18 September 2023

How citizens hold the key to decarbonising Britain

How citizens hold the key to decarbonising Britain  image
Image: mrmohock / Shutterstock.com.

Jonathan Bradley, head of Business and Practice at Granicus Experience Group (GXG) UK, argues that 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. 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 also needs to be tackled locally. It has been found that air pollution levels are above the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations in the UK, with the Greater Manchester Urban Area 5.2 times over the recommended level. 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 yearly. However, there is possibility for positive change on a grassroots level.

The Office for National Statistics found that almost two-thirds of adults in Britain this year have expressed concern about climate change, demonstrating an urgency for conversations around community action and reaching climate goals. But how do we encourage citizens to get involved in the local decision-making around sustainability? One solution is two-way conversations between councils and citizens, to crowdsource ideas and understand the most pressing environmental issues regionally.

Building an appetite for improving our environment

While many living in Britain is concerned about climate change, we must encourage communities to be proactive locally. For local authorities, it is their job to offer citizens direction on how to contribute, such as getting involved in community litter picking or advising on local bike paths. It is about empowering residents with options to get involved.

Councils must also ensure they seek out the views of seldom heard people, groups, and their representatives - possible with person-centred thinking and planning that addresses barriers to participation, and providing feedback to show efforts are valued. It is important to represent the entire community and that local decisions around decarbonisation consider everyone.

Harnessing two-way conversations

Decarbonisation needs mass behaviour change. However, to encourage a community to reflect on and change behaviour, they need to be engaged and involved with local issues.

More traditional forms of community outreach, such as town hall meetings, can bring the same participants each time. Some residents may prefer not to express their views in a public forum, instead opting for online engagement in moderated environments. To best reach people with differing preferences, councils should offer a mixture of in-person and online spaces for conversations and decisions in the local area.

Digital community engagement platforms can help councils compile and host resources and guidance regarding decarbonisation in one place. Information can be divided up into accessible subsections, 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 peers and 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, helping to tweak engagement.

Communications can be personalised 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 be a key driver for rural residents. Therefore, initiatives around wildlife protection and litter 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 sustainability effort.

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 moment for councils to respect the citizen voice and provide 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 first-hand experience of what is important and what could be improved in the area. This 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 and other local areas on what it means to give citizens a voice.

The power in the community

Local community engagement is critical to wider decarbonisation goals. On this level 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 maintain those already engaged. The system also offers a place for citizens to go for more information and share their own visions on how we can create meaningful change on a local level.

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