The idea that councils can play a significant role in helping us to prepare for a low-carbon future may seem unlikely, but the fact is that they could be a big part of the solution. Local authorities have a duty of care to think about the future, and they can address the moral aspects as well as the operational and business aspects of their communities. They can help us to reduce the environmental impact of our lives in every way possible. Communities, Councils & a Low-Carbon Future includes current examples of best eco-practice from local authorities across the UK and elsewhere, and also looks at the challenges in achieving change within government organizations. It is designed to inform and inspire councils and councilors, as well as local environmental activists, community groups, and Transition Initiatives. Local government can be a huge driver for positive change, but not by itself. This book will help communities understand what they can reasonably—and unreasonably—ask from local councils, who to ask, how to ask it, and what levers they can pull.
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Communities, Councils & A Low-Carbon Future
What We Can Do If Governments Won't
By Alexis Rowell
Green Books LtdCopyright © 2010 Alexis Rowell
All rights reserved.
A VISION OF A TRANSITION COUNCIL
Imagine a world where climate change is a reality. Of course that world already exists, but as far as we can tell we've not yet unleashed runaway climate change – a situation where the Earth tips into a highly unstable state and starts creating non-man-made greenhouse gases such that we lose control of the process altogether and life on Earth becomes untenable. We hope that runaway climate change will be averted by a combination of political will and individual action, but even if we do everything possible to avert disaster, average temperatures are likely to rise by at least 2°C. That means there'll be more energy in the global weather system, which means there'll be more frequent extreme weather events. Melting ice caps and glaciers will cause sea levels to rise. Reduced rainfall will threaten freshwater sources and food supply chains. Millions of climate change refugees will leave home in search of less hostile climes. So we need to assume that the consequences of climate change will be dramatic.
"Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilisation developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril ... Continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself – and the timetable is shorter than we thought."
Dr James Hansen
Now imagine that the predictions of peak oil experts come true: that the halfway point in the world's oil supply is reached. Supply starts to fall, but demand continues to rise, and consequently prices go through the roof, making many of the things we take for granted around us impossible. So, for example, it becomes difficult and expensive to fly sugar snap peas from Zambia, or ship plastic toys from China, or buy apples from Australia or tomatoes from Spain, because all of those require cheap oil in the form of pesticides, fertiliser, plastics, aviation fuel, pumped water, shipping fuel, etc. We would then be facing a radically changed world and one that most people in the industrialised nations can barely contemplate.
"Industrial civilisation is based on the consumption of energy resources that are inherently limited in quantity, and that are about to become scarce. When they do, competition for what remains will trigger dramatic economic and geopolitical events; in the end it may be impossible for even a single nation to sustain industrialism as we have known it during the twentieth century."
Since the climate is changing and peak oil, indeed peak fossil fuels generally, is coming (in the sense that we will clearly reach the halfway point soon if we have not already done so), it makes sense to prepare for the next phase of human existence rather than stick our heads in the sand and wait for disaster to strike -which is what it feels like we're doing currently.
But here's another thought: without seeking to minimise the dramatic changes that are coming and their psychological effect on mankind, what if life can actually be better – more local, more natural, more friendly, less materialistic, less chemical, more trusting, less stressed, more healthy, more community-oriented – after oil? What if there is a better future out there waiting for us to go out and grasp with both hands? That doesn't mean it'll be easy to get there or to come to terms with the things we're bound to lose, but when we accept the changes, then as long as we prepare for them, surely a meaningful future is possible. And if communities and councils start working more resolutely together now, then how much easier the process will be.
Our brave new post-oil world will still need political structures. We'll still need local government in some shape or form. We'll still need councils, although they might change their names and remits, and we might change the way our representatives are elected. But what we really need from councils is for their vision to change. We need them to buy into the idea that life can be better after cheap oil and that they and local communities, working together, can play a significant role in the battle against climate change and in preparation for the depletion of natural resources. In short, we need them to help with a positive and practical vision of a society in transition.
What would a Transition council look like?
Since Transition councils don't yet exist it's impossible to say exactly what they'll look like. They're bound to come in a variety of shapes and sizes, since different regions have different priorities. Norfolk is projected to disappear under the waves if sea levels rise significantly. London is always nine meals away from starvation because it produces none of its own food. There's clearly no one right vision: there's only human ingenuity, willpower and energy. What follows are my thoughts, supplemented by suggestions from around the world, which I offer up as a basic outline to be refined by communities themselves.
Agreement on priorities and core values
In a Transition council both the politicians and the council officers would have a very complete understanding of climate change and resource depletion; both the global and local implications.
However, it's not enough to be well informed – a Transition council would have to have central organisational goals that relate to combating climate change, living within the planet's natural limits, preparing for the end of cheap oil and generally putting the well-being of human beings before that of developers, motorists, and any of the other interest groups that have done so much to put human society in such a precarious position. Every report that goes through a Transition council should be scrutinised to make sure that actions proposed use the minimum number of non-renewable resources and energy, and create the least possible waste or pollution.
"A Transition council would have Transition built into its core values. All staff would have a commitment to the transition away from fossil-fuel dependency built into their job descriptions. All policies and all training would have Transition principles embedded. There would be a set of top-level objectives for the council with specific measures attached, relating to the carbon footprint of the city, food self-sufficiency, local energy production, jobs for a low-fossil-fuel future and low-carbon transport."
Angela Raffle, Sustainable Redland and Transition Bristol
"A Transition council would have a climate change team; would provide rewards for those who reduce their consumption of energy, water and waste; would work towards public events being carbon-neutral; and would plan public spaces for sea-level rise and increases in temperature."
Debra Mill, Top End Transition, Darwin, Australia
Planning for a world without cheap fossil fuels
A Transition council, working with the community, would come up with a post-oil plan for its area – as Portland in the United States and Bristol in the UK have done. Bristol's Peak Oil Report is a fantastic template for community groups and councils wondering where to begin, and can be downloaded from the Bristol Council website.
"The local energy descent plan would be a foundation document of council."
Robyn Hodge, Transition South Barwon, Geelong, Australia
In its 2008 report 'Preparing for Peak Oil: Local Authorities and the Energy Crisis' the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC), a UK charity, and the Post Carbon Institute, a US not-for-profit think tank, suggested that, based on a review of peak oil initiatives across the United States, Canada and Britain, local authorities should consider the following actions:
Conduct a detailed energy audit of all council activities and buildings.
Develop an emergency energy supply plan.
Introduce rigorous energy efficiency and conservation programmes.
Encourage a major shift from private to public transport, cycling and walking.
Expand existing programmes such as cycle lanes and road pricing.
Reduce overall transport demand by using planning powers to shape the built environment.
Promote the use of locally produced, non-fossil-fuel transport fuels such as biogas and renewable electricity in both council operations and public transport.
Launch a major public energy-awareness campaign.
Find ways to encourage local food production and processing, and facilitate the reduction of energy used in refrigeration and transportation of food.
Set up a joint peak oil task force with other councils and partner closely with existing community-led initiatives.
Coordinate policy on peak oil and climate change.
Adopt the Oil Depletion Protocol (an international draft agreement intended to mitigate peak oil by gradually and collaboratively lowering global oil demand).
In 2008 the UK's Local Government Association (LGA) recognised its role in assisting Local Authorities with the consequences of peak oil and published its own report, 'Volatile Times: Transport, climate change and the price of oil'. The LGA has also recognised the need for partnership with the Transition movement because of the need to spread awareness about relocalisation and local community resilience as well as developing local low-carbon economies.
The Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), which supports improvement and innovation in local government in the UK, has a Low Carbon Futures arm that acknowledges the inevitability of peak oil. It highlights the work of the Transition movement and suggests that councils should work with Transition Initiatives and similar community groups.
"No council can meet its targets without the help of the community. But councils should support from the sidelines and not try to take over. It's a slow process to build up the trust it's got to come from the grass roots. Whether it's energy security, climate change mitigation or promoting social cohesion, there are 101 reasons why a local authority should support the [Transition] movement.
It needn't cost a lot to help community groups. Sometimes just providing a venue for meetings or putting community groups in touch with each other is enough. Network Rail, for example, has been working with local food groups to make land available for growing organic food – disused railway embankments and cuttings are often ideal for this."
Dr Jacky Lawrence, Strategic Energy Manager at Warwickshire County Council, interviewed by the IDeA
More inclusive decision-making and openness to new ideas
Many residents complain that the councils are too bureaucratic and decisions are too remote. Of course council officers need rules, structure and targets if they are to work coherently and efficiently. But they also need to be open to new ideas. Transition councils would pay close attention to the work being done by community groups on inclusive decision-making systems such as Open Space or World Café.
Open Space is a powerful tool for engaging large groups of people in discussions to explore particular questions or issues. It can be used with groups of anything between 10 and 1,000+ people. It shouldn't work but it does!
An Open Space event needs a big open question to kickstart it, like 'How will Glasgow feed itself beyond the age of cheap oil?' In the first part of the event participants are asked to come up with headline answers to the big question of the day, e.g. 'By growing more food.' Those then become the themes for breakout groups. At the end, the different breakout group leaders sum up their discussions for the whole group.
Open Space events will almost always be fun and lead to an amazing number of ideas being generated and noted down, as well as making everyone feel thoroughly part of the decision-making process.
World Café is like a bounded version of Open Space, in that the questions to be discussed are framed in advance by the organisers. So, for example, Transition Town Totnes held a World Café with candidates in the run-up to the May 2010 local and general elections. The candidates were ranged around the room at tables and told to expect questions from voters on resilience issues.
To my mind these are ideal techniques for councils seeking to engage with residents.
"In its governance processes a Transition council would highlight and facilitate engagement with community and offer best practice in access to council information. It would frequently conduct open forums and actively invite the public into those, especially with regard to assisting the council in learning how to become more sustainable and useful itself, but also to resolve curly questions."
Chris Harries, Waterworks Valley, Tasmania, Australia
"A Transition council would be participatory. The radical transition expected requires mass participation in decision-making at all levels. Think of it as the end of representative democracy, elites and experts. The idea of distinct Transition Groups and Transition council is nuts: Transition thinking is spreading faster and in more diverse and interesting ways than can be driven by Transition groups."
Bob Thorp, Transition Keighley, West Yorkshire
"I hope a Transition council would evoke massive interest locally, instead of the present cynical attitude most people have toward their councils. Our Town Council has re-elected itself for years without actually having elections and the Transition activity ought to correct this."
Michael Dunwell, Transition Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
"A Transition council would work together with its local Transition group. It would understand our passion and need for community building. It would not be separate and apart. It would understand that we are in the community together."
Pupak Haghighi-Brinch, Transition Forest Row, East Sussex
In a Transition council decision-making would be decentralised down to the lowest possible level, possibly even to street level. Many councils have introduced Local Area Forums or Committees as a way of listening more carefully to communities, and some have been given resources to spend as they see fit.
"A Transition council would work with local Transition groups but not be part of them. If representatives of a Transition council asked for our input, provided some funding and attended our public meetings, then that would be a great start."
Klaudia van Gool, Transition Liskeard, Cornwall
"A Transition council would be open to community-led ventures and self-organising projects. The council would not employ its 'own' staff to run projects (who then spend half their lives in meetings) but use its funding to devolve delivery."
Linda Screen, Transition Town Dorchester, Dorset
"I think the biggest challenge is to keep the ideas coming in from the bottom up, rather than getting into the usual top-down model where we are told what is being done in our own best interests, instead of establishing what those are for ourselves. Ideally a Transition council would facilitate rather than lead."
Sophie Galleymore-Bird, Transition Rame, Cornwall
One should never forget that the council is made up of individuals with their own hopes and fears. At the moment there are artificial divisions between councillors and council officers, designed to protect the council from party politics. Officers can seem to be remote from the communities they serve and often don't live in the borough they work for. In a Transition council officers would be socially closer to the community and their representatives, and ideally officers would live in the community they work for.
"A Transition council would understand that it's not a machine but a collection of individuals who are also part of the community – real people with real feelings, fears, inspirations, hopes. A Transition council would value contributions and initiatives from all its staff right across the board on sustainability matters. It would be open to partnership working with the community, rather than having a them-and-us mentality (which also means having a community that sees the council as a partner, rather than harbouring their own them-and-us stuff). A Transition council would be politically brave in supporting any initiative that builds resilience in the face of nimbyism. It would use incentives to build resilience in an imaginative way. It would invest – and support the community in investing – in local renewables. It would celebrate what we're all doing.
Chrissie Godfrey, Transition Town Taunton, Somerset
Enabling and broadening community action
A Transition council would be an enabling force. Energy and ideas would come from residents and local communities, but assistance in terms of structure, purchasing, planning and other activities that cannot be done at an individual or a very local level would come from the council. So, with food growing, the example of Middlesbrough is instructive. There the council has set itself up as an adviser to local people, as a negotiator on behalf of residents, and as a teacher of food- growing skills to local people. If a resident identifies a piece of land that could be used for food growing, then the council will find out who owns the land, negotiate with the landowner on behalf of the residents or residents' group, and advise what can be grown and how. This is a Transition council in operation – even if Middlesbrough didn't really set out to be that.
"A Transition council brings local strategic partners together to lead by example on tackling climate change and peak oil through visible manifestations such as solar thermal panels on public buildings, green roofs, green vehicle fleets, community gardens of council lawns, interactive sustainable schools that act as educational tools. The council would work with and enable community groups, including Transition groups, to help develop bottom-up community ownership and responsibility for addressing climate change and peak oil. The council should foster a culture of collective responsibility rather than a 'them-and-us' culture that persists in many areas. There should be a comprehensive programme of support of Transition groups and others doing similar work: grants, training, revolving loan funds, etc. to help empower green initiatives."
Denny Gray, Transition Town Wandsworth and Wandsworth Environment Forum
Excerpted from Communities, Councils & A Low-Carbon Future by Alexis Rowell. Copyright © 2010 Alexis Rowell. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Rob Hopkins,
1. A vision of a Transition council,
2. Finding your way around local government and influencing a council,
3. The view from the inside – the experiences of four eco-councillors,
4. Biodiversity and green spaces,
5. Energy efficiency,
6. Energy generation,
14. Getting elected,
Appendix: Executive summary of the Transition Audit of Somerset County Council,