Regular wildfires in Oz, the continued assault on the Amazon rainforest, flash floods that wash away homes and livelihoods… It’s easy to get bogged down in eco-anxiety and existential dread when we’re constantly being bombarded with news of ecological disasters and immoral world leaders. Oh, and when the news isn’t focussed on a new eco outrage, it’s consumed with terrifying viruses that have no doubt been exacerbated by our reckless relationship with wildlife. But you know what? There really are reasons to be hopeful about our future and that of the planet.
You may be aware that the Government has pledged to get the UK to Net Zero by 2050. That means that we have just under 30 years to change the way we move around and heat and light our homes and workplaces. The problem is that by 2050, parts of our own beloved country, from Cornwall and Norfolk could already be experiencing extreme weather and its consequences, unless we act now. Mercifully for us all, that action is happening – on a local level.
Nothing sounds more dry than the words ‘local authorities’. It conjures up images of grey-clad civil servants and middle aged councillors talking about bins and noise abatement – the kind of sphere in which the most radical kind of action might be switching the boardroom garibaldis for pink wafers. But trust me, it’s in these local meetings that the most ambitious climate action is taking place.
In York, all buses are now electric or low-carbon. Lancaster’s switched all their street lamps for LED bulbs (reducing CO2 emissions annually by 73%) while Swansea’s been busy retrofitting Council-owned homes to make them warmer, safer and more energy-efficient – helping to take older people out of fuel poverty. In all of these cases, councils are improving air quality and emissions while saving money and creating jobs – which ultimately helps to improve the lives of local residents.
These are the kinds of projects we just don’t hear about – but they’re incredibly innovative and positive. And the great thing about them is that they’re totally common sense. We’re not talking about projects being spearheaded by extremists; these are projects that appeal to every sector of society in that they’re often the cheapest and most attractive options.
It’s thanks to Greta Thunberg, Fridays for Future and other campaign groups that climate change is firmly on the agenda. They’ve forced world leaders to sit up and take note, but as we all know, turning commitments into reality can always be a challenge when politicians have so many competing demands to meet. Under pressure from those who have an interest in dirty fossil fuels, governments can row back from pledges. You can, however, demand change from your local leaders who are ultimately there to serve you and your community.
Students are an absolutely crucial part of the population, holding huge sway over certain cities and regions in terms of local democracy. If you go to university in Leeds, Oxford, Nottingham, Bristol, Birmingham or Glasgow, for example, you’ll be living in a UK100 member city – meaning that your local council has signed up to our pledge to beat the Government’s Net Zero targets. We have over 100 members across the country, from Newcastle to Plymouth who are working on ways to make public transport greener, cycle lanes safer, electricity bills cheaper and housing safer.
Here’s what you can do to ensure that your local leaders are listening:
- Check to see if your local council is a UK100 member: Click here to see if they’re on the list. If they’re not, why not write to them to ask them to sign our pledge?
- Ask your university to publish their sustainability and Net Zero plans: If they’ve not yet done so, demand to know why – or ask your student paper to do so.
- Write to your local MP and councillors: You can find out how to contact your local politicians here. Ask them what they’re doing to help the area become greener and safer.
- Organise on-campus events: We’ve seen how effective direct action can be and while I’m not advocating that you hijack the campus minibus or stage a sit in, hosting climate action events can be a great way of engaging the local community and leaders with the student population. Round tables on how air pollution impacts communities of colour, group cycles or plogging (jogging and litter picking) outings and lectures from prominent climate activists and thinkers are a few simple ideas.
- Set a climate target for your SU: If the SU can commit to as close to Net Zero as possible in the near future, that sets a precedent for other universities and university bodies to follow suit.
- Talk to the NUS: If your uni has an NUS representative, ask them to educate students on what exactly the NUS is doing about climate change. The NUS has been an active ally when it comes to concrete action so they may well be able to inspire others to get involved with the fight!
About the Author: Polly Billington is a Hackney councillor and founder of UK100, a green think tank dedicated to offering and promoting practical solutions to the climate crisis. In a previous life, she had a highly successful career in frontline environmental politics as a government special advisor to Ed Miliband at the Cabinet Office and Department of Energy and Climate Change.