Amy Merritt and Tristan Stubbs make the case for community-led sustainability action
Have policy-makers paid insufficient attention to the social
dimensions of the ‘triad’ of issues – poverty reduction, equity, and justice – that
define sustainable development? How can we achieve the balance we need between
the economic, ecological and social aspects of sustainability? And how best
should we tackle the ‘double injustice’ – where those who are least responsible
for climate change worldwide stand to be worst affected by its impacts – while
achieving the ‘double dividend’: helping the environment without harming the
These were the questions that delegates to a recent conference at the UN Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva
sought to cover. Looking forward to this year’s crucial Rio 20 summit, the
time is ripe for working out the best policy mix to help bring about a truly
sustainable future. With many potentially competing interests at play,
decision-makers will have to build consensus for action. Indeed, whoever is
first to win support for their interpretation of sustainability will get to decide
how to frame the response.
But original thought doesn’t lead to action in and of itself. It’s
vital that practitioners, activists and researchers break out of their
disciplinary silos: we need joined-up analysis, and joined-up policy. To have
the desired influence, we also need to consider what leads to the take-up of
social action. This will mean both building alliances for change, and reducing
the complexity of climate science – breaking climate change down to its
ecological, financial and social impacts. It will require, for example,
re-evaluating how we understand value – do we need a definition of value that
takes into account the full gamut of the social, ecological and economic
consequences of business and policy decisions?
It also means getting all relevant stakeholders involved. Change
is more likely when arcane international negotiations and national policy
cohere with the local. Policy-makers everywhere should recognise that small to
medium-sized communities have a key role to play in sustainable development.
The paper we
presented in Geneva featured in UNRISD’s submission to UNCSD for the zero draft
of the outcome document for Rio 20, and will
be published in March in a special issue of the journal Development. We made the case that ‘green consumption’
policies can be ‘win‐win’. Used correctly, they can generate finance, shift
production, mitigate climate change, and improve participatory governance or
‘green citizenship’. Incentives and disincentives (such as carbon taxes on
goods and services) can raise resources that communities and governments can
use to drive locally‐appropriate sustainability actions.
One of the main focuses of our paper was on Transition Towns (TTs).
This movement has been described as ‘the fastest‐growing social movement in the
UK’; there are currently over 344 TTs in Britain and 859 internationally. TTs
aim to find alternative solutions to peak oil, promote locally based and
organic consumerism, and become self‐sufficient in energy provision.
Complementarities include the establishment of public infrastructure, local
currencies, community allotments, and car shares to help people transition from
a reliance on fossil fuels and consumerism. Transition Towns emphasise
autonomous organisation at the local level, and deliver local services focused
on tackling climate change.
Our research led us to interview TT members, councillors,
local government managers, and NGO and think tank workers about the role
community-led initiatives could play in integrating consumerism and
sustainability. We wanted to interrogate what support TTs need to help them with
the green economy transition. Some local groups have faced challenges. In
particular, scarce resources have meant they’ve been unable to achieve quite
the range of services they’ve been aiming for, while others have found
difficulty in attracting a cohort of volunteers that adequately represents the
socio-economic mix of their local communities.
Despite these difficulties, TTs have the potential to put people
at the centre of a sustainable transition. But our research found that in order
to work well, incentives for sustainable behaviour need to be permanent,
transparent, packaged differently according to different groups, locally
relevant, and supportive of growth in the voluntary sector.
They also need the backing of local and national government. Our
paper suggested that simple, joint local government and community-based
monitoring initiatives could feed into a publicly-accessible ‘Local
Sustainability Index’. At present, the only climate change-related indicator
that local councils are obliged to report centrally is emissions from
council-owned buildings. Our proposed Index could include key performance
indicators on adaptation, mitigation, and civic participation. Local councils
could receive performance-based windfall payments to invest in
community-prioritised sustainability projects.
Resources could be raised by using a proportion of funds from the Climate
Change Levy, which taxes commercial and industrial energy usage, currently
partially invested by central government in renewable energy infrastructure. By
disbursing tax in this way, central government could play an important role in supporting
local-level ownership of sustainability action. Plus, by building on existing
participatory legislation like the Sustainable
Communities Act and Localism Act, a Local
Sustainability Index could concretise a decentralised, effectively regulated
approach to sustainability, and help TTs and other local organisations use
their community’s position in the index to advocate for change.
Such an approach would go a significant way to answering the need
for holistic policy approaches that the transition challenge has laid before
us. By generating funds through consumption policies such as incentives and
disincentives, and using participatory political channels for their
disbursement, consumerism could feed directly into strengthening local
capacities to address climate change and sustainability.
All papers and presentations from the conference are available here.