish.
Once the program was expanded, BRAG would move under the helm of Yarra Valley Community Power Hub in 2021.
They may have started small, but BRAG’s first goal was more than ambitious.
“Our first project, and still ongoing, was to get our recreation reserve carbon neutral, a massive task,” Helen said.
“The recreation reserve is our target, we wanted to make it a state of the art reserve for the shire.”
The Bunyip Recreation Reserve has more than 10 user groups to liaise with. Despite this, Helen and the members of BRAG jumped straight in and made their goal known.
Quickly, they started the project by getting an audit of all the user groups and facilities on the reserve to see the scope of what to mitigate, and began the process of changes to reduce their carbon footprint, such as switching to LED lighting.
The reserve’s user groups may have been surprised at first to see Helen arrive suggesting all these changes on top of the numerous administrative tasks they must handle, however they quickly opened to BRAG’s new input.
Helen works closely with the Bunyip Football Club. She felt a sense of achievement one day when they had to replace their old hot water pump, they did so with a newer cleaner pump, rather than the intended gas pump.
These changes will take time, but with persistence by BRAG, Bunyip could have the first carbon neutral recreation reserve possibly in the country.
Climate change is a global threat, yet these small town changes can be important in inspiring people to break the malaise of powerlessness by showing them they can do something here and now.
Among their large projects, BRAG has been active in providing advice and tips for ways in which households can easily reduce their carbon footprint, from replacing lights to more active methods of recycling.
“I think the community is getting more interested now, we found that a lot of the recycling things we have done has hit a nerve with the community, it’s that sort, ‘ah! That’s something I can actually do’,” Helen said.
“That sort of thing the community appreciates.”
For instance, BRAG has worked to make the local dental clinic a site for the community to dispose of toothbrushes, dental floss, toothpaste tubes, all items that would otherwise end up in the bin.
While others include information sheets to share which energy companies are best for clean energy and cost effectiveness or home inspections to provide advice on what locals can change to reduce their footprint.
Of course, it isn’t just the small things for Bunyip, another monolith project in the hands of BRAG is the proposal for a solar farm south of the town.
While a part of the Yarra Valley Community Power Hub, all groups were tasked with presenting a big project for Komo Energy, a company dedicated to providing clean solar energy for communities.
Two were picked from the selection and BRAG’s was one of them.
BRAG’s proposal was for a large solar farm just south of the recreation reserve, which will be connected to the grid to provide clean energy for Bunyip.
“Komo Energy had a look and decided it was feasible, so it’s progressing slowly but surely,” Helen said.
“It’s millions, hopefully we can get some bigger backers, but we haven’t started that quest yet, all we are doing now is making the community aware that it is happening.”
The next stage will see BRAG appealing for groups to fund the large project by Komo Energy, even if that doesn’t prove successful, Komo have committed to funding the project.
All of this in the space of three years, it’s this dedication and commitment from Helen and BRAG that caught the attention of Sustainability Victoria.
The announcement in October of BRAG being up for the Future Energy Climate Champions Award came as a surprise and despite what they have achieved Helen can’t help but be humble.
“We put in our application we didn’t know what the field was like,” Helen said, adding they’re a passionate lot.
BRAG is one of three finalists, the other finalists are made up of collaborative efforts of councils.
Yarra City Council and Merri-bek Council are one finalist, while the last finalist is the combined effort of Yarra Ranges Council, Knox City Council and Maroondah City Council.
The fact that BRAG stands uniquely as the only voluntary community-run finalist is an achievement of itself.
If they are to win the award, Helen hopes it will bump up their credibility more to the community and inspire others to take on local climate action.
In the meantime they continue to expand in the community, focusing on the small things people can do now, but still chipping away at making the Bunyip Recreation Reserve carbon neutral.
“It would be huge if we could do it, it would be brilliant, but we just got to keep working at it,” Helen said.
BRAG is open to all who wish to get involved, to do so you can contact them by emailing email@example.com