What does successful community climate action look like?


“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future” – JF Kennedy 

So spoke a president.  But what can communities learn from the past and present to guide us to a more sustainable future as we look some very serious threats squarely in the eye?  

Climate change is the biggest global threat to our lives and lifestyles, and potentially will be the biggest threat we ever face. Certainly it is this generation’s giant to slay.  And there is no single blueprint; communities everywhere must come together to work out the most appropriate (and rapid) responses they can.  

The re-launch last week of 10:10 as ‘Possible’ was an inspiring opportunity to look at how communities can have a significant impact on tackling the climate emergency, and how community climate action can really address change lives for the better. 

But what does successful community climate action look like?  In this short blog, I set out a vision for the future:

Community-level climate action becomes mainstream. Regular commitment to / participation in community action is a mainstay of the average week, for most people.  Pop Farm Urban Gardening Workshops in Brixton is a great example of a regular fun activity people can easily adapt into their weekly routines.

Resource circulates locally, specifically targeting a positive local response to climate change. Residents and neighbours invest their money in local carbon reduction schemes, locally-focussed funds with a focus on supporting projects with a clear carbon target, ideally with a financial return. Distributed grants are widespread, funded by the profits of stores and businesses operating locally, with the aim to benefit and support further community activity. Regents Place Community Fund is an innovative example of a fund where co-located businesses are pulling together to support community projects at a hyper-local level.

Local energy, driven by community generation. Community energy groups (e.g. community-owned CICs) proliferate, powering local distributed energy networks.  Local projects work to reduce energy consumption on an individual level, through behaviour change programmes. The Community Energy Hub, powered by Semble, provides hundreds of examples of local community energy projects.

Food brings people together for positive climate action. Local food distribution networks, drawing produce from farm shops and community-garden cooperatives, including locally-grown (seasonal) food where possible.  Community Fridges in towns and villages across the country help to redistribute surplus food to those in food poverty. The Bristol Junk Food project is a pop-up surplus food cafe, using food donated by local businesses.

A reversal of the trend towards ever-increasing levels of consumption.  Communities teach the real value of “stuff” and drive a change in attitudes away from the need for an ever-increasing quantity of owned goods.  Technology drives the shared use of ‘things’, with community groups playing a central role in the management of systems. The Share Shed in Totnes is just one of many emerging examples of the sharing economy done at a community level.

Repair and reuse cafes, where second-hand products – electric and otherwise – are re-purposed to a high quality, and re-sold, with the profits circulating back into the local economy. The Market Harborough Fixers repair cafe already has over 300 members, re-purposing and bringing back to life electronic and other products, helping to re-skill people and to reframe their thinking about the throw-away economy.

A revived high street, focused on local connections and opportunities. Multi-use community shops, hosting skill-sharing / up-skilling workshops; mindfulness; and regularly meeting to plan and deliver a local carbon-reduction programme. Perhaps a more extreme example of this is the Farm Shop in Hackney – once a derelict shop, is now the world’s first urban farming hub, a workspace, cafe and events venue surrounded by food growing… literally a farm in a shop.

Individual carbon footprints are driven down by more sustainable travel choices. Community-owned low carbon transport options; including bicycle cooperatives, walking groups, and a proliferation of car-sharing and bike-sharing schemes. A greater emphasis on UK-based holidays / stay-cations.  Active Travel Champions in Camberwell are volunteers who give advice about cycling and walking, as well as organising sustainable travel events locally.

More people live in sustainable housing options. We see a reverse in the trend towards smaller households. A new generation of housing cooperatives, with high quality high-density housing options, focused around key public transport nodes, and shared access to vehicles.  Perhaps tied to the establishment of neighbourhood food, or transport groups. The Permanent Housing Cooperative in mid-Wales are experimenting in permaculture, community building and low-impact living, exploring an inter-generational model to manage a collective asset.

People regularly give their time to re-wilding efforts and developing carbon sinks, with hundreds of thousands of hectares of land replanted by communities with trees.  Much of this will be growing our future ancient woodlands, but it will also include a massive increase in community-managed land for productive use (e.g. community orchards).  Local communities help to support the sustainable management of grasslands and peat bogs as carbon sinks. Hunstanton’s Community Orchard shows all the right ingredients to be set up for the long term: clear tenure, a strong management and governance structure, and lashings of enthusiasm.

Children are brought up to care about nature and protect their patch, as an important step in developing the environmental guardians of tomorrow. Semble’s Backyard Nature campaign aims to get all children, no matter what their background, to spend more time enjoying and protecting nature where they live.

In order to ignite far reaching behaviour change, and similarly large-scale increase in the level of community engagement, we need to harness the passions and energies of enthusiastic and skilled people with a range of experience in a series of true movement-building campaigns.  No individual movement will be able to tackle this issue alone; we need both the edginess of Extinction Rebellion and the homeliness of the home-knitters.  

We will need to reach out to people where they are, tapping into the relevance of climate action related to their own passions and interests, and drawing on strong branding and high visibility.  As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point, we need to identify the Mavens, the Salesmen and the Connectors. Or, the Sneezers (if you prefer), to spread the Ideavirus.

About the Author:

Nick is the co-founder & Chair of Semble. He loves nothing more than bringing people together to achieve marvellous things. Having dabbled with a few career paths, Nick found his niche working with local communities on issues that mattered to them. A trained youth worker, Nick is also on the board of Outdoor People. His favourite colour is orange, and he likes growing stuff and eating pizza.