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1 December 2008

The big green challenge

Community enterprises, with their roots in co-operatives and credit unions, are now emerging as powe

By Jonathan Kestenbaum

December is a landmark month for climate change action, triggering the start of Britain’s response to reducing carbon emissions.

This week, the newly formed Climate Change Committee is publishing recommendations for the first of three carbon budgets, five-yearly greenhouse gas reduction targets that will set the country on course to cut emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050. This is a huge challenge, and in order to achieve the targets, the Government will need to stimulate environmental innovation on a mass scale.

The Government’s first task will be to untangle the series of obstructions that exist in the practical delivery of renewable energy. For example, wind turbine producers are overwhelmed by demand, which is pushing up costs; major infrastructure projects are subject to expensive planning delays and there’s a serious shortage of skills. Government intervention at these key stress points needs to be a priority in order to realise the renewable energy targets.

But in addition, Government must engage the largest untapped resource in the country: community groups. Environmental change on a mass scale requires the involvement of the masses. Local communities, delivering their own renewable energy and fuel poverty solutions are some of the most powerful, but often overlooked, agents in the fight against climate change.

Many large, top-down infrastructure projects tend to isolate rather than engage these communities, who feel aggrieved about a lack of control over projects that will affect, but may not benefit them. There is also little incentive for them to come up with their own grassroots solutions. Whilst grants exist to raise climate change awareness, there are few available for delivering community-scale energy and service projects. New relationships between the Government, communities and energy services are required, and more flexible and responsive funding mechanisms are essential in encouraging the development of local climate change solutions.

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The power of communities has been evident since the creation of co-operatives and building societies in the late 18th century. These models of innovation and social transformation, which have retained their mutuality, are some of the few institutions now left standing firm in the wake of the financial crisis. Community enterprises, with their roots in co-operatives and credit unions, are now emerging as powerful models for environmental innovation to combat climate change, overcome fuel poverty and take a key role in the future development of a sustainable green economy.

The success of NESTA’s Big Green Challenge shows what communities can achieve with the right support. After more than 350 submissions were received, 10 community groups are now in the final stages of the competition for a £1 million prize that will be awarded to the most successful climate change project.

Contenders include a group of local residents in Oxford who are creating a new type of mutual green renewable society to fund solar, water and wind projects that will provide power for 140 homes, and a Welsh initiative to restore decommissioned hydroelectric systems to reduce carbon emissions and cut household fuel bills.

A low-carbon future is within sight, but real climate change will only be achieved if the Government recognises the role of community-led action in propelling the UK towards a sustainable future.

Jonathan Kestenbaum is CEO of NESTA – National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts

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