We can take ownership of climate change

25th November, 2009 3:45 pm

World HandsThe Labour movement column

By Anthony Painter and A. Williams

“Gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Robert F. Kennedy knew that value wasn’t just about profit and loss. In his time, the significant environmental concern was pollution. Now it is climate change. And 40 years on we have moved at a frighteningly slow pace in terms of our fundamental ethos. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: we know the price of everything and the value of little.

But at least, as we approach the Copenhagen Climate Conference next week, there is an acknowledgement by policy makers that this cannot continue. Whether this acknowledgement results in a meaningful Treaty remains to be seen. At best, it seems that we can hope for a political agreement with a legally binding Treaty to follow in 2010.

All this is mainly a conversation between elites. The rest of us are onlookers. Like financial collapse the problem seems too big and too remote to even contemplate. Only 41% of UK citizens accept that climate change is happening and is anthropogenic, according to a recent Populus poll. The risk of backslide on the climate change agenda is significant. And yet, little is being done to bring people into the process of changing our society and economy so that we can avert climate catastrophe.

Quite simply, we have to find ways of enabling people to take ownership in a collective effort to reduce our negative impact on the environment.

Imagine if local communities could set the priorities, visions and goals for how they might reduce climate change along with the government. Sound idealistic? Well, such an arrangement has been established not in the field of climate change but in development. We are not talking about the UK. We are talking about the African state of Angola, emerging from over three decades of civil war.

A US government and corporate funded pilot project was established in 2006 to increase capacities of both local government and civil society to participate in municipal development.

Essentially the Municipal Development Program (MDP) is building a connection between communities and government to achieve lasting development.

Local forums were established where local issues are discussed and projects to solve them are created. In these forums, community members, community leaders, local government officials and the private sector discuss the priorities of the local area and establish development projects.

These have included the renovation of local schools, rehabilitation of the local water supply, agricultural projects and training for youths and women benefiting well over 200,000 people. Through a continued process of consultation and debate, these and other projects and policies are included into a municipal development plan, which informs local planning policies and development.

In a country where a generation grew up accustomed to civil war in their communities, a genuine spirit of cooperation, accountability and renewed hope is emerging. A process of political debate, social interaction and investment has transformed the five municipalities participating in the programme.

Angola has recently overtaken Nigeria as Africa’s largest oil producing nation and the government has remained committed to decentralisation despite the recent fall in the price of oil. This indicates that the price of people’s participation is more important than oil, something Robert F. Kennedy would agree with.

So could this apply to the UK? In the UK we consider ourselves to be a developed country and that perhaps the lessons from Africa do not apply to us. Yet, adapting to climate change is, in a sense, a development issue. So, like the Angolan example, why not involve our communities in the effort to reduce our detrimental impact on the environment? How would this work?

Last week’s Labour movement column argued that the left should properly acknowledge the importance of ownership in distributing power more equitably. Here is an opportunity to develop new forms of ownership that can be engineered towards reducing our impact on the environment.

Each community (based on local authority area) could establish an environmental cooperative. It could be piloted in 20 communities initially. The objective of the cooperative would be to reduce that community’s carbon emissions by say 10% within five years. A baseline assessment of per capita carbon emissions would be made and then the reduction would be calculated in relation to that.

Every individual, public body, voluntary organisation and business would be given a share of the cooperative. Collectively they would decide how to reduce the area’s per capita emissions: determining to grant wind power planning applications, installing roadside charge points for electric cars, insulating homes, public buildings and businesses, increasing recycling above legal requirements, investing in better public transport and so on.

A central fund would be established to incentivise communities. The local environmental cooperatives could access these funds based on whether they can successfully meet the targets. Those cooperatives who reduce their emissions and improve their environmental impact the most will receive a higher proportion of the funds.

Like in Angola, under these proposals, local communities in the UK could use their green windfall to spend on local priorities. This could be improving public spaces, local schools, investing in further environmental improvements, or distributing it as a Council Tax rebate.

So just as the development model trialed in Angola increased participation, extended citizenship, met local needs and priorities, and fulfilled broader objectives, this new inclusive approach to managing our environmental impact in the UK would have similar benefits. Once successfully implemented in the pilots, there is no reason why this model could not be applied across the UK as a whole and replicated in the EU and beyond.

No-one is pretending this ambitious idea will be easy. But if our society is to reach beyond materialism, recover public value, embrace participation and citizenship, and make a greater dent on how we negatively impact the environment, then we can’t be ambitious enough. Robert F. Kennedy wouldn’t flinch from this fight for a single second. And nor should we.

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