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Communities vs Climate Change: the power of local action

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Local action is the ‘missing piece’ of plans to fight climate change.

Communities vs Climate Change, published in partnership with GroundworkGrosvenor and Eden Project Communities, sets out a vision for tackling climate change from the ground up.


Net zero by 2050 blah blah blah… hope is taking action… hope comes from the people

Greta Thunberg, 2021

In recent years the issue of climate change has shifted from a future threat to clear and present danger. The mounting toll of global extreme weather events, from fires raging out of control to floods devastating whole communities, show that we are already too late to stop all disruption to our planet. Climate change is ‘widespread, rapid and intensifying’, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Human activity has already caused global temperatures to rise by 1.1°C since industrial times, and we are at risk of that number breaching 1.5°C in the next couple of decades.

Climate change: The mismatch of urgency and inaction

The seriousness of the situation is not going unnoticed. Increasingly active protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion are deploying disruptive tactics to register the urgency. The powerful voice of Greta Thunberg speaks for future generations of young people not old enough to vote, but who will endure the consequences of this generation’s failure to act. The salience of climate change is rising up the public political agenda. UK public attitudes polling in August 2021 found it was the second biggest issue of concern, second only to the Covid pandemic.

Despite this growing recognition of the global emergency climate change is causing, international and national politicians are being rather slow to respond. International processes for agreeing national emissions targets rumble on. The high point of the Paris Agreement’s legally binding treaty to limit global warming in 2016 was matched by the low point of the Madrid Summit three years later during which leaders failed to reach agreement on how to fulfil their promises. National targets are set to reach net-zero, but are not so deeply ingrained in our decision-making that they prohibit plans to drill and dig afresh for oil and coal. There is little reflection about the implications moving towards net zero would have for our energy-hungry economic systems and infrastructure. This failure to recognise the scale of the challenge, let alone act on it, is costing us time that we no longer have.

The missing layer: How the global can be local

This report proposes a route which has the potential to blast through the inaction. Rather than starting at the abstract international or national levels, we set out a vision for tackling climate change from the ground up – led by communities and galvanising action on a local level. By conceiving of the challenge not as a single big one, but the culmination of lots of local issues, we can begin to make progress. This report argues that the latent commitment and pride of communities, so central to the levelling up agenda, can be a part of the solution and ensure the process of decarbonisation is equitable and empowering for all places.

By focussing on what climate change means for specific places and groups of people, we can begin to shift our view of tackling climate change from a challenge which is overwhelming to something that is more tangible.

By unlocking the potential of communities to meaningfully address climate change as it manifests in their lives, we can create an ecosystem of climate action that permits braver policymaking from the top. By thinking locally, we can build an array of small actions that culminate in significant change overall.

There are three distinctive features of the local level as a scale for action that make it an indispensable part of any coherent policy response to climate change:

  1. Responsiveness: Local action can be responsive to conditions on the ground. It can also be flexible as conditions change, in ways that national and international action cannot match.
  2. Legitimacy: Local action has an inherent legitimacy with local people. The transitions that climate change necessitates can be negotiated at this level without creating the pushback that might come from more top-down approaches.
  3. Power over adaptation: Local action is better placed to facilitate adaptation to specific consequences of climate change than national or international actions, because the consequences will be different in every local area.

The potential of local action

Given the particular impact that can result from local action in responding to climate change, we need to pay close attention to key actors that populate this space, communities and local government:


From the wide range of community-led action and activity on the environment that already exists, three significant features emerge:

  1. Community action doesn’t need to focus on climate change to have climate impact.
  2. Community action is demonstrating how it is possible to ‘level up’ by addressing economic and climate goals together.
  3. Communities are building powerful local alliances of neighbours, businesses and voluntary groups.

Local government

Evidence from existing practice demonstrates the range of ways councils can have an impact on climate change, which need to be deepened and embedded:

  • Hard levers: Across the estate, service delivery and infrastructure councils are responsible for, they can directly impact about a third of local emissions. Yet local government has incomplete powers and insufficient resource available to reach net zero ambitions.
  • Influencing roles: The challenge of climate change demands that councils work in new ways. Beyond traditional service delivery roles, they must work with people as our economy and society transitions to net zero. Councils will need to mobilise community action where there is none, facilitate communities where they are already coming together to have greater impact, and convene powerful networks of local stakeholders and institutions.

Recommendations: A new devolved framework to reach net zero

To confront the challenge of climate change on the scale required, at the pace the urgency dictates, we set out a comprehensive blueprint for a new approach. No single actor or level of action is capable of solving the problem alone, yet rising to the challenge means every actor operating in a completely different way to present. Our recommendations set out a renewed national framework capable of magnifying the value of local action, where at present it barely recognises it. This would serve to empower both communities and local government with the tools they need to take decisive steps.

Recommendations for national governments

Climate change and devolution should no longer be seen as separate policy issues. We set out how a new devolved framework should be a route to reach net zero. This would hand power and resource to communities to manage the transition to a green economy and society in ways which ensure equity across a country of highly unequal starting points. To this end, national governments should:

  • Pursue an ambitious approach to devolution as the means to achieve our national commitment to net zero.
  • Commit to levelling up by achieving a just transition.
  • Clarify the role of local government in achieving net zero and a just transition.
  • Clarify the cross-government priority to achieve net zero and ensure policy from all government departments is assessed against this.
  • Ensure sufficient, long-term funding for local areas, with full flexibility to commit resource according to local priorities, in the context of the national net-zero target.

Recommendations for local government

Despite operating in a highly constrained financial and practical context, there are many ways in which councils can have a deeper impact on the mitigation and adaptation climate change requires:

  • Recognise that climate change is an opportunity to create new democratic relationships with people.
  • Understand the different starting points of different communities, and offer a range of routes to participation that meet this range.
  • Adopt a whole borough approach to tackling the climate crisis.
  • Develop a clear understanding of council and borough-wide emissions profiles to inform policies.

Recommendations for community groups

Community-led action is a powerful force for change, and we suggest ways in which this can in practice reach its full potential for those involved in community groups:

  • Ensure the wider community is both represented and heard.
  • Start with what matters to your community most and see where it leads.
  • Proactively build local networks to grow and sustain community-led action on climate change.

Recommendations for supporters of local action

Beyond councils and communities, there are other organisations, be they private or third sector, who can play a key role in local climate action:

  • Businesses should scale up investment in community-led climate action and give equal importance to the ‘E’ and the ‘S’ in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) practice.
  • Larger third sector organisations should ensure capacity-building is made available to community groups to help them grow and connect their climate-focussed activities.

Recommendations for international bodies

By definition operating at an abstraction from the local level, there are important ways in which international processes can build in the role and voice of local actors:

  • International frameworks should deepen their commitment to locallevel action, and community-led action in particular.
  • International frameworks for understanding and responding to climate change should seek to become more accessible, and appeal directly to communities.

Our recommendations for change are focussed on how we can build resilience and sustainability into the future. For the biggest global challenge we’ll ever face, the solution is local.

October 20, 2021
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