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Environment Power and leadership

How communities can lead the way in a climate changing world

As IPPR launch a new report (March 2021) on the climate crisis and community action supported by Local Trust, our director of partnerships, James Goodman, explores how and why communities must play a central role in the transition to a cleaner, greener world.

It is said that there is opportunity rolled up in every crisis – though in the thick of one, it can sometimes be hard to believe 

But the climate crisis really is an opportunity like no other; to level up, to address and begin to rectify the shocking disparities between more affluent, mobile, healthier communities and those communities that have been left behind, excluded from the mainstream of economic and political life.  

It may be a cliché to say that every crisis brings opportunity, but the climate crisis might actually be the biggest opportunity to rebalance the country we’ll ever get.

The landscape ahead

The stakes are highIn June 2019, the UK parliament passed a law requiring the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050Already by 2018, cuts of 44 per cent had been made compared to 1990 levelsmostly through changes in how power is generated and in energy-intensive industries, such as chemical production and manufacturingBut these steps at this pace are not enough – if we are to meet the 2050 target and have any hope of avoiding climate breakdown, cuts will now need to accelerate rapidly and reach far deeper into our economy, lifestyles and behaviour.  

If we are to meet the 2050 target and have any hope of avoiding climate breakdown, cuts will now need to accelerate rapidly and reach far deeper into our economy, lifestyles and behaviour.

And of course, we are living through an interesting and unexpected moment in this story. The COVID19 lockdowns in 2020 led to unprecedented cuts in global emissions of 7 per cent over the course of the year, according to a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change. To put the challenge ahead in perspective, that fall in emissions is around the amount that must now be cut every two years for the next decade and beyond in order to meet the zero-emissions target by 2050 

This means that the economy must be radically changed, rather than just pieced back together after the pandemicThis will not be achieved by sustaining the same sort of economy as before, only more efficient and run by renewables in place of fossil fuels; rather, it demands changing the very rules and infrastructure of the economic game developed early on in the industrial revolution.  

A lot is at stake. But a lot is also up for grabs – in part because, as a new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), The climate commons: How communities can thrive in a climate changing world (supported by Local Trust) shows, much of the change needs to happen at the local level. 

Supporting local areas to take the lead

According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the statutory body set up to hold the government to account on its climate change targets, “More than half of the emissions cuts needed rely on people and businesses taking up low-carbon solutions – decisions that are made at a local and individual level.” The committee also states that while top-down policies do go some way to delivering change, they can achieve a far greater impact if they are focused through local knowledge and networks”.  

Where we currently leave behind so many people and communities, we should perhaps instead leave behind the age of top-down, centralised, inefficient, one-size-fits all decision making.

The problem is, with so many areas in England today having been ‘left behind’, local networks are often already overstretchedIf the 2050 imperative demands a fundamental rewiring of how things are done on the local levelthen perhaps, where we currently leave behind so many people and communities, we should instead leave behind the age of top-down, centralised, inefficient, one-size-fits all decision making. 

The opportunities this kind of approach to the climate crisis can provide for communities are huge. The IPPR report shows that, through climate action, local communities can reduce poverty, improve health and social cohesion and increase the power and agency that people feel – and so help to redress long-term inequalities.  

How we can shift the focus onto communities

Two things are needed in order for this shift towards communities to take place 

The first is practical: communities need to be given the opportunity and support to build on their inherent strengths; to take control, take action and work collectively. This is what Local Trust and many others across civil society and beyond have been calling for, through the Community Wealth Fund Alliance and elsewhere. 

Though people understand that the climate crisis is important, it often feels like an issue that is remote from daily life, and tends to be far down in their list of priorities with so many more immediate crises to face.

The second is more about changing attitudeswe need to think differently about the role of communities in tackling the climate crisis. 

The climate movement has long been dominated by the middle classes, and many involved have often asked why this isThe report sheds some light on this question. It makes clear that, although people understand that the climate crisis is important, it often feels like an issue that is remote from daily lifethe domain of politicians on the global stage, rather than something that involves themNaturally, it tends to come far down the list of priorities for many who are already overstretched as they work to improve life for their communities, and with more immediate crises such as poverty, hunger and crime to face.

Resilient areas will lead the way

Instead of asking ‘what can your community do to solve the climate crisis?’, ask ‘what can the climate crisis do for your community?’

Rather than top-down approaches, perhaps a better strategy for centering communities in addressing the climate crisis is to do what many of the people and organisations featured in the IPPR report have doneto seek to reduce poverty, create good quality jobs, improve housing and decrease bills, improve people’s health, generate energy, grow food, create income, build assets, increase connection between people, bring the community together and restore pride, counteract exclusion and discrimination. What matters in relation to both the communities and the climate target is that these goals are pursued in ways that slash emissions and build the resilience that will be needed in the years to come.  

A shift in attitude could lead to both a more balanced society and radically reduce emissions – meaning communities can both thrive and lead the way in an age of climate crisis.

To put it another way: instead of asking ‘what can your community do to solve the climate crisis?, ask perhaps, what can the climate crisis do for your community?’. This shift in attitude could lead to both a more balanced society and radically reduce emissions, almost as a by-product. In this way, rather than being devastated by it, communities can both thrive and lead the way in an age of climate crisis.  

Read the report