Community Land Scotland has published research on the distinctive contribution that community landowners are making to addressing the climate emergency. The research was undertaken by Inherit – the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development – in late 2020 and early 2021. In this blog, project researcher Dr Bobby Macaulay reflects on the main findings.
We are living through a climate emergency. As emergencies go, this one is different. While climate change is increasingly causing acute crises, the chronic nature of the climate emergency does not end when these crises subside. It is not a single catastrophic event to avoid or respond to, but an ongoing and slow descent toward an uninhabitable planet, punctuated by ever-increasing, ever-more severe climactic disasters.
Responses to this emergency also need to be different. There is no ‘silver bullet’, no imminently-available vaccine, no one technology which can avert danger. There are no Hollywood movies of the hero hoovering up all the nasty carbon in the nick of time. Despite the best efforts of scientists and engineers, the solution to averting self-destruction is not simply technological.
Politicians are also trying, to varying degrees, to play their part. COP26 will see the world’s political leaders set up camp within spitting distance of my Glasgow flat. But through all the inevitable glitz and press conferences, the soundbites on clean energy and restricted emissions, will my tenement neighbours stop putting general waste in the blue bins and garden waste in the glass bins? Will the lads across the road trade-in their SUV for an electric car, or even an electric bike? If Nicola and Joe are taking care of business, why is the climate any concern of ours?
The reason why is that over half of the emissions we need to reduce to reach our net-zero targets relate to societal change – individual, collective and institutional behaviour change. So solutions must involve every one of us changing the way we live. However, while politicians can legislate to reduce industrial emissions and incentivise renewable energy development, they cannot simply force people to change their behaviours. The solution is not simply political.
Our research has highlighted the importance of social responses to the climate emergency, and the distinctive contribution that community landowners make to facilitating those responses.
People need to be motivated and inspired to change their behaviours, to reduce their emissions, to make climate-conscious choices. Such leadership is best delivered by peers, or other trusted and credible bodies. Community organisations regularly fit this description, enjoying local awareness and communication with residents. Community climate action can lead, motivate and inspire behaviour change.
Community owners of land and/or built assets can engage in all the same climate-related activities that other businesses, charities and government bodies can. They can generate green energy, preserve ‘carbon sinks’, reduce transport, food and domestic emissions, and educate people about how to adapt to the coming changes in their lives and environments. Community owners take a holistic approach to climate action, often being involved in a wide range of different activities due to an engrained sense of stewardship and responsibility for the local community and the local environment.
The ownership of assets is not a prerequisite for community climate action, or for encouraging behaviour change, but it can enhance the ability of communities to do both. Ownership of land and buildings provides long-term control over that space to use for community benefit. Ownership can strengthen financial independence, allowing organisations to pursue the collective will of the community. Using previously vacant or derelict land improves the local environment and people’s perceptions towards it. But the impact of asset-owning community organisations extends far beyond the boundaries of their land, into the very culture of their communities.
Community landowners are democratically accountable and are required to act in ways which benefit the local community. The result of this is that climate action is often designed to deliver other economic, social, environmental and cultural benefits to local people. This is the foundation of the concept of ‘Just Transition’. People must be able to participate in decisions about how to respond to the climate emergency, especially where those decisions affect them. The benefits of moving to a low-carbon society should be shared fairly among people, and not hoarded by private interests. Community organisations are bound and compelled to benefit local people through climate action in ways that other actors and sectors are not, rendering them the only guaranteed vehicle through which to ensure that this transition is just at the local level.
When communities do these things, people listen and engage, they get involved and change their behaviours. They buy into it and begin to make the changes we need to reach net-zero. And in return, they benefit from the financial rewards of these activities, as well as improving education, skills and health, while collectively developing empowerment, confidence and cohesion. These things build resilience in communities. And it is this resilience which will see communities through this crisis, and others, and will stand as the greatest legacy of the role of community landowners in tackling the climate emergency.
Dr Bobby Macaulay is now a Research Associate at the Centre for Mountain Studies at the University of the Highlands & Islands.
Inherit – the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development – is part the York Archaeological Trust. We help people to safeguard their heritage and to use it to improve their lives and the places they live. We define heritage broadly to include land and people’s relationships with the land. We work with diverse communities, with other non-profit organisations and with public sector and academic institutions in Scotland, across the UK and around the world. We support communities to deliver practical, heritage-focused development initiatives. We carry out research which informs positive change. And we advocate for the development of more just and sustainable laws and policies.