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Local action on climate change: Fit for Purpose?

Local action on climate change: Fit for Purpose?

A discussion paper from Chris Church, Chair, Low Carbon Communities Network and Director, Community Environment Associates.

Five years ago, climate change was high on every agenda – political, business, media and local action.  George Osborne went on record saying that “the fight against climate change is one of the greatest challenges my generation faces. We will not shirk from this fight.” and that “We cannot afford not to go green”.

Now the Treasury opposes the basic measures needed to help us reach the Climate Act targets and the very same George Osborne refers to green campaigners as the ‘environmental Taliban’. While some businesses play a leading role in tackling emissions, others have quietly dropped their green ambitions, and the much of the media still gives climate deniers ‘equal treatment’ as if their pronouncements had some scientific validity.

Those with long memories may recall a similar decline in political and media support three years after the 1989 ‘green boom’ that saw the Green Party get over 15% of the total vote in UK European elections. We came through that mid-90s low point and we will emerge from the current trough, but every year of political back-sliding is time wasted when action is needed urgently.

Local action has also suffered. A current survey shows that there are fewer active local groups and organisations then there were four years ago, although we do now have a fast-growing community energy sector that was not there then.

Local action matters, not just for what is achieved locally, but also as a base on which to build increased political engagement. In the mid-90s action around ‘Local Agenda 21’ sustainability programmes saw many councils set green targets for the first time and engaged communities and their MPs in discussions about our common future.

The need in 2013 to strengthen local action is widely recognised. But we should be looking now at ways to do this in ways that have the maximum impact both locally and nationally.  We need a strategic approach that goes beyond simply offering some support to local activists.

If local action on climate change is to be as effective as possible, then we need to understand what that effectiveness means. We need action on three linked areas:

  • Policy – to create national and local policies, targets, and funded programmes
  • Infrastructure – to enable people to live low-carbon lives easily
  • Engagement – to get more people and organisations active and involved

We also need this happening in every sizeable community, and we need to ways to share the learning and experiences that emerge from this.  We should also be able to respond strongly to new challenges, such as fracking or the Energy Bill now in Parliament.

At the moment we simply do not have this. We have climate action groups, low carbon communities, local branches of national NGOs, Transition Towns, community energy projects and much more. But these are for the most under-resourced, over-stretched, weakly networked, and, as a result, too often missing out on opportunities to make an impact. Many are held together by one or two individuals and as these people move on or burn out, so groups become less active or disappear.

It’s been like this for the 40+ years of the modern environmental movement, but now it is simply not enough. Local action is not ‘fit for purpose’. The need for rapid change in how we generate and use energy is very clear and to deliver on that change we need strong local support for national and global action.

So what, in an ideal situation, do we need locally? What is the ‘purpose’ of local action?  One answer might be that in every (or at least most) cities, urban boroughs, towns and counties we need a climate-focused community / voluntary sector organisation that:

  • Can sustain itself for the years ahead
  • Can inspire individuals to action and provide them with useful and appropriate advice and guidance
  • Engages with and effectively lobbies their MPs and Euro MPs (and MSPs / Assembly Members as appropriate)
  • Has a good profile within all local media and is seen by those in the media as a source of good, accurate and up-to-date information
  • Feels confident to work with their local authority/ies:
    • In partnership to develop effective local initiatives
    • As ‘critical friends’ to ensure that these councils have strong relevant targets, the programmes to reach those targets (and do not forget those targets), and the skills to ensure that all aspects of local government work play positive roles in emission reduction.
  • Works with local social enterprises to develop community ownership of local energy projects
  • Supports other community organisations of all types to play their part in tackling climate change

That’s quite a to-do list but it is all achievable. Across the UK there are plenty of good groups that do some of these things although there are few if any that do all. In Oxfordshire, eight years of funded support from local government has led to a network of 55 community action groups on green issues, reaching into many small villages as well as large towns.  The interest is there, and given the right support and encouragement, that interest can become active engagement.

But there are also too many areas where little or none of this is happening. They are urban and rural, rich and poor. Many non-active areas are key political constituencies where as a result MPs get little or no lobbying on climate issues. This needs to change.

This change will need resources. It would be nice to think that that the Oxfordshire model of local government funding could be replicated but given the current situation this is not going to happen in the short term.

There are ways forward. National NGOs need to recognise the value of local action, not just by their own branches in support of their initiatives, but as part of a wider body of action that shows people everywhere that action on climate change is relevant to them and is happening near them. Inter-NGO cooperation could help to identify regions of strength and weakness, and to improve coordination and maximise impact. Training and support programmes for local action tend to cover similar issues – opening up these, along with on-line networks and other support structures could be one part of a coordinated push.

Funding bodies also need to rise to this challenge. Too many programmes are focused on outputs delivered by local organisations and provide little real support for the organisations themselves. Providing core support either directly or through national agencies and networks has been a very low priority. The value and impact of good local action has been demonstrated by numerous research projects: funders need to understand and build on these social and environmental impacts.

Community energy is moving forward, even if progress if patchy and problematic.  But this is only one aspect of local action. If we are to see communities across the UK playing the strongest possible role in tackling our global challenge  then we need organisations within those communities that can provide leadership, inspiration and support.   Changes to our energy infrastructure will involve social change as well, and at the moment in the UK these changes are not always popular. The next decade is going to be difficult. Now is the time to invest time, money and energy in ensuring that we have the local structures to help make those changes happen.

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