Monday, 27 September 2010

Climate Change and the Big Society

David Cameron recently argued that the state is “often too inhuman and clumsy” to tackle the UK’s social problems.  Instead of big government, the coalition is developing policies within an agenda of “big society” - emphasising devolving powers locally to communities, encouraging greater community engagement and support for social enterprises & civil society organisations.  Before cynically dismissing big society as and excuse for big cuts in services, it might be useful to consider one or two examples of opportunities that the big society agenda offers on the theme of climate change. 

Michael Kelly, Doug Crawford-Brown and a number of students and local organisations in Cambridge have proposed a local solution to home insulation called the Cambridge Retrofit project.  The project encourages Cambridge to take the initiative in addressing energy saving through a programme of retrofitting existing buildings to bring them into line with the insulation standards used in newly built housing.  

These existing buildings are important as they will account for more than 80% of the carbon dioxide emissions from the entire building stock in Cambridge even in 2050 after new builds have been added to the city. 

Coordinating the implementation of the proposal would require support from a number of local organisations because the project reflects the economies of scale that accompany large-scale programmes of retrofits, rather than relying on a building-by-building schedule.  In this way, the plan requires retrofitting entire blocks of buildings, minimising the need for construction traffic and reducing costs associated with purchase of materials and labour.  This same approach brings an added incentive to local businesses to supply labour and develop additional capacity to manufacture and deliver materials, since the project provides for a reliable procurement base crucial to investment in business development.  The big society agenda would afford the type of stakeholder building necessary for the first stage of the plan to be developed and ready for implementation, finance permitting.

A second example comes from the area of distributed energy.  In a recent briefing paper, Scott Kelly from 4CMR, argues the case for the localisation of energy services in reducing carbon emissions. 

He concludes that “locally led solutions are set to be an increasingly important dimension for both the supply and demand for energy” and indeed locally led solutions might be increasingly seen as a crucial part of other climate change mitigation strategies.  A more detailed account of the argument can be found here.

While big society is still a rather vague concept and may indeed in the end turn out to be as contested a social capital or new public management, the reality of the need to do more with less might make some local solutions a more viable option for addressing carbon emissions, even if the State is neither clumsy nor inhume.

Next month contribution will be written by Sören Lindner.

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