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The campaign for action on climate change and the environment is gaining momentum, says columnist Peter Gudde

Last month, I talked with hope that 2019 could be a year when we start to change up the gears to tackle some of the major environmental challenges.

The uncertainty and confusion generated by political events here and abroad has masked challenges greater and more long lasting than we probably care to think about. However, this month saw new voices speak and political pressure for action build in some unlikely places.

Valentine’s Day this year was marked by more than the usual emotions. Across all ages, there was an expression of urgency for environmental action that has not been seen for a long time.

Youngsters staged 'Climate Strikes' (7372959)
Youngsters staged 'Climate Strikes' (7372959)

This has been in response to three big environmental stories.

First, single-use plastic.

Second, more evidence of the impact of air quality on our health.

And third, the latest statement from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, setting out the clear and present danger that humanity, not the planet, faces with a warming climate.

On the climate challenge, we’ve seen school children protest, council debates disrupted and even the London catwalk confronted. These protests may be seen as futile by some who take the view that this sort of call for action ignores hard economic facts or represent a futile gesture given the UK’s small contribution to the problems compared to other countries like the US or China.

However, looking at the United States, their position on global environmental issues like climate change is more nuanced than at first glance. Contrary to the position that the Federal Government has taken, around two thirds of the states in America have climate policies more-or-less aligned with current international agreements.

California, for example, is a key player given that its economy is larger than that of the UK, ranking it fifth in the World if it were a country.

Last year, the Golden State adopted rules requiring all new buildings to be net zero energy from 2020; they produce as much energy as they use. This regulation is also built on a sound economic foundation; although the new rules are expected to add about 40 dollars a month to a householder’s mortgage they should save them around 80 dollars on their energy bill.

But, surely California has always been out there, man. Not one of your mainstream states of the Union. Not so now, with around half of the states having climate policies seeking carbon emissions reduction close to or in line with the Paris Accord to which the Federal Government was not prepared to endorse. Even three of the so-called rust belt states have climate policies.

Closer to home, the pressure has seen some councils in England declare ‘climate emergencies’, with them setting out actions to become zero carbon. One hundred town, district and city councils have pledged so far to a clean, renewable energy future by 2050. Some see this move as an economic imperative, with opportunities for new energy sector jobs and regeneration stimulated through resilient, locally generated energy. Bristol, for example, has published its own clean energy prospectus, inviting others to come forward to invest in the city’s future and, by all accounts, it has generated a lot of interest.

Communities, too, are taking their place in the low carbon future. Over 200 community organisations are now members of Community Energy England, committed to developing energy that is locally generated, controlled and used and in doing so local people are becoming more than just passive consumers.

These projects are not just for those with disposable income who can make choices about the energy; some of the projects focus on making energy more affordable.

Last week, government, the energy regulator and key organisations from across the UK energy sector met to discuss the way forward for low carbon, local energy. All know that public understanding of and support for some of the solutions is vital if the energy system is to become more resilient, flexible and less reliant on fossil fuels.

Those who protested last week are not on the periphery or out of step with the direction things are travelling. Maybe what we witnessed earlier this month will continue that momentum for change.

Does you community have an idea for an energy project? Visit https://communityenergyengland.org

-- Peter Gudde is an energy advisor and environmental researcher