In the last year, as national governments have largely focused on managing the pandemic, it has fallen to local communities, councils and businesses, despite repeated lockdowns, to lead the drive to tackle climate change.  Carbon Copy has been finding out just what this local leadership looks like across the UK – and it’s truly inspiring!

At the beginning of February we interviewed four such leaders from very different organisations, who told us how they are ‘Unlocking Local Action’.

Our guest for our first event, Energising Your Community, is social entrepreneur Grant Peisley, director of DEG and Community Energy Wales, who has helped over 60 community groups on energy projects.  He points out that Wales has been a front runner in putting sustainable development at the heart of devolution, crystallised in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The Act aims to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales, by pushing Welsh public bodies to take a long-term, more joined-up approach, working with local residents and communities.

“We regularly ask people what their main concerns are about starting an energy project,” explains Grant. “You’d think it would be finance, but it’s not!” He describes research DEG conducted in 2014 for Gwynedd council among existing community energy and other groups, which determined their top three concerns: the complexity of energy projects, the expertise required and the time it takes volunteers to develop them.  Even today, that hasn’t changed.

“In Wales at least, it’s not about the money – it can be found,” he continues, “it’s about how to do it well. So DEG focuses on providing information, project management plans, linking people up – maybe with other groups that have done something similar, sharing their knowledge and learning, or with experts.”

Not surprisingly, when these new community-led co-operatives run into the traditional machinery of local democracy, councillors and council officers, there can be tensions.  Always diplomatic, Grant smiles wryly: “You’d imagine that local democratic energy organisations and democratically elected local councils would be a perfect fit, wouldn’t you?  Because, when local authorities say ‘here’s our plan to be carbon zero by 2030’, they shouldn’t have to do that on their own. Residents in their area want to be part of it, and a great way to achieve this is if community energy groups and local authorities start working together.

“There are some good examples of this cooperation emerging in Wales.  Community energy organisations, who have the backing of local people (democratic and economic), might be developing solar arrays on the roofs of local authority buildings, where perhaps local authorities can’t.  They could be using land owned by local authorities to develop projects.  And this is important  – people are investing in community energy because they see the need to combat climate change locally, where they’re already experiencing its effects.”

“There is a social dimension too,” Grant concludes. “In Wales, many community energy groups stepped up when the pandemic began, to deliver food parcels to people who were shielding, or out of work.”

Our next event, Creating A Coalition, turns from rural Wales to one of the largest conurbations in the UK, Greater Manchester.  Talking to us is Stine Wilhelmsen, Senior Creative Partner at Hubbub, an environment agency developing behaviour change campaigns that make environmental action desirable and enjoyable.

“We asked ourselves,” explains Stine, “how can we unlock the potential of Manchester residents and their communities to respond to the Climate Emergency?”

“Although lots of UK councils declared really ambitious targets for carbon zero when they declared a Climate Emergency,” she adds, “we know from our conversations with them that many are struggling to articulate what this means for their residents and their communities.  We also know from our research that there’s a huge disconnect between councils making these declarations and people’s everyday lives. For most people, climate change is still a really abstract and sometimes overwhelming concept.  It’s hard to know what steps to take to be part of the solution and often people are concerned that change will be difficult.”

About a year ago, Hubbub started talking to Manchester City Council and the Manchester Climate Change Agency (CCA), which is responsible for championing climate action in the city.  They obtained charitable funding for a 15-month two-part programme: an over-arching city-wide communication programme, and series of local projects in partner communities.

The communication campaign included a shared brand for the city that ties together all the activities (providing open-source creative resources and templates for groups to use), and a Community Engagement Portal where residents can put their views, and which shares success stories and amplifies community heroes, creating pride and connection.

The local community partnering projects respond to local needs (such as community fridges or urban greening), reducing carbon while also helping residents save money, providing access to green space, and many other benefits. They are co-designed with residents and community partners, piloting them first and then replicating what works.

Hubbub is working with a huge range of local and national partners to support the delivery, including Manchester City Council, the neighbourhood teams who have a unique expertise and local connection and the CCA.  Key to managing the collaboration is a residents and community board, which will have a final say on what the programme should look like.

An audience member asks Stine: “If you don’t have a Hubbub in your area, what can you do?”  She suggests: “Use the toolkits, models, communication templates and examples of actual projects that we provide online. Look on other platforms which are sharing success stories, like Carbon Copy. Try to find key partners in your area – there’s so much going on.  I recommend you start with your council’s neighbourhood team.”

Another audience question: “How do you engage with groups that are hard to reach or disconnected from environmental action?”  Stine says: “Start by listening, asking questions – what are their personal motivations (if not saving the planet, then what is it?).  Leave your preconceptions at the door.  Try to find a frame and language that resonates – saving money, a safer neighbourhood, warmer homes.  Also think about channels – who are the trusted messengers, where do people go for information and advice? It might not always be the council or social media, it could be faith leaders or people in their community.”

Our third conversation, Reducing Your Footprint, is with Laura Cristea from Energise, energy and carbon management consultants based in St Neots, Cambridgeshire. Laura honoured us with the first public preview of the ‘Neot Zero’ campaign, to be launched in March, led by a team of councillors, local non-profits and companies, committing the town to net zero CO2 emissions by 2030. She explains how it will use carbon footprinting software, developed by Energise, to help local households and SMEs alike to get a better understanding of their carbon footprint and how to reduce it.

“We have four simple campaign principles,” explains Laura. “The whole project has our community at heart – it’s vital to its long-term sustainability that we get the governance right and prioritise fair representation.  It needs to drive change, in all sectors of the town’s community: high street, schools, council offices, community and recreation centres, businesses and domestic households. It must allow flexibility, because everyone involved has different priorities. And it must drive innovation.”

There are two services at the core of the project: the Net Zero Club for SMEs and Sustemic for domestic households. The Net Zero Club is the solution to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs).  It has three levels of membership and support packages, and is also an accreditation scheme, validated by an independent body. A bespoke software package created by Energise enables businesses to benchmark their emissions, and monitor and improve their progress towards carbon zero. The Club website offers members a lot of case studies, free guides and resources.

“For domestic households, there is Sustemic, an app being developed for launch on Earth Day, April 22,” Laura tells us. “The app helps you to track your domestic emissions in the home, with what you’re buying, how you travel, where you might go on holiday – then how to act on that. Because we’re firm believers that having data, and being clear about what it means, is what helps people to act.  There’s some ‘gamification’, introducing a bit of friendly competition, through sharing your journey with other households.”

What about measurement, we ask Laura. “For this campaign, we want quantitative measurement, because we’re really focusing on science-based targets as one of the forces behind Neot Zero,” she replies.  “That’s both for tracking our progress towards net zero by 2030, and also to help with engagement, linking to data about individual households we get from the Sustemic app.  And storytelling will be the key to engagement, bringing the numbers to life.”

Our fourth conversation is about Boosting the Local Economy, with Gareth Davies of ReFLEX Orkney, who tells us about this ambitious and exciting integrated energy system on Orkney, an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland with 22,000 inhabitants.

“ReFLEX exists,” he begins, “because we need to de-carbonise our energy system.  And in Orkney that’s not about electricity, which we’ve already done – we’ve been self-sufficient in renewable electricity since 2013.  It’s about all the other parts of the energy system: domestic, marine, industrial and agricultural use of gas, oil, DERV, kerosene, petrol and more.

“It’s time for an energy revolution (because evolution hasn’t worked for us) – not just the technology and the supply of energy, but the way that we as customers engage with that system.  We need to look at energy as a service, not just a commodity.”

ReFLEX Orkney is about digitally linking renewable generation and associated flexibility to variable demand, via a replicable community-based Integrated Energy System, says Gareth.  “We need to look at efficiency, cost and income distribution to help make that system fairer, so that we can also address fuel poverty through a just transition and redistribution of benefit and wealth within the community.”

“When we look at all our uses of energy, and how to decarbonise them – heating, electrical use, vehicle use, how we travel in and out of the islands – each has an operational cost (what we spend on consumption) and a capital cost for the technology that we buy or rent.  If we’re going to transition our existing energy use, which depends on carbon-full systems, to carbon zero, we can’t just think about the fuel and power that we use.  We also have to consider the mechanisms that we use, to change them. And we find that our personal capital and operational spending is dominated by private transport – the cars we buy and the fuel we put in them.  In the Orkneys, travel on and off the islands is another really expensive part of our lives and our energy use.”

Gareth notes that Orkney, as a community of 22,000, spends over £120m a year on energy and the technologies which use it – business use and household use about half.  Extrapolating that to the UK as a whole, it would represent a staggering £324 billion total energy market.  So, for the whole country, we’re looking at decarbonising a third of a trillion pounds of expenditure!  It’s a huge endeavour.

“We need to look beyond the monetary value,” Gareth urges. “There are technical values too – reliability, availability, capacity, as well as the ‘soft’ issues of ownership, community, security and aesthetics.  And underpinning it all, the sustainability goals we want to achieve”.

ReFLEX has taken an ambitious approach to tackling this problem, dividing it into three areas which they’re addressing at the same time: FlexiGRID, FlexiHEAT and FlexiTRANS. FlexiGRID aims to deploy virtual power plant and system modelling, smart meters, domestic to large-scale batteries, EV charging systems, smart and efficient heating systems. FlexiTRANS is looking at over 500 new mobility solutions, from e-bikes to private and commercial e-vehicles, pool ownership and all the different options for smart charging.

“Orcadians who log onto the ReFLEX Orkney website are invited to become a member, and membership is key,” observes Gareth, “because we want people to feel they’re a part of it, all moving together on the journey to decarbonisation.

“We’ve divided the project into ReFLEX Core, the first three years, and ReFLEX Plus, which will take us to total decarbonisation (not just ‘net’ zero) by 2030.  Core, which will cost £28m, only does 10% of the job.  The whole project we estimate will cost well over £200m, which we’ll raise through the bank, and we will then circulate that money around the community.”

ReFLEX is aiming to replicate this project throughout the UK and rest of the world, and has made sure it has all of the necessary building blocks to achieve that.  They already have the links in place, so a successful ReFLEX demonstration in Orkney will launch tens or hundreds of follow-on decarbonisation projects in other communities.

“As Greta says, ‘our house is burning, the status quo is not an option’,” quotes Gareth, “We had to create something that would help us as a community to transition to zero carbon, and we’re really keen to enable other people to come on board and go on a similar journey.”

A question from our audience: “Orkney is a tight community – where does ‘community-ness’ come from?” Gareth admits: “Orkney is an island. However, on the mainland it’s often more diffused, with overlapping geographical and administrative boundaries.  What’s most important is to have leaders working together to create a hub. That could be community leaders, or a large business in a rural or city location, or a visionary council leadership.  What’s key is having the ability to think about the world of tomorrow in a completely different way from the world of yesterday.  ReFLEX is about ‘doing the unthinkable’.  COVID has shown us how the really difficult becomes possible.  You need groups of people, whether they’re in business, government or the community, who can see the future, that change has to happen and want to be a part of that.”

Last word goes to Ric Casale of Carbon Copy, who hosted these four conversations: “What’s so exciting about all of these projects is that they’ve been designed from the outset to be replicable by others!”



Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

Net Zero Club

ReFLEX Orkney

Image: Background image sourced from iStock. Speaker images from our Unlocking Local Action event series clockwise from top left: Gareth Davies from ReFLEX Orkney, Laura Cristea from Energise, Grant Peisley from DEG and Community Energy Wales, and Stine Wilhelmsen from Hubbub.

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