Best practice review of community action on Climate Change

Reporting how community initiatives can normalise pro-environmental behaviours

Project duration: May 2009 to May 2009

This review of best practice highlights the potential for community-led climate change initiatives to stimulate significant reductions in carbon emissions and to normalise pro-environmental behaviours.

The potential for community-led initiatives to create embedded behavioural change across several strands of sustainability (i.e. energy use in the home, transport, recycling, food) is an important one.

Whilst the Energy Saving Trust is primarily concerned with energy use in the home and transport, meeting the Climate Change Act’s target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 will require a broader adoption of pro-environmental behaviours.

The majority of environmental campaigns implemented by NGOs and the Government tend to focus on the simple steps we can take to live a greener lifestyle or targeted measures, such as loft or cavity wall insulation. These campaigns, particularly those focussed on simple steps, rely on the adoption of one pro-environmental behaviour increasing people’s inclination to adopt others: a concept known as ‘positive spill over’.

The recent report ‘Simple and Painless’ (Crompton and Thøgersen, 2009, on behalf of WWF-UK) identifies the need for a wider adoption of pro-environmental behaviours that goes beyond simple changes, such as switching the lights off and turning the thermostat down by 1oC.

The report argues that campaigns focussing on simple steps and single actions are unlikely to result in positive spill-over, with the combined impact of several simple and painless steps on emissions being relatively low.

Whilst the research itself does highlight some differences in opinion regarding the levels of positive spill-over associated with pro-environmental campaigns, it is important to note that the majority of the best practice initiatives surveyed for this report have achieved a significant level of spill-over amongst the householders they have engaged.

Whilst no two initiatives demonstrated the same model of engagement, the majority of community led initiatives interviewed for this research were initiated by one individual who first engaged their peers to form a central nucleus of members with an aligned goal. This group then engages other local community groups and political decision makers e.g. Friends of the Earth and parish councils.

These groups typically contain other ‘mavens’ that generate further interest and community support for the group. Initiatives then enter a phase of wider consultation and action planning via foot print surveys, events and workshops. The best practice case studies interviewed here have moved from the action planning phase to the deployment of measures: a move that community groups often encounter difficulties with. The interviewees typically identified the role of external support and a core team of committed individuals as key components of successfully making this transition.

The Ashton Hayes project has estimated a 20% reduction in carbon emissions so far  with the broader benefits of their project being an aspect of wider social narrative; i.e. it has become ‘normal’ for villagers to openly discuss climate change issues and the actions taken to reduce their carbon emissions.

Maintaining a positive mission focus, such as that demonstrated by Ashton Hayes and Transition Totnes, is critical component for success. Maintaining this focus and engaging the community in this vision enables the group to engage local political structures, maintain interest and make real progress towards their goal.

Conversely, if a community group moves away from its mission focus, for example if it is sidetracked into campaigning a local, immediate issue (such as a proposed airport expansion), this can have a negative impact on the level of engagement and interest. If a community group diverts its focus in this way, members may be deterred from involvement by the volatility associated with campaigning and local politicians become a lobbying target.

When the campaign draws to a close it is very difficult for the group to then divert back to its original mission focus: levels of community interest have dropped and working relationships with political structures will be more difficult to establish. It is therefore important for community-led initiatives to ensure a positive mission focus is maintained, providing consistency in their message to the community and politicians alike.

For further information contact:

Ian Preston | 0117 934 1422

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