Building a Sustainable Future

Solutions to sustainability require the involvement of all citizens: pooling knowledge, skills and creativity.

Author: Chris Howells

As if Earth’s Northern hemisphere’s experience this summer weren’t enough with soaring temperatures, innumerable wildfire outbreaks and extreme flooding in Asia, there can now be no doubt that the climate is changing, and rapidly. It’s true that the Earth’s climate has always changed over time, but the current warming is happening at a rate not seen in the past 10,000 years.

Why is the Climate Changing?

In the last 800,000 years, there have been eight cycles of ice ages and warmer periods on the Earth, with the end of the last ice age about 11,700 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.

Graph published by

The current warming trend is very different, proceeding at a rate not seen over many recent millennia because it is clearly the result of human activities starting with the industrial revolution in the mid-19th Century, when scientists first demonstrated the heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases which keep more of the sun’s energy trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. This extra energy has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land, and provoked widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere and oceans.

Earth orbiting satellites and new technologies have helped scientists see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate all over the world. These data, collected over many years, reveal the signs and patterns of substantive change as the chart above shows.

The Evidence

Many of the science instruments NASA now uses to study our climate for example, focus on how these gases affect the movement of infrared radiation through the atmosphere. From the measured impacts of increases in these gases, there is no question that increased greenhouse gas levels warm Earth in response.

Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient evidence shows that current warming is occurring roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of warming after an ice age. Carbon dioxide from human activities is increasing about 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age.

Little wonder that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that:

“Since systematic scientific assessments began in the 1970s, the influence of human activity on the warming of the climate system has evolved from theory to established fact.”

How can we tackle Climate Change?

Climate change is clearly an enormous and complex problem, and it sometimes seems that there are more theorists and academics than there are practitioners and more lobbyists than doers. And while global warming is the issue, and all targets to reduce it, or at least contain it, appear to lead to 2050 that date might be too late to keep global warming below 1.5C.

The question is a simple one. Who is responsible for it? Who produces carbon? In reality, it is all of us as individuals, or as members of those organisations who provide services to support us. The average CO² footprint of individuals in the UK based on our consumption and lifestyle choices is 10Tonnes a year, a figure which has changed little over the last 30 years. And we know that individuals and communities generate over 40% of UK CO² emissions through their homes and cars. Yet no one organisation, be it national or local government, private sector, public sector or pressure group can solve the issue in isolation. It is an all-win or no-win situation. Everyone must cooperate and work together to achieve what is accepted as the biggest and most serious problem of our (or any other) era.

And while there is a growing acceptance that “something” needs to done fast, action at the sharp end, particularly with active and impactful citizen participation, needs to be dramatically increased. How do local authorities for example, many of whom have declared a climate emergency in their area, and with whom everyone interacts, engage local communities and citizens in their areas to reduce demand, drive down emissions and build a more sustainable future?

Concerns at the community level are far reaching and varied and we all know that the key issue currently here in the UK is the cost of living, initiated by rising energy costs and driving many people into fuel poverty. Others include for example, lack of affordable low carbon public transport (or any public transport at all), poor housing insulation and the cost of converting from gas to heat pumps.

It always seems to be “somebody else’s problem”. So, to put it quite simply, communities and individuals have to be aware that Net Zero is our issue. It is not just down to business and/or governments - national or local. These organisations have a major role at the macro level, but communities have to reduce demand and that means changing behaviours on many fronts.

Why engage Communities and Citizens?

Citizens are the ones who experience at first hand the problems, challenges, and opportunities for improvement in sustainability. By involving them in tackling sustainability directly, we can tap into their knowledge, skills, and creativity and increase their ownership, commitment, and motivation to implement change and sustain the results. Engaging citizens in continuous improvement for sustainability may also improve communication, collaboration, and problem-solving, as well as increasing commitment.

How can we engage Communities and Citizens?

Engaging citizens can always be challenging due to resistance to change, lack of resources, and often lack of leadership. To overcome such resistance, it’s important to

  1. communicate the vision, benefits, and expectations of sustainability,
  2. involve the citizens in both planning and implementation and
  3. create a culture of recognition, appreciation, and learning through celebrating the achievements and successes of citizens in working towards sustainability.

One of the most interesting by-products of COVID19 on citizens and communities was that it changed the way people work, shop, travel and live. As life returns to ‘normal’ (if it ever does) some changes that have been made could and should become permanent if we are to tackle the far larger threat that climate change poses to our wellbeing. We’ve learned we can’t rely on Government alone to tackle such problems. Local communities supported and sustained families, friends and neighbours through the COVID crisis and indicate just how much citizens rely on each other.

Tackling climate change is often portrayed as a national and international problem but that isn’t enough. Community climate action is growing and must rapidly increase as people begin to realise that personal, local change is as, if not more, important than grand plans by Governments which sometimes deliver less than promised!

Where do we start?

It’s become increasingly clear that one of the best ways to reduce our individual carbon footprints is to ‘Reduce, Reuse, and Re-cycle’. Most people understand that concept but what does it mean? Take furniture. There’s Carbon Dioxide (CO²) down the back of our sofas, in the cushions, framework, production process and transportation. Each new 3-seater sofa produces 70Kg of CO² and, for every new sofa we buy, our old one will emit, on average, 55 Kg of CO² unless it’s reused. For example, the UK alone re-uses only 1m sofas each year and with 4.8m going to landfill or energy recovery, the UK generates 870m Kg of CO² simply buying and disposing of sofas!

Locally, the volume and variety of household goods and furniture in my hometown provides clear evidence for local action. ‘Bicester Green’ combines re-purposing and reusing ‘stuff’ and offers learning and training in skills to repair it. But more needs to be done and it’s not simply about taking action to improve the environment but also a means of helping to alleviate debt and poverty. Community-based organisations like Furniture Poverty Hubs are tackling the impact of homelessness and poverty, linking together re-use, waste reduction, social welfare and environmental issues while meeting their climate emergency ambitions.

Other initiatives include teaching us how to change the way we interact with food, tackling issues of sustainability, food waste and indeed food poverty at the same time. Typically, 30% of a household’s carbon footprint can be accounted for from food and is even more for lower income households. It’s difficult though. In the UK alone we cook fewer meals from scratch, rely heavily on takeaway and ready meals and seem obsessed with ‘perfectly formed’ food being the only acceptable look. Its unsustainable, separating people from where their food comes from and leading to increases in cardiovascular disease and reliance on food imports (itself a serious source of harm to the environment). 

Each year the average UK household throws away £680 worth of food and drink. On that basis, households in Birmingham throw away over £287m worth of food annually between them. Community initiatives like Real Food Wythenshawe in Manchester help provide education and skills to increase awareness of where food comes from, reducing waste, the impact on the environment of growing food and how people can make changes to their diet for a healthy and sustainable life.

There are many more examples of local initiatives up and down the country where citizen and community engagement are making a difference and helping to tackle climate change and sustainability at a micro level. The key issue is, how can we help to grow that involvement and learn from each other, avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ and increase the engagement of citizens and communities?

Mobilising Communities

For the last 6 years, my colleagues and I at Koru have been exploring the role of technology in helping to mobilise communities and citizens engage in complex decisions which impact their lives. Working through and with local authorities in the first instance and, over the last 2 years, focusing on local response to climate change in particular, it is clear there are many individuals who want to engage and will if given the opportunity.

In North Yorkshire where we have been engaging recently for example, more than 20 formal organisations have tackling climate change at local level as their primary focus. In addition, there are many small community action groups with the same objective. The risk is that, welcome and necessary as this granular response to climate change is, such groups and organisations may end up pulling in different directions to tackle the same problems and reinvent a wheel which is already working perfectly elsewhere!

No one single body can take responsibility for coordinating action on climate change. Yes, Governments set climate change targets Nationally and Internationally but, as we have so often witnessed, when it comes to co-ordinating action on the ground, good intentions often give way to pragmatic short-term decisions, often driven by economic and electoral factors of the moment!

In our view, while local authorities can assist to some degree, simply by being ‘closer to the ground’, and act as a focal point for local objectives, the solution lies in co-ordinated action at community level. Learning from and with each other through dialogue, trust and sustained engagement are at the heart of the solution here. We need to engage individuals directly through communities, local action groups and especially educational institutions - young people having a particular long-term interest in finding solutions to the climate change crisis.

In conclusion, tackling climate change can and must be viewed as a continuous process of improvement. And if we want to know how best to address climate change and sustainability over time, asking those people most affected by climate change and the need for sustainability, i.e. every community and citizen, how to approach it is an ideal way to engage people in helping to address the problem.

The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Building a Sustainable Future © Chris Howells 2023.

Article | 02.11.23

community, local government, nature & economics, Sustainability, England, Article

Chris Howells PhD


Managing Director of Koru Consulting Ltd

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