Three lessons from local fights against climate change

October 20, 2021  

New Local’s latest Communities vs Climate Change report lays to rest the myth that responding to the climate crisis is a challenge too great, too global, for local people and organisations to handle. Our research shows that communities, councils, the third sector and businesses are already joining forces across the UK to tackle the impacts of climate change that pose a significant threat to their place.

What can the local teach the global? These are three lessons on next steps national government and local climate partners should take to strengthen local climate action.

PICTURED: Members of Bristol’s Green and Black Ambassadors Programme, credit: Ujima Radio and Bristol Green Capital Partnership

1 . Local climate action is vital – but it’s a long-term effort that needs long-term national funding

Councils we spoke to for our research condemned the growing tendency of national governments to finance local net zero projects through short-term funding pots requiring competitive bidding between areas. Without the guarantee of long-term funding, councils are struggling to develop ambitious long-term plans to support local climate action.

Nonetheless, some councils are finding ways to circumvent national funding constraints to invest in community- and third sector-led climate projects.

Cornwall Council set up a Revolving Loan Fund of £2.4 million in 2012 to support community renewable energy projects. The entire loan facility has now been committed and revenue returns are starting to come in for the council.

Bradford Council has launched a £300,000 Community Climate Action Fund to provide seed funding to grassroots community projects that will help achieve the district’s ambition to become net zero by 2038.

And last month five councils in England and Wales announced that they would soon issue a bond to raise money for local green projects.  

Bradford town hall

In its Net Zero Strategy, the UK Government committed to “explore” how to consolidate funds supporting net zero initiatives at the local level. But there is no timetable attached to this commitment, and local areas need financial backing to tackle the worsening climate crisis right now.

That is why our report recommends that national governments should devolve sufficient, long-term funding to local areas to help all parts of the country meet the national net zero target.

2. Inclusion is crucial for the legitimacy of local climate action

Climate change adaptation will require everyone to make significant changes to their lifestyle and behaviours. To create legitimacy for these changes, it is essential that all kinds of communities are represented and involved in local climate action.

In promoting its Community Climate Action Fund, Bradford Council is reaching out to communities in all parts of the district to support the best ideas. The council has so far received applications from over 80 local groups based in all parts of the city – a clear indication that it is resource, not lack of interest, that holds back communities in disadvantaged areas from setting up their own climate action projects.

Local climate partners should also be aware that environmental schemes have a range of benefits – such as improving health and wellbeing and creating pleasant community spaces – and that these benefits provide opportunities to engage people more widely in climate action.

When a community approaches Groundwork Greater Manchester for help to turn their street into an ‘Eco-Street’, the Groundwork team starts conversations with them on the merits of their idea. The team then gradually introduces the climate benefits of greening streets in a way that would appeal to the community, for example talking about the potential of green walls to keep the indoor temperature cooler and maintain good health and wellbeing in hot weather.

A Groundwork Eco Street

Inclusive climate leadership and diverse voices speaking about climate action are also critical to legitimacy, particularly as the climate movement can be perceived as overly white and middle class.

In Bristol, community radio station Ujima Radio and local partners set up the Black and Green Ambassadors Programme to recruit diverse leadership in the city’s environmental campaign. From 2020-23, nine young ambassadors will be mentored and supported to work with the city’s diverse communities, businesses, organisations and individuals on environmental sustainability, equality and inclusion.

3. Effective local green skills initiatives grow the case for fundamental local devolution

As the economy transforms to meet net zero targets, the number of green jobs – jobs that produce goods and services intended to protect or restore the environment – will increase significantly. Every area of the country needs to prepare now for the rising demand for green skills that will accompany the creation of green jobs.

The One Planet Pioneers (OPP) project in Middlesbrough illustrates the effectiveness of green skills development implemented locally. Led by charity Middlesbrough Environment City with support from public and third sector partners, OPP places young unemployed people in apprenticeship, kickstart and volunteering positions to give them experience in a range of environmental management activities.

As of December 2020, over half of young people engaged in OPP had secured employment, volunteering and paid training positions; some also obtaining qualifications in cycle maintenance and environmental conservation.

A One Planet Pioneer planting seeds in Middlesbrough

Another example comes from Treesponsibility, a not-for-profit community group in the Upper Calder Valley aiming to improve the local environment and involve communities in tree planting. One of the group’s main projects in 2020 was the ReTree It! programme, for which Treesponsibility organised residential training weekends for newly established tree-planting groups from across England.

OPP and Treesponsibility demonstrate the power of local skills development initiatives to reach people with practical mentoring and training opportunities in a way that remote national institutions cannot.

Our report calls on the UK Government to introduce a more fundamental approach to devolution that would see powers and resources to meet the demands of the climate crisis transferred to local areas.

The challenge of climate change becomes more acute by the day. The latent commitment and pride of communities, so central to the levelling up agenda, are part of the solution and ensure the process of decarbonisation is equitable and empowering for all places.

Hence our overall ask to national government in particular: trust and invest in local climate action. It’s already producing results.

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