Community power can unlock net zero

By Jonathan Webb | 16 February 2022

The transition to net zero will require huge changes across our economy and will transform the way we live our lives. While there is a mounting evidence that this transition can bring significant opportunities, recent polling suggests that at the moment, many people are confused about what ‘net zero’ means and the benefits it can bring to them. It is therefore the task of public policy to ensure the significant benefits on offer are understood, and crucially, felt widely.

So to realise them and make sure policies resonate with people, those working on this transition need to work with communities to understand the challenges they face and the role that this transformation can play in helping them improve their places for the better.

At IPPR North we’ve been speaking to communities to understand what they want from the transition and the positive change they think it can unlock. These conversations have helped to inform a new report we’ve published this week that puts forward a bold set of principles for policymakers to consider when trying to help their local areas reach net zero. Two things really stood out from these conversations.

Firstly, the transition to net zero provides a chance for local communities to develop their own bold and ambitious visions for what our cities, towns and villages could look like in the future. Because this journey isn’t just about reducing emissions, it is about improving people’s quality of life. For example, by handing over space currently taken up for cars to people, decision makers could create new parklets in urban areas and make streets safer for children. The idea of child friendly cities, where children have space to learn, play and interact with green spaces on their way to school resonated with the people we spoke to. Yet their desire for action went further. They wanted this to be embedded in policymaking.

There are examples of how this can work already in Wales, where the establishment of the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner is encouraging all policymakers and public services in Wales to consider how their decisions will affect future generations.

Secondly, people already have immense pride in the places they call home. In the north of England and North Wales, we are blessed with an abundance of national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and these places play an important role in everything from the wellbeing of people, to the sustainable future of our planet through carbon sequestration. It’s therefore important that, as a country, we create more of these spaces, and make them accessible and close to home. This is where the local parks come into the picture. The people we involved in our research want these local green spaces to be preserved and enhanced, so to achieve this it is crucial local leaders are given the resources they need to enhance these spaces and make them accessible to all.

We can only achieve a more prosperous and sustainable future if we work with communities – designing and shaping policy in collaboration with them, using deliberative methods of engagement, not imposing policies upon them. The opportunities of a community-focussed approach go beyond those we already associate with the net zero transition.

A reduction in emissions and new green jobs are good outcomes we should talk about, but if we really want to get people behind the transition, we need to talk about what it means for the places they live in. Greener, safer, more accessible and prosperous places should be at the heart of our discussion about decarbonisation.

Jonathan Webb is a senior research fellow at IPPR North


Net zero places: A community powered response to the climate crisis, is available here

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