Zero Carbon Guildford has opened a Community Climate Hub in the town centre, aiming to bring the community together to build a climate action plan. Ben McCallan describes how ZERO got to this point and outlines the project’s aims.
ZERO is a community-led initiative which aims to bring residents, businesses, schools, churches, the university and the council together in meaningful climate action. Opened by local charity Zero Carbon Guildford, it’s a physical premises in the town centre, focused on education and engagement on climate and environmental issues. There are now several of these community-led projects across the South East, including Guildford, Godalming, Seaford, Elmbridge, Lewes and Staines, and work is afoot in several other communities including Kingston, Richmond, Portsmouth and Woking.
What is a Climate Hub?
That’s really down to individual communities. At ZERO we hope to help the borough build a climate action plan, but any project’s goals should be guided by its local community to generate maximum buy-in. A climate hub can offer solutions and advice to help residents and businesses lower emissions, and be a space for the community to come together to identify residents’ environmental concerns and develop initiatives.
It can be all of these, or something entirely different. But if we’re going to avert the worst of climate breakdown – and even more so if we’re going to build resilience and effective adaptational techniques – a huge amount of work needs to go into building community cohesion so that we can work across demographics and political divides to protect our communities and establish our role and responsibility in tackling a global crisis. A climate emergency centre offers a permanent space for this work to happen, transparently and in public, bringing more people through the door.
Our goal at ZERO is to gather community input on the environmental issues we face locally and globally, determine the weight of support for various solutions, and somehow roll this into a climate action plan. We aren’t pretending we have all the answers, but we’re trying to explore together, as a community, how to mitigate and adapt to the effects of a changing planet.
ZERO houses a number of projects used to raise awareness of the ways our choices affect the planet and other communities. These offer solutions to help build resilience locally, create campaigns or reduce emissions, and open conversations around the ways we can remodel how we live and work to meet the needs of our community without breaching environmental limits.
The projects are pretty varied, and include:
- Community fridge: Food waste across the supply chain contributes 8-10% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions. We collect food from local supermarkets to prevent it going to landfill and distribute it to the community. We hope the fridge’s reporting will, in turn, build strong campaigns for ways to cut food waste, such as loose veg without plastic packaging, and inspire initiatives like ‘farm to plate’ wonky veg boxes.
- Vertical farming: We have two vertical farming towers which we purchased with funding from Transition Network. They’re a great conversation starter, and with partners such as the University of Surrey we are trying to highlight the role urban agriculture can play in food security strategies.
- Cargo bikes: Guildford is extremely hilly and has poor cycling infrastructure, meaning private vehicles rule the road. Electric cargo bikes are more stable than regular bikes and take up more of the road, while saving riders’ calves from our brutal geography. We offer a ‘try-before-you-buy’ electric cargo bike scheme in partnership with Fully Charged Guildford to encourage more people into active travel, combatting common and justified safety concerns about cycling.
- Events: ZERO has hosted some great speakers since opening in November 2021, and we hope that as we build a profile, creating bigger and better events will draw more people into what we’re doing.
- Workshops: We hosted the UK’s first in-person Doughnut Economics Action Lab workshop during Great Big Green Week 2021. It was amazingly well received by the councillors, community leaders and residents who attended. Workshops like this are a great way to gather input on communities’ social and environmental concerns, as well as potential solutions. We also held a Mock COP event during COP26, with teams from Surrey schools representing different countries.
- Community Share Schemes: We are helping Surrey Hills Baby Clothes Library expand, and support Guildford Library’s ‘Library of Things’. Initiatives like this are just common sense, cutting waste and consumption, and a great way to open conversations about reducing environmental impacts.
Why are Climate Hubs important?
As well as presenting practical local solutions for residents and businesses to tackle a global crisis, there are a number of other ways a climate emergency centre can help drive climate action as part of a long-term plan. Bringing people together with a narrative of protecting their town and community can help dispense with ideological approaches to tackling crises, and instead help to establish common ground on local issues.
A physical premises in a good location will get a lot of footfall, and showcasing common sense solutions like community share schemes is a new way to engage people. A diverse range of events and workshops can also help with this. It’s important to try to figure out why parts of a community aren’t engaged in tackling climate breakdown. Some will just never engage. But many people have obstacles like transport, income, etc which make it incredibly difficult to get involved in community action. Others are overwhelmed by the negative emotions stirred by contemplating an existential crisis. If you can figure out a way to help combat these obstacles, be they mobile workshops in low-income areas, or mental health and wellbeing support, you’re more likely to involve people from all demographics in building a plan, and generate more buy-in from the community.
Another great aspect of a climate hub is the ability to gather continuous feedback from the community. If you can set up an area which allows residents to input concerns, it can be a great measure of areas your action plan should focus on. If you can build up several hundred responses on local issues it puts a lot more weight behind the campaigns and policy proposals you put forward to your local authority.
They’re also a great way to demonstrate solutions-based activism. Climate activism in the last few years has done a great job of increasing public awareness, with 85% of Britons now reporting they’re concerned about climate breakdown, and 52% ‘very concerned’. But the gulf between those figures and the number of people taking action is huge. It’s all well and good shouting about the climate crisis, but if you’re not offering clear ways for people to get involved, and ideally practical steps for people to do something about their own footprint as well as building political leverage locally, you end up shouting into a void. Climate centres allow you to demonstrate the different pathways people can take, and hopefully start empowering people to take action instead of overwhelming them.
How to set up a Climate Hub
This obviously varies enormously depending on your capacity and objectives. Surrey alone has five similar projects, all with different approaches. It took ZERO over a year to get keys to a space through a private landlord. Elmbridge Ecohub were in the planning phase for two years before getting a space, but Staines were offered a building via Spelthorne Council a week after starting their search, and Godalming already had a lease on a building used by two of their trustees. Dorking Climate Emergency went a different route altogether and operated a short-term pop-up.
There’s far too much detail to go into here on how to get set up. And again it depends what approach you take, but some useful resources to get you started are:
- ZERO blog: Creating A Community Climate Hub, a detailed account of how we built ZERO
- Climate Emergency Centres network
- Video: Surrey’s Climate Hubs & Climate Commission event
In short there are some key ingredients to getting this right, so here’s a few general pointers:
- Build a solid network: If, like us, you take ages to get a building, there is still a lot you can do to begin organising. It’s important to think about how you’d progress a climate action plan if you never got a building. But most of all, having a strong network is critical to making everything else a success. It provides volunteers, campaign support, fundraising opportunities and content for your premises and your website.
- Build a strategy: And then stick to it! Make decisions based on what aligns with your well-crafted strategy. Don’t be tempted into taking a building or anything else if you think it’s not well aligned with your plan. Talking Tree in Staines rejected the first building they were offered as it was in a shopping centre, which would have prevented them using the space in the evening.
- Do what’s within your capacity: You don’t want to end up as a caretaker of a largely empty building. Never let perfection stop you from getting started, but make sure that you can manage the plans through to a viable target. If you get it wrong at the start, there’s a chance you’ll struggle to keep the doors open before you build enough momentum, and you’ll all become disenchanted. Laying the groundwork before getting a premises can help avoid this.
Where can I join or get support?
As there are quite a few Climate Hub projects springing up across the country you should be able to get advice and share experiences with a group using a similar model to you. Lots of us are linked via the Climate Emergency Centres network, whether we call ourselves a CEC or not. This is a good place to share information and ask questions, and will hopefully become a place to share resources and exchange the models we’ve been using for reinventing our towns and cities.
You can find the CEC network here. They can help you find a project in your area to get involved with, connect you with other locals if a project doesn’t yet exist, and share resources on becoming a legal entity, policy writing, and lots of the other things most of us didn’t know much about when we set out! The CEC network holds support meetings every Thursday at 7pm. There’s a Telegram chat group which you can join here.
Alternatively, you can approach groups directly for advice. We’ve had around 20 different groups come to visit ZERO, and we’re really happy to have helped so many inspirational groups on their journey.
Ben McCallan is chair of Zero Carbon Guildford