People power can beat climate change

The following editorial from today’s BBC news online talks about climate legislation currently being considered in the UK. Interestingly, it also discusses the importance of local communities to achieving carbon reduction goals. This article is relevant to issues here with how city forestry can be engaged more to count toward climate goals. This same discussion and debate about the role of local communities in addressing climate change is also underway in the United States. Perhaps there are opportunities for experiential and knowledge exchange between us and our friends across the pond. Thanks to American Forests for their work on this.

By Lord David Puttnam
London, UK (October 28, 2008)- If it becomes law, the UK’s climate change legislation will be the toughest of its kind in the world, says Lord Puttnam. However, in this week’s Green Room, he says the government is still failing to make the most of an untapped resource- local communities. There is a pressing need to understand how we can draw on the drive of local communities to reduce CO2 emissions.
Ed Miliband’s appointment as the first Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is testament to what has been a monumental shift in political priorities concerning the environment. As if to prove the point, the new secretary of state did not hesitate in making the strength of his convictions known.
In the immediate aftermath of his appointment, Ed Miliband unveiled plans to raise the current target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 60% to 80% by 2050 through domestic and international actions. Assuming the legislation makes it to the statute book, the UK will have the world’s toughest legally binding targets for achieving a low carbon economy. Mr Miliband’s move was important in demonstrating the government’s green credentials ahead of the final stage of the Climate Change Bill’s passage through Parliament.
But if his aim was to impress his intentions on his backbenchers, he still finds himself under considerable pressure to take an even tougher stance. Such is the political currency of climate change that 57 Labour MPs have put their necks on the line by declaring their intention to rebel against some aspects of the Bill.
The source of their unhappiness stems from the Bill’s exclusion of emissions from aviation and shipping. Not tackling such a fundamental issue, the rebels and the Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change argued, was proof that government would fail the acid test on whether it was serious about meeting its own targets. Hopefully, the amendments now under discussion will provide a mechanism for ensuring that aviation and shipping will get the attention it deserves. Unless it does, the UK government will have failed to offer a comprehensive plan to deal with climate change.
Untapped resource
But alongside the multi-lateral agreements, commitment from big business and appropriate fiscal measures, the government needs to do one further thing. It must look to generate what is as yet a rich, untapped force in helping reduce CO2 emissions: that is us. There is a pressing need to understand how we can draw on the drive of local communities to reduce CO2 emissions.
This means not just focusing on innovation in science and technology but also on the innovative ways communities can work together and with other partners, to deliver tangible solutions to climate change.
Until now, engaging the whole population in the fight against climate change has been perceived as politically high risk. Most particularly if it suggests the need for individuals to make sacrifices, such as stop using the car, don’t travel overseas, turn down the heating and so on.
As the UK teeters on the edge of recession, and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are being used to shore up the banking industry, it is easy to understand why politicians would be loathe to ask for much more from the people who keep them in office.
Engaging communities involves a lot more than simply asking for sacrifices. In the same way that government, industry and investors, need to unleash innovation in science and technology, we need to build the capacity of local communities to exploit the many opportunities that come with tackling climate change.
Denmark is a powerful example of how governments can utilize communities to reduce greenhouse gases. Community-owned enterprises have been given access to investment that allows them to own half of the country’s private wind farms, and 85% of the country’s wind generation capacity is made up of small clusters- rather than large developments.
A supportive planning system and the guarantee of a stable, premium price for energy sold back to the grid has given people an incentive to join forces and create renewable energy. At a time of economic downturn and rising fuel costs, it is hard to imagine that the advantages of this opportunity to develop sustainable income streams would be lost on the general public.
Local heroes
Here in the UK, there is no shortage of ideas generated by local communities. A community company set up by local people in a deprived area of Nottingham is offering interest free “green loans” to enable households to install energy saving measures.
The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) received more than 350 applications to its £1m competition the Big Green Challenge, which was launched to stimulate community-based innovations to tackle climate change. Ten finalists have now been chosen- the ideas highlight a wide range of opportunities for local action; from building community volunteer networks to the development of community renewables schemes and from the involvement of young people to the production of local food in urban areas.
For example, a community company set up by local people in a deprived area of Nottingham is offering interest free “green loans” to enable households to install energy saving measures in their homes. The company, called Meadows Ozone, has also secured planning permission for a community-owned wind turbine, which will generate electricity to be sold back to the National Grid. The aim is to slash emissions while simultaneously cutting fuel bills in an area suffering from acute levels of fuel poverty.
Elsewhere, the Three Green Valleys project in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, has been behind the restoration of seven hydroelectric systems, abandoned when coal was abundant, to supply renewable energy to homes in the area not connected to the gas network and have to rely on expensive oil for power. The group plans to install or re-open hydroelectric plants over the next 20 years, which should provide enough power for residents’ own use as well as excess to sell back to the Grid. Any profits will be invested in further carbon reducing measures.
These are exactly the type of responses that need to be harnessed if the UK is going to be transformed into the “low carbon economy” envisioned by Ed Miliband.
The Climate Change Bill offers politicians, business and investors the opportunity to unleash an entrepreneurial spirit capable of reaping financial and environmental returns for both the people and the planet. Lord David Puttnam is chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Climate Change Bill and a judge on Nesta’s Big Green Challenge.
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website, a weekly series of thought-provoking opinion pieces on environmental topics.
Related Resources:
BBC News- People power can beat climate change
Big Green Challenge