Out of COP and into communities: why the Government needs to make room for local climate action

October 26, 2021  

Jessica Studdert explains how disadvantaged communities can play a part in the fight against climate change – if they are given the power they need.

There was once a time when climate change was something of a middle-class concern – an abstract phenomenon that you worried about if you could afford to.

But as the mounting toll of extreme weather events shows, it’s all getting a bit more real for everyone. And guess what? Like so many other crises, from pandemics to recessions, it’s the poorest communities who will be hit hardest.

New Local’s new report Communities Vs Climate Change warns that the upheaval associated with decarbonising our economy could deepen existing inequalities between areas.

The new National Net Zero strategy pays lip service to levelling up and net zero going hand in hand.

But unless the Government pursues a bold approach to devolving the tools and resources communities need to manage the green transition effectively, there is a risk the levelling up agenda is derailed before it even gets going.

The impact of climate change on communities

The impact of climate change will not fall evenly across our country.

We have witnessed this year how densely populated inner-city areas with lower-quality housing can be more vulnerable to flash-flooding.

Coastal towns experience higher levels of deprivation than non-coastal towns, and of course will be more vulnerable to coastal flooding and erosion over the years.

The requirements of adapting to a net zero carbon future will place different demands on different communities.

For example, those areas where jobs are centred on energy-hungry industry will experience significant labour market disruption. Those whose livelihoods depend on carbon-intensive processes will need to be reskilled. The term ‘green jobs’ is often loosely used as a catch all opportunity – but ensuring those jobs are filled by the people vacating redundant positions won’t happen by accident. It will require highly focussed skills strategies anchored in local economic realities.

As we have learnt from the experience of previous industrial transitions, if a community is not to be left behind it must be actively helped to keep in step.

Community-led action is a ‘win-win’ for economy and climate

Our research reveals some grounds for optimism if we take an approach rooted in communities. Vitally, we have found that community-led action on climate change is often able to combine economic and environmental goals. As a result, they are shifting towards creating more sustainable local economies – more quickly than national efforts can manage.

The experience of the resident-led community group Ambition Lawrence Weston, on an estate on the edge of Bristol, demonstrates this in practice.

The neighbourhood has many characteristics of ‘left behind’ areas, overall a prevailing sense that the community had been overlooked and that local infrastructure had decayed during austerity. Residents first came together motivated by concerns over lack of affordable housing and the dearth of fresh food shops in the area.

But over time, the increasingly organised community has ended up creating a direct stake in a more sustainable local economy. They receive 50% of the profits of a local solar farm and have set up a community energy company that is overseeing a new wind turbine, which will power local homes and reduce energy bills.

It’s easy to write off more disadvantaged communities as not interested in climate change because they have more immediate economic goals of putting food on the table and paying the bills. But these examples of community-led action show that the very process of strengthening and organising communities to respond to real life challenges can quickly end up morphing into activity that has positive climate outcomes and reduces the cost of living.

Building this ‘win-win’ circularity of economic and environmental aims cannot simply be done from on high. The Net Zero Strategy pays lip service to levelling up, but there is no commitment to new resource to make this meaningful: instead existing funding streams are simply recycled. 

Local areas need freedom

It won’t be enough to simply expand the Levelling Up Fund to include net zero aims – we need a renewed, more radical devolution as the core route to an equitable and effective climate response.

Local areas need to be given the freedom and flexibility to create responsive local economic strategies and invest where its needed, which will vary from place to place. In some areas the emphasis might be on transport, in others the priority might be skills – a rigid national response won’t be able to adapt in this way.

Nor will the Government be able to galvanise people the way that well-connected community groups and council teams can do. Instead, to achieve an equitable transition to a greener future, communities themselves need to be in the driving seat to navigate and lead the change from the ground up.

Photo: Black and Green Ambassadors, Bristol

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