How Citizens Hold the Key to Decarbonising Britain

Decarbonisation is a global issue, with environmental and social consequences such as air quality and climate change threatening to affect us all in some way. This year, the UK has seen the destruction caused by wildfires in the Scottish Highlands and flash floods attacking the South West of England. Consequently, we are seeing global responses to tackle this threat, like the United Nations’ Net Zero Coalition and the Alliance for Industry Decarbonisation. But it is a problem that also urgently needs to be tackled at a local level. In fact, it has been found that across the UK, air pollution levels are above the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, with the Greater Manchester Urban Area 5.2 times over the recommended level. Such elevated levels of air pollution have produced a lifelong impact on residents, with a estimated 40,000 early deaths due to pollution-related health problems each year. However, there is possibility for positive change on a grassroots level among our communities.

In fact, the Office for National Statistics found that almost two-thirds of adults in Britain this year have expressed a concern for the impact of climate change, demonstrating an urgency to begin conversations around the power of community action in reaching climate goals on a local, national, and international level. But how exactly do we engage and encourage citizens to get involved in the decision-making around sustainability in local area? One solution is to harness two-way conversations between councils and citizens to crowdsource ideas and understand the most pressing environmental issues in each region.

Building an appetite for improving our environment

While a large chunk of those living in Britain are concerned about climate change, we must encourage communities to be proactive in achieving sustainability in their local area. For local authorities, it is their job to offer direction to interested citizens on how they can contribute to the wider decarbonisation movement, such as getting involved in community litter picking or advising on local bike paths. It is about creating encouragement and empowerment by offering residents the option to get involved in local decisions.

Further to this, councils must ensure that they proactively seek out the views of seldom heard people, groups, and their representatives which can be achieved with good person-centred thinking and planning to address barriers to participation, as well as providing feedback so it is clear that people’s efforts are valued. It is important that citizen voices represent the community in its entirety, ensuring that decisions around decarbonisation in the local area consider the barriers and priorities of all sorts of individuals.

Harnessing two-way conversations

Decarbonisation is an effort of mass behaviour change, of acknowledging the impact we have on the Earth. However, to encourage a community to reflect on and change behaviour, they need to be engaged and involved with local issues.

There are examples of more traditional forms of community outreach, such as town hall meetings, but these pose the risk of hearing only from the so-called usual suspects (who councils appreciate hearing from) or being exclusionary as the same participants come along each time. Furthermore, some residents may prefer not to express their views in a public forum in-person, opting for the safety of online engagement, especially in moderated environments which encourage deliberative engagement as opposed to argument and name calling. To best reach people with differing preferences, councils should offer a mixture of in-person and online “safe” spaces to hold important conversations and decisions in the local area. In fact, Glossophobia, or a fear of public speaking, is a very common phobia and one that is believed to affect up to 77% of the population. So online is a great choice for many people to participate in climate conversations.

Digital community engagement platforms can help councils compile and host all matter of resources and guidance regarding decarbonisation in one place online, which they can easily to direct residents to. Information can be divided up into subsections for easy access, with topics on climate events, local projects, and resident feedback. Tools can be added that allow communities to easily express opinions and ideas around local decarbonisation initiatives with one another and with their local authority. Furthermore, an effective engagement platform will provide you with the relevant data insights to understand which demographics are active, and which could use more encouragement to take part helping to tweak engagement with data-informed decisions.

Such communications can be personalised and targeted to ensure that outreach is relevant to the issues your community are interested in. For example, a council may operate in a more rural area, with parks and green spaces dominating. Protecting such spaces would a key driver for residents in a rural area. They value these spaces and would want to look after it. Therefore, initiatives around wildlife protection and litter, in this case, would be an appropriate topic to discuss, maximising community engagement and feedback. Keeping decarbonisation discussion at a local level ensures that citizens understand their role in the wider effort to reach net zero.

Giving citizens a platform to share their voice

Trust is one of the most important components for citizens and their local authorities. Regular polling by the Local Government Association (LGA) has shown consistently high citizen trust in their councils compared to central government, with 66% saying that they trust them to make local decisions. With citizen trust continuing to rise, now is the pivotal moment for councils to respect the citizen voice and provide them with the tools to share their thoughts. This way, the image of local government is demystified and processes around consultation and decision-making is made more accessible to citizens.

Citizens have the valuable first-hand experience and knowledge of their communities, of what it feels like to live in their area, what is important and what could be improved. This information is gold dust for councils deciding on where to focus decarbonisation efforts. Councils should leverage the advantage of being trustworthy and set an example to world leaders, as well as other local areas, on what it means to give citizens a voice.

The power in the community

Community engagement in our local areas is critical to wider decarbonisation goals. It is on this level that we see the true impact of climate change on citizens. Local governments can produce goals and interventions that are confidently citizen-centric, while contributing to a better, healthier world.

By implementing digital engagement tools, councils can gain insight into what works when it comes to local sustainability strategies, how to reach new communities and how to maintain the engagement of those already involved. The system also offers a place for citizens to go to find out more information about decarbonisation in their local area and share their own visions on how we can create meaningful chance on a local level.

Jonathan Bradley is Head of Business and Practice at Granicus Experience Group (GXG) UK


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