Tried and tested solutions for 2021January 1, 2021
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This coming year must see radical action on the climate and biodiversity emergency. Anthony Hurford finds inspiration in tried and tested local projects that are already delivering real benefits for people and planet.
As we emerge from the wreckage of 2020, desperately hoping for the new year to bring relief from the challenges we have faced over the last year, it is worth looking closer at the ground on which we stand. There lie the flowers forcing their way up through the cracks in the tarmac of the modern world – twisted and ruptured by the ‘earthquake’ of the coronavirus pandemic.
CAT’s Sarah Jenkinson recently summarised the state of climate politics, and the difference in perspective between the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and CAT’s own Zero Carbon Britain research, now in its teenage years. Zero Carbon Britain has shown that we already have all the technology we need to create a net zero nation, but there’s a lot of work to do in changing how we do things, and where we do them.
Some of the shifts we need have been enforced by the approach to dealing with the pandemic – more localised lives, less work travel, increased video conferencing. We’ve learned what some of these things might look like in the future, but have sorely missed the community contact which would bring more positives of such a shift alive.
The future is already here
In looking at the opportunities for moving towards our positive and practical vision for a zero carbon Britain, we’ve discovered a great many stories of people overcoming challenges to start living in parts of this new world. As William Gibson said: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. What they’re doing often has benefits for the jobs and well-being that we know are vital in getting people’s lives moving again after the economic disruption of the last 12 months.
We can think of these as trees of the future, being planted and nurtured (sometimes literally!) and as they grow, able to spread their seeds by inspiring others to take similar or other actions with positive benefits. The more spreading that occurs, the faster the forest regenerates, in a positive feedback cycle – a wicked solution to the wicked economic problem of the climate and nature emergency.
Let’s take a look at some examples, so that reading this blog might in itself seed some inspiration for 2021. No matter what your own idea or cause might be, you’ll surely appreciate feeling part of the movement towards a better world for everyone. We inspire each other after all.
The London Borough of Waltham Forest has been in great demand in the last year as councils across the country scrambled to make their streets more practical for people to move around with space to meet government regulations. The reason was that Waltham Forest had, in 2019, successfully implemented a ‘little Holland’ active travel and low traffic neighbourhood scheme.
While their aims had been improving air quality and creating an environment residents could be proud of, the ‘multi-solving’ benefits of also giving people more space and encouraging active transport became clear in 2020. Businesses have also done well from being more accessible by people on foot. This kind of practical experience of how to get things done in a people- and planet-friendly way is what CAT is all about.
Also on the theme of transport, Riding Sunbeams is a wonderfully named project to inject solar electricity directly into the rail network, which is a significant consumer of electricity. This combination of a vision of how to do things differently, using large areas of empty land alongside the tracks and technical expertise to make it happen is exactly what we need to be fostering more of at all levels of society.
The importance of imagination and play (yes, especially for adults!) in helping us move towards an end point vision like that in the Zero Carbon Britain reports is something we’ve been inspired by hearing about on our Zero Carbon Britain: Live Online short courses in 2020.
Energy efficient homes
Turning our attention indoors, and looking at how fuel poverty is being reduced and people supported to live more comfortable lives, we found the SHINE team at Islington Borough council. They’re reducing CO2 emissions and saving vulnerable people money (£700,000 a year in total!) by giving advice on fuel debt and energy efficiency, and helping people access discounts on fuel bills and grants for new boilers.
This joined-up approach to emissions, money and well-being is being emulated by other councils. North of the border, Warmworks is doing similar things as the managing agent of Warmer Homes Scotland – the Scottish Government’s national fuel poverty scheme.
Local food systems
The food on our plates can represent a significant potential source of emissions, and the localisation of food supply chains became another burning issue of 2020. Localisation can have multiple benefits in reducing transport costs and emissions, providing jobs and keeping money flowing locally, and creating bonds within communities. Getting to know the people around us so we can collaborate in the easiest possible way – locally – is important for more resilient communities.
Sow the City have been demonstrating this concept in Manchester, supporting people to reconnect around greening and growing in their communities. They’ve also received funding from the NHS, which recognises the physical and mental health benefits of both being outside and connecting with other people.
It’s wonderful to think that growing our own food, getting our hands dirty together can not only provide healthy, nutritious food, but keep us safe by reducing our impact on the planet and embedding us in mutual support networks in case a crisis hits.
The Open Food Network is an innovative use of online technology bringing local growers, producers and customers together. Anyone can set up a Local Food Hub with their information and support, and increase opportunities, jobs and local connections while reducing emissions.
We’ll still need to and be able to work remotely in other places and travel sustainably for work at times, but using technology in creative ways like this, which maximise our time to live our lives and support others will benefit us all.
Working with nature
From high technology to natural ‘technology’ now, and the many ways we can work with nature for the benefit of all. The coronavirus has shown us in two key ways how much a part of nature we are – vulnerable to its complexities and in need of its stimulation and nourishment.
Biologically abundant, species rich environments absorb far more carbon than do others – each amoeba, lichen, algae, plant and animal stores carbon in its growing tissues, which are then consumed by other creatures in the food web and eventually get safely locked away. Cut this diversity, as we have, and we inevitably increase levels of atmospheric carbon as well as the potential for us to enjoy our part in such a complex system.
The Westcountry Rivers Trust has been doing work for a number of years across whole river catchments, supporting farmers and landowners to make changes to the way they do things to provide additional benefits for wildlife, downstream water users and soil carbon storage. Initially funded by water companies realising they could cut water treatment cost by helping improve the water quality coming into their systems, this work has led to multiple benefits.
Bringing people together across whole systems to create ways to overcome challenges together, making use of the different knowledge and experience we each hold can lead to more sustainable and regenerative ways of doing things. This is one of the approaches being taken by CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain Hub and Innovation Lab to get us moving towards net zero at the speed and scale required.
Peatland restoration is one of the approaches promoted by the Westcountry Rivers Trust and more of this is going on all over the UK. Peatland represents a vast carbon store and if allowed to dry out, the stored carbon is released to the atmosphere. We heard about the practical ways in which peatland can be restored if it starts to be degraded, and what the important factors are for maintaining peatland health into the future. The Cumbria Wildlife Trust has been doing good work in this area.
Urban growing and greening
At a smaller scale, May Project Gardens in London is using Permaculture principles to help local residents from diverse backgrounds improve their environments, planting greenery together to form new connections to each other and nature. One estate managed to feel much more empowered as a community as well as improving mental and physical health this way.
And finally, back to those trees! Trees for Cities are a great example, having helped thousands of volunteers plant over one million trees in 25 towns and cities across the UK. They are helping people, particularly in local authorities, to see trees as assets rather than liabilities. Investing in these assets can be extremely positive if done in the right way – the right trees in the right places: huge potential benefits for public health outcomes, outdoor learning and education, community cohesion and ownership and quality of life to name a few.
A year of action
There is so much going on already, and we need more. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the exciting new world which doesn’t make the news every day but is unfolding regardless.
Let’s make 2021 a year of local action. Whatever you’re inspired to do, take action – who knows what else you’ll inspire. Connect to others and share ideas and experience in whatever way you can. Then you’ll be living one part of the future we all need.
About the author
Anthony is Project Manager of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain Hub and Innovation Lab. He brings almost 20 years’ experience in project management and a PhD in stakeholder-led trade-off analysis for water-energy-food-environment system investment under climate and other uncertainties. This has been applied to research and consultancy projects for diverse UK and international development clients.
You can hear more about all the projects mentioned here as ‘Tried and tested solutions‘ webinars, produced in partnership with Ashden.