The low-carbon revolution starts here

The carbon clock is ticking, worried citizens can hear it but in Westminster they appear to have gon

It was a bit like a vicar's tea party - except that there wasn't any tea. We were much too busy for that. Instead, we all sat in the living-room of the vicarage earnestly discussing how to transform Wolvercote into a low-carbon community. It wasn't just your average bunch of middle-class greens either - included in the circle were the headteacher and chair of governors from the local primary school, the milkman from a nearby North Aston dairy, the leader of Oxford City Council, and a representative from the village hall committee, among others.

We batted around some intriguing ideas - from introducing a loyalty card scheme to encourage residents to give up supermarkets and shop locally, to the idea of having an "energy champion" living on every street. The local school, which has already halved the number of parents who drop their children off by car, has applied for grants to get solar panels installed on its extensive area of south-facing roof. Now the church is also looking to follow suit, and to encourage its congregation to do likewise. My job is to draft a "charter" for how a low-carbon community might look, which we can launch at a public meeting and use to generate local support.

Suddenly everyone is taking low-carbon living seriously. A recent Oxfordshire energy- reduction conference was so oversubscribed that even the organisers were only allowed to send one delegate. Across the country as a whole, there has been a sea-change in attitudes over the issue: as recently as two years ago, everyone hoped that "they" - the government, scientists or whoever - would deal with climate change for us. No one felt much individual responsibility to act. It is now clear that the government has failed, and that we cannot look to ministers to fight this battle on our behalf. Instead, this has to be a DIY revolution.

There's nothing special about Wolvercote, by the way. We're a long way behind the Cheshire village of Ashton Hayes, which began going carbon neutral over a year ago. Led by parish councillor Garry Charnock, the villagers have now doubled the number of fully insulated homes, and several houses now sport solar hot water panels. The Golden Lion pub aims to be the first carbon-neutral pub in the UK. The local council has been pressured into building a footpath to the railway station, so that residents don't have to walk along the verge of a busy road in order to swap their cars for rail travel.

Finding themselves inundated with requests from other communities about the low-carbon village project, Charnock and others launched the website to share tips about their experiences so far. Ashton Hayes (population: 1,000) is also sponsoring a nationwide conference in Chester on 14 April (at which I will be speaking), where delegates from dozens of incipient low-carbon communities can share experiences. As the conference organiser Tracey Todhunter told me: "Every day my email inbox is full of parish councillors and others from places around the UK asking how to go carbon neutral. There's nothing special here: we're just ordinary people - so we want to learn as well as teach." At the last count, Todhunter knew about more than 30 communities that are now going low-carbon throughout the UK.

These projects share a recognition that national government has lost the initiative on tackling global warming. Terrified, in equal measure, by the motoring lobby and the Home Builders Federation, ministers are plodding timidly behind the more visionary initiatives of communities across the land.

What the government lacks, above all, is any recognition of the sheer urgency of the crisis. With only nine years to go before carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit 400ppm (parts per million) - after which the chances of keeping global warming below the dangerous "tipping point" level of 2°C begin to diminish rapidly - the carbon clock has just a few minutes to go before it reaches midnight. In villages and towns across the UK, worried citizens can hear the clock ticking. But in Westminster, everyone seems to have gone deaf.

"Six Degrees", Mark Lynas's new book on the effects of global warming, will be published by Fourth Estate on 19 March

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change