BBC Home > BBC News > Science & Environment

Time to think small on climate change

9 February 10 18:50 GMT

Sir David King

Copenhagen's failure to deliver a legally binding deal has created an opportunity for individuals to fill the void left by politicians, says Sir David King. In this week's Green Room, he explains how small-scale projects can move the world towards a low carbon future.

Copenhagen didn't get us the legally binding global carbon emission reduction agreement we so wanted.

To many it was a disappointment, a vindication of their fears that world leaders would fail to seize the moment and rise above national self-interest to secure an historic climate treaty.

But I see it more as an opportunity for others to step in and fill the leadership void left by politicians; a chance for businesses, local communities and individuals to drive forward the low carbon agenda despite the lack of international political consensus.

Over the past two years, the UK government has concentrated on agreeing and setting out the legislation for action; now it must focus on practical ways in which the UK can meet its targets, which are reducing carbon emissions by a third by the year 2020 and by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

So far, ministers have largely concentrated resources on large-scale infrastructure projects, such as the development of clean technology, investing millions in an attempt to unearth the key to a new energy era.

A new generation of nuclear power stations will also be important in helping the country make the transition to a low carbon economy.

While these are a vital component of any government's climate change strategy, they will not be sufficient on their own to meet stringent carbon reduction commitments.

To do this, it will be important to mobilise all parts of society, both business and one of the most powerful agents of change: communities.

Changing times

Many innovative companies are already changing the way they work, judging that if not now, legislation will eventually drive them to reduce carbon, so they might as well stay ahead of the game.

Others are being forced by regulations, such as the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme to cut emissions.

However, the truly exciting possibilities for transformative change lie within communities.

Small, locally-owned initiatives replicated by groups across countries and nations can deliver substantial emissions reductions. At the same time, they can drive the mass shift in attitude and behaviour that is needed to tackle climate change.

The key is to use incentives to engage people to become a part of both the economic and practical solutions that are needed.

Small scale, low-tech solutions like these already exist throughout the world, not least in developing countries that are often seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

CRERAL is a co-operative in south Brazil that supplies electricity via the grid to 6,300 mainly rural customers in the area.

To increase the capacity and improve the reliability of its supply, it has built two river-based, low-tech, low-cost mini-hydro plants (0.72 and 1.0 MW capacity) that produce about 5.5 GWh of electricity a year, or 25% of overall demand.

In northern Tanzania, the Mwanza Rural Housing Programme (MRHP) trains villagers to set up enterprises making high-quality bricks from local clay, fired with agricultural residues rather than wood.

Not only has this reduced deforestation, the bricks have been used in more than 100,000 homes in 70 villages, providing improved comfort and durability.

Bottoms up

The key to the success of these initiatives has been the buy-in of the local community, a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach.

Too often in the UK, climate change initiatives seem to be foisted on local communities, dislocating the projects from the very people whose support is required.

Energy companies find it hard to get wind farms through the UK planning system, as they are often challenged by residents who feel aggrieved about their lack of control over projects that will affect but may not benefit them.

Denmark uses a very different model: community groups own half of its private wind farms and 85% of the nation's wind generation capacity is made up of small clusters of turbines rather than large developments.

Backed by a planning system sympathetic to turbine installation and the guarantee of a stable, premium price for energy sold back to the grid, people are encouraged to join forces to create their own renewable energy supply. Similar schemes have also sprung up in the Netherlands and Germany.

Last week, Nesta - the UK's national authority on innovation - announced the winners of its Big Green Challenge, a £1m prize fund to encourage community-led carbon emission reductions.

It developed the prize in 2007 because policymakers focused more on targeting consumers and industry and overlooked the role of communities in reducing carbon emissions.

The four community winners of the Big Green Challenge — The Green Valleys based in Brecon Beacons in Wales, Household Energy Service based in Ludlow, Shropshire, and Isle of Eigg in Scotland and a runner-up, Low Carbon West Oxford, managed to reduce carbon emissions by between 10-32%.

In one year alone, these initiatives have almost met the remaining 2020 CO2 reduction targets, and in the future their emission reductions are expected to treble.

Again, these projects worked because the local communities came up with them, and often benefited directly — a reduction in winter fuel bill costs, for example.

All are cost-effective and could be replicated across the nation and around the globe.

The lessons that can be learned are simple: set an objective, incentivise and empower people, offer support and resources, and practical, local climate change solutions will follow.

By supporting more grassroots initiatives, and by allowing innovation, ingenuity and local ownership to flourish as a complement to larger infrastructure projects, the UK government could go a long way to achieving its 2050 emissions reduction target — at a fraction of the cost.

While big global deals are being sought, it's local communities that are getting on with the task at hand.

Sir David King is the director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, and a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) visiting Fellow

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Sir David King? Can small-scale project help move the world towards a low-carbon future? Can individuals fill the void left by politicians? Or do we need a global legally binding deal if we are going tackle climate change?

Related BBC sites