In this blogpost, Neil Kitching, Geographer and Energy Specialist, uses extracts from his book to explain how communities can help to tackle our climate and nature crises – but also explains the limits to community action.
“Carbon Choices tells the most remarkable story on planet Earth. How one group of sociable animals came to emit 40 billion tonnes (40,000,000,000) of an invisible gas each year, changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans, and steadily destroying the environment and life support systems that we depend on. We have unwittingly driven the world into a climate and biodiversity crisis by the endless extraction of raw materials and our excessive consumption – primarily by wealthier people and countries.
We all know and understand that the use of electricity, driving, flying and heating our homes drives our carbon emissions. But the four ‘hidden’ elephants in the room are our excessive consumerism including fast fashion, our dietary demands including beef and dairy, society’s use of cement and concrete, and the refrigerant gases and energy used for cooling.
Carbon Choices explores the impact of humans – population and consumption – and the reasons why it is so difficult to tackle climate change. Perhaps in an ideal world business would only offer us ‘green’ choices, but in the meantime how can consumers hope to make sensible choices if manufacturers and retailers do not inform us of the environmental impact of their products? To tackle this, ten building blocks are identified; including sensible economics, regulations, design, innovation, investment, education, behaviour change and community involvement.
These ten building blocks are the foundations to help us build a low carbon economy that works in harmony with nature. Without these in place, tackling climate change is at best, an uphill battle. Those who try to be ‘green’ find there are obstacles – we need to clear these. Governments can then set the policy direction and sensible regulations, businesses can respond and provide innovative low carbon products and services, and consumers will have the knowledge to make better carbon choices.
The solutions to climate change and nature loss could come from three sources:
- A top down, formal process with governments cooperating through the United Nations, setting targets, policies and regulations.
- Business pushed by shareholders and investors – influencing their supply chains and consumers.
- Community and consumer choice – who we vote for, what we invest in, what we buy and how we influence one another.
The reality is that we need all three to work together but led by government regulations. Governments need to regulate; business needs to apply the regulations and then retailers can offer consumers clearer carbon choices. Communities can support behaviour change and individual choices. Active communities can do so much more – campaign to change government policy, influence businesses and change the local environment and infrastructure that we depend on.
In the book, I give the example of the community of Fintry, supported by Local Energy Scotland, who negotiated with a multi-national developer to own one of 15 new wind turbines. This far sighted decision brings a steady flow of income into the village. This is used to refurbish community owned buildings, give local energy advice to householders and to install home insulation. The wind farm developer benefitted from engaging with a supportive community rather than one actively campaigning against their plans. But community energy requires time, money, effort and patience, and is not always successful. Investments also come with a degree of financial risk and this can cause disagreement within communities.
Meanwhile Greenspace Scotland campaigns for councils and the public to value the open spaces scattered across every city and town in Scotland. Many parks and publicly owned open spaces are suitable to generate renewable power, particularly ground source heat pumps to heat surrounding properties. An example is Saughton Park in Edinburgh where the council, with the support of ‘Friends of Saughton Park’ installed a small hydro-electric power station in the river. The electricity powers heat pumps connected to boreholes under a car park and to ground loop heat collectors installed under a football pitch. The electricity is also used by the park café with any surplus exported to the grid providing a sustainable income.
Government and cash strapped councils are never likely to satisfactorily deliver all activities and services. Community litter picks, beach cleans and removing non-native species are examples where local people have a long-term strategic interest in doing the job properly. Everyone should be encouraged to pick up litter or clean beaches. This could transform our attitudes to cigarette butts, flushing inappropriate items down toilets, crisp packets, plastic bags and bottles, polystyrene packaging and marine litter in general.
Communities can be involved in all sorts of local activities, dependent on their interests and ability. There are urban farms, producing food in the heart of cities, and a campaign to grow community orchards, with the fruit available for anyone to pick. There are many community owned woodlands within and surrounding towns, usually for amenity purposes rather than for commercial gain. Young parents have adopted play parks. Clearly parents have an interest to ensure their local play park is safe, clean and free from vandalism, and as a result often do a better, more reactive, job than the local council.
Some communities and charities have successfully set up organisations to repair, reuse and recycle products that would be uneconomic for commercial companies. People can donate old bikes to workshops where volunteers or people on training placements can strip them down, refurbish and sell. Volunteers have established repair workshops where the public can hand in items for repair. The volunteers gain friendship, and satisfaction from using the workshop tools to give a product a new lease of life. Many offer work experience to people with learning difficulties or to those with a criminal record.
A variety of other activities are best organised by community-based organisations. Parents can organise to pass children’s toys, clothes and school uniforms to parents of younger children to avoid clothes going to landfill. Organisations can store and share garden equipment, sports equipment and tools. Charity shops have a valuable role to raise funds and to ensure a second life for goods.
A new shop, Weigh Ahead, has recently opened in my local High Street. Its aim is to eliminate the need for packaging, particularly single-use plastics. The shop weighs the customer’s own containers, fills them with goods such as rice or pasta, and then re-weighs them to calculate the amount due. A charity runs the shop and local people contributed to its start-up costs through a crowd funding campaign. Again, the aim is to provide a socially beneficial service.
The Leven Partnership consists of public, private and community organisations working together to bring the River Leven back to life and to reconnect people with nature. The Leven flows through an area of industrial decline. There are spoil heaps from mining and derelict paper mills along its banks, part of the river is underground in culverts and there are few footpaths making the riverbank inaccessible. In places, landowners have straightened and canalised the river to improve drainage, whilst its surroundings are prone to litter, vandalism and invasion by non-native plants. Scottish Water has now installed a new sewer pipe to replace one that was leaking raw sewage into the river. New footbridges and footpaths are being built, volunteers are tackling non-native species and a derelict railway line and station will be reopened. Fife College is teaching its students about the approach to this successful partnership – involving the community to turn an eyesore into an asset to stimulate wider social and economic regeneration.
Sometimes the issues seem overwhelming but these examples show the part that communities can play. There are grounds for hope – this popular science book concludes with a green action plan for government, business and individuals to make better Carbon Choices.