By Jools Townsend, chief executive, Community Rail Network.
A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page
It’s been brilliant to see ACEVO and its members recognising the crucial role the third sector can play in turning the corner on rising emissions and creating a greener, safer, more just future. No doubt efforts across the sector will continue ramping up as the UK takes up the COP presidency in November, and this couldn’t be more important, for our climate and the communities we serve.
COP26 is not just one event, but a year of negotiation where the UK must show strong leadership on this most pressing of issues. NGOs have without doubt helped shape the global debate thus far, especially showing how the climate emergency and social justice are intertwined and inseparable. But this is not just a job for big environmental charities: all of us can play a powerful part, and we can do so in support of (rather than additional to) our diverse charitable aims.
Research I have carried out on the role of the community and voluntary sector in affecting change on the climate crisis not only demonstrates what we are capable of, but that we are probably already doing more than we realise. In building community cohesion and vitality, and creating a sense of efficacy and connectedness at community level, we are, many academics argue, laying vital groundwork for sustainable development and the cultural, behavioural and systemic changes we need to tackle the climate crisis. As I’m sure ACEVO members will recognise, when we bring people together and facilitate collaboration and positive action, it naturally creates a greater sense of care and efficacy for each other, our environment and our shared future, and shifts power to the grassroots.
That’s not to say we should sit back on our laurels: quite the opposite. We are, as the IPCC and global scientists are warning, on a frightening trajectory, one that threatens to undermine all our goals. We must, as ACEVO’s climate leadership principles attest, acknowledge the gravitas of the climate crisis, and act upon that. But the trick is to not see this as an add-on to our (very important) business as usual: it must be integrated across our activities, and we must bring to the fore what we, our networks, beneficiaries and communities, have to gain, perhaps more than what we have to lose. I’ve seen many despairing words since the IPCC’s report was published, especially from those closely involved in researching and campaigning on climate issues. One of the key contributions NGOs can make is to bring hope to the table, working with partners, networks and ordinary people to co-create a vision of a brighter, more inclusive future. Again, climate research suggests that this is important in itself, although it must now be coupled with urgency too.
An issue that’s often a poor relation in discussions on climate, but now rising up the agenda and the emissions league tables, is transport, and I believe this is a crucial area for the third sector too. Transport is now the biggest emitting sector in the UK, and the fastest rising globally. Here are some arguments on why this issue must feature strongly at COP26, and the benefits we can gain from a more sustainable pathway.
I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate too much on why transport and mobility are bound up with the social issues we all grapple with daily. It determines whether people can access work, education and training, and has a huge bearing on whether people feel a sense of control, purpose and connectedness, their physical health and mental wellbeing. Research shows us how car-orientated development has undermined communities, entrenched inequalities, and polluted local and global environments. In other words, transport is an area where our social goals and our ability to tackle the climate crisis intersect, a lot, and third sector leaders can play a big part in getting that across to decision-makers at all levels and within our communities.
Within my organisation, Community Rail Network, we support community groups working with the rail industry and helping more people to access rail as a key part of sustainable travel. I also chair an alliance of NGOs, the Sustainable Transport Alliance, collaborating towards a greener transport future. Between us we know the huge difference that access to (and confidence using) public transport, combined with walking, cycling, and shared and community transport schemes, make to people and their places. We recognise too the need to significantly reduce private car use, shifting as many journeys as possible onto alternative modes and prioritising those modes’ development: this brings benefits to inclusion, equity and place that electric cars do not, and is a more viable way to achieve the rapid decarbonisation we now need.
We will be championing these messages in the run-up to and beyond COP26, and we encourage our fellow third sector leaders to join us in supporting that cause. Great Big Green Week is an opportunity to consider how your people and networks can support that shift, and be clear, visible and vocal about the benefits that sustainable, inclusive, healthy, sociable travel can bring, to our climate, our communities, and our future.
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