How do you generate effective community led action on climate in 2021?


Keith Hempshall - Head of Local & Community Empowerment at the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) shares a community led action recipe for success… 

People across the political and social spectrum now understand that action on climate must happen at all scales – from homes to communities, to towns and cities, countries and globally. Coupled with this, action must also ensure everyone is involved, while addressing structural inequalities and recognising not everyone is equally responsible for the climate emergency. Community led action is central to achieving this

This sense of being part of something global can be highly motivating – but it can also be overwhelming due to the sheer scale of the problem and the extent to which it requires action in all aspects of our lives. Community led climate action is a critical approach to engaging local people, building resilience and tackling the climate emergency, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

So what can we learn from the current context in the UK and globally to continue effective community led action towards a sustainable future? We’ll take a look at the key components we think are shared by many successful community led climate initiatives.

Movements for change

The school strikes effectively reframed climate narratives onto the threat to children’s futures and demonstrated the power of individual action to inspire many others to take personal action. The School Strike for Climate, started in 2018 by Greta Thunberg, snowballed into a movement involving young people from over 150 countries in less than a year. A key lesson is that narratives are really important for raising participation; they can galvanise support across the social spectrum collecting support at an exponential rate.

Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion (XR), also launched in 2018, capturing the imaginations of millions and kickstarting a global movement based around non-violent direct action and regenerative culture. XR raised the profile of grass roots climate action and attempted to balance maintaining a sense of urgency and the need to ‘act now’ alongside a mode of delivery based on creativity, health, resilience, equality, accessibility and non-blaming of individuals.

Arguably the success of XR in terms of progress towards their aims (Act Now, Tell the Truth and Citizen’s Assemblies) demonstrated the power of grassroots movements to exert pressure on decision-makers, as well as to raise enough funds and resources to deliver high profile events and interventions.

From March 2020, thousands of informal mutual aid groups sprang into action across the UK in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Mutual aid describes volunteer-led initiatives where groups of people join together to meet local needs independent of official bodies. There are over 4,000 self-organised mutual aid groups in the UK, showing a mass of volunteers are able, and willing, to take practical action, and that when local need is clear (and defined by a clear narrative) it is a strong motivator for community led action.

Diversity in community led action

As climate awareness, and support for climate action has grown in the UK and internationally, another important social movement has helped shape narratives around climate justice. Black Lives Matter (BLM), a grassroots social movement, seeks principally to highlight and protest against racially motivated attacks; however, the prominence of the movement has rightly forced the subject of racial injustice onto the agenda of public and private institutions globally, with widespread recognition that a change of consciousness is needed along with practical action to address unfairness. It is not difficult to identify parallels between the sweeping shifts in public consciousness demanded by BLM and those needed to tackle the climate emergency.

Poorer and disadvantaged groups are at greatest risk from the climate emergency and Black people are more likely to be poorer. What’s more, the underrepresentation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in the climate movement has required organisations to begin to address this lack of diversity, with growing recognition that not doing so risks excluding a large proportion of the population and sustaining structural inequalities.

An example of the type of strategic work needed to bring racial justice to climate movements locally is Bristol’s Black and Green Ambassadors programme which connects diverse leadership and community action on environmental issues in Bristol, working towards ensuring the environmental movement is inclusive and representative of all communities.

This cross-cutting programme which sees Ambassadors engaging in dialogue with community organisations, businesses and the city council is an example of how a grassroots initiative can have a transformative impact on perceptions of who can participate in community led climate action. This type of activity, when championed by local Government and endorsed by key cultural institutions (in this case, Bristol’s Ujima Radio founded the programme) can result in an upward trend in the level of diverse engagement in community led climate action – and it will be interesting to see the emergence of other place-based environmental initiatives which centre ethnic diversity – and whether they inspire more community led climate action.

This is a climate emergency

The shift in public understanding (driven in part by the movements outlined above) around the need to reduce emissions, has prompted a corresponding shift in the political consensus. Bristol was the first UK authority to declare a climate emergency in November 2018, following an upswell of public pressure. The majority of UK local authorities have followed suit; 300 (74%) of District, County, Unitary and Metropolitan Councils have declared to date and whilst translating that into meaningful action is complex, it represents an unprecedented level of cross-party agreement.

Many authorities have also set ambitious targets for net zero emissions at earlier dates than national Government’s commitment to 2050. This shift in the political context provides communities with opportunities for leveraging support and funding, particularly given there is wide recognition that community-based organisations have a key role to play in building engagement and consent.

Community led climate action – a recipe for success

At CSE, our understanding of community led climate action is built on our experience of working closely with hundreds of community groups over decades to develop meaningful action.

Communities are about people and their collective ideas, values, and relationships. We understand community led action as encompassing a wide range of collective, inclusive activities where local people have a central role in defining needs and priorities, and in decision-making and action.

Effective place-based action requires working successfully with multiple communities (e.g. based on ethnicity, age, gender, social, class-based, etc) and giving rise to a sense of being part of something that has meaning, that is creating value and ‘making things better for people around here’.

We’ve developed 10 key components successful community led climate initiatives share…  

CSE’s community led action recipe for success

  1. Local matters: people are highly motivated by what happens in their local area and community led action needs to take account of local contexts and priorities. Successful action pulls in the same direction as other local initiatives and delivers ‘co-benefits’ to the community like cleaner, safer streets, local training or jobs, improved green spaces, etc.
  2. Building capabilities: all communities have assets. Activities that start with what a community has or can do mobilises the strengths and abilities already present, and from here, new capabilities can be developed. Building capabilities and enabling communities to learn supports ownership and contributes towards sustainability at individual and collective levels. Capabilities could include climate literacy as well other skills such as convening, leadership, or even technical skills.
  3. Draws on external support: to enable communities to make the most of their assets and strengths, it’s often necessary to draw in external support, particularly where technical skills are required. It’s also clear that communities proud of their assets can be magnets for supportive partners both within and outside of that community. But external support needs to be prepared to surrender preconceptions about what should happen, and be managed in such a way that decision making and leadership remains with the community.
  4. Recognises the wider ecosystem: action happens within complex systems made up of people, informal groups, local organisations, public sector services, businesses and a wide range of formal and informal networks. The relationships between these groups are central to defining how communities work. Effective community led action supports and builds on these relationships; recognising them as the key infrastructure.

Equally, communities hold tensions and scars, as well as contradictions; these have to be handled sensitively and sometimes patiently. Effective and sustained action uses this wider system and recognises levers of action and influence. In practice, this means putting the tendrils outwards – to the community - and upwards through the levels of organised entities and institutions, both local and national.

  1. Inclusive and enabling: activities and decision making should be as inclusive as possible and must be designed with recognition of community members’ variable abilities to participate. Co-production does not mean everyone has to be involved in everything, but meaningful steps are needed to ensure that community led projects don’t replicate exclusions or barriers experienced by key groups.
  2. Risk and success narratives: how a community responds to the potential for community led action will be influenced by their previous experiences of similar initiatives. Once a successful community led project has been delivered, communities are more receptive to opportunities for future projects. Evidence suggests that this is partly about identity and ‘being the sort of place’ where this kind of action happens. With this in mind, it is really important that projects communicate their successes - no matter how small they may seem - as they proceed.
  3. Realism and meaningful action: arguably the strength and impact of community led climate action is as much driven by its ability to engage, enthuse and educate as it is about reducing emissions. However – in our experience of working with groups, action does need to be meaningful and realistic and efforts must translate into measurable impact. Measuring carbon impact and savings is a common example of support needed by community groups; when groups get this right, they are able to communicate and validate their impact to local and national decision makers.
  4. Communication: communities connect with each other in many different ways. Community led action requires an understanding of who and how different parts of a community communicate with one another. In some communities it’s Facebook or Next Door, in others it’s the parish magazine or the notice board at the local Spar shop, and in other’s still, the majority of communication happens in person at community centres or in the street. The digitalisation of local communication has seen a stepchange since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with communities needing to find safe ways to keep in touch to help each other.
  5. Works with trusted local anchors and intermediaries: intermediary organisations (even if these are informal) can strengthen place-based community led action and improve the ability of initiatives to attract wide local support from a cross-section of the community. Intermediary organisations need a legitimate and recognised local role; they should be trusted and able to represent a cross-section of the community – not only one group.
  6. Recognising climate injustice: low-income households and communities are low emitters whose actions have only minimally contributed to the climate emergency. At the same time, these communities are at significantly greater risk from the impacts of climate change and are more likely to experience poor quality housing, low air quality, and lower resilience to the economic impacts of the climate emergency. It is therefore important that community led climate action ensures low-income communities’ benefit from the changes we are seeing to, for example, our energy and transport systems, as opposed to taking personal responsibility for reducing emissions. It needs to recognise climate injustice, but not necessarily be constrained by it.

What do you think of our community led climate action recipe for success? Let us know if you have any ingredients to add @cse_communities

At CSE, we continue to support communities to consider, design, develop and action their own climate projects using an array of skills and tools. But most importantly we always bring a willingness to listen to communities and support them to galvanise, strengthen and lead, because as the past few years have shown, the power lies with the people.

Find out more about our work around community energy at