Coronavirus Environment

How can communities recover from coronavirus and thrive in a climate-changing world?

The community-led responses to COVID-19 provide lessons for how local areas can come together to respond to the climate crisis. Jack Hunter, research fellow at IPPR North, talks about a new project in partnership with Local Trust.

COVID-19 has already revealed so much about our communities.

For one thing, it has shown that as people we are all far more vulnerable than many of us thought, but as communities we can be more resilient. We are seeing how those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of major global health crises are often those in the most deprived areas, including ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods with high levels of air pollution, poor underlying health and austerity cuts exacerbating their vulnerability.

But COVID-19 has also shown us the power and potential of grassroots and community-led action. We have all seen inspiring examples of how community and voluntary organisations, including Big Local partnerships, have stepped up to the plate by working collaboratively and creatively to meet the huge challenges that the pandemic poses.

We have also seen a wave of community organising on a micro-scale, not least through the organic proliferation of mutual aid networks to build support and solidarity between people in individual streets and neighbourhoods. Rather than emerging from top-down dictat, this action has been driven by groups of local people coming together to help each other and develop practical and often ambitious projects based on the knowledge of the specific needs of their local area.

As we start to shift from emergency response to planning for the ‘new normal’, we should all be asking ourselves how we can support and strengthen the kindness, solidarity and energy that has been shown in our communities, as well as how to build greater resilience, not least in the most deprived areas. Planning for the climate crisis should be at the heart of this.

At a macro-scale, there are already calls for a ‘green recovery’ and to ‘build back better’ after COVID-19. Similarly, it is impossible to imagine building healthy and strong communities without securing greater resilience to the effects of the climate crisis such as heatwaves, flooding and food scarcity. Healthy and thriving communities should also be supported with investment in environmental projects like home insulation, tree planting and low-carbon energy.

Although the climate crisis is a global issue, it is also fundamentally a local issue too. The need for radical and monumental change is just as pressing at the level of our streets and neighbourhoods as it is between nations. And many of the most innovative and creative responses to the climate crisis are already happening within our communities up and down the country.

But how can communities best be supported to adapt and thrive amid the far more complex and more existential challenges of the climate crisis?

Local Trust have commissioned IPPR with support from Lucy Stone from Our Common Climate, to undertake a major new research project as part of the flagship Environmental Justice Commission. The research will look in greater depth how communities can thrive in a world of climate change.

Our key research questions include:

  1. How are local communities responding to the climate crisis?
    Some Big Local partnerships, for example, are already demonstrating how they are uniquely situated to respond to the crisis, making themselves more resilient to extreme weather by creating stronger, better-connected communities; creating climate change-ready places by managing greenspaces and planting trees; starting to produce their own energy and insulating homes; and improving local public transport.But what are the most radical and creative community interventions? And how does community climate action vary by place and according to deprivation?
  2. What support is already available for local communities wishing to take action on the climate crisis?
    There is already a wealth of resources relating to the climate emergency and local communities. Our project will consider what is already available to advise and support communities who wish to take action in response to the climate crisis. We will also consider what is missing from the existing support ecosystem and what local anchor organisations like councils and the voluntary sector, as well as national funders like Local Trust, can do to address any gaps.
  3. What is needed for thriving communities in a climate changing world?
    The scale of change required dwarfs the challenges of the current pandemic. It will require systemic change on an unprecedented scale, and concerted, determined action to ensure no-one, and no area, is left behind. Our models of working will need to be upended in order to shape the huge collective changes that the climate crisis demands at every level.

Given this, we will consider the relevant frameworks through which our collective response should be shaped. What value might we draw from ideas of Radical Ecological Democracy, for example, or Elinor Ostrom’s ‘Governing the Commons’.

This will complement what we learn from conversations from innovative and pioneering examples of community action across the country, including examples from Big Local partnerships.

The climate crisis and our response to it will define the coming decades. The events of the past few months have shown how communities can be uniquely situated to respond to major global trends, but they have also made the case for change more urgent and, in some ways, more difficult. We hope that our project will help support and enable communities to play a central role in a new economy that we build after the pandemic – one that is more green, more resilient and more just.