This post is by Richard Leafe, chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority and Rebecca Willis a Green Alliance associate and climate change adviser to the Lake District National Park Authority.
Amid the media fuss surrounding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report last week, there was surprisingly little attention paid to a crucial part of the report. For the first time, the panel estimated how much carbon dioxide we could emit, in total, if global warming is to be restricted to two degrees centigrade. We can’t go beyond 880 gigatonnes, and we’ve already spent 531 of those. So there isn’t much left. As Nick Stern has pointed out, the world has a carbon budget. We can’t spend beyond our means.
All this talk of gigatonnes and global limits is difficult to relate to. What does it mean for me, my family, my local area, my country? Over the past three years, the Lake District has been involved in a fascinating local experiment that tries to answer this question.
The first local area carbon budget
As far as we know, the Lake District is the first local area to set a local carbon budget. We worked out how much carbon the Lake District is responsible for, we set targets to reduce this year on year, based on the UK’s national carbon budget, and we’ve made a plan for how we can meet our targets. In a small corner of a small country, we’ve been doing what needs to be done at a global level.
We have learned that our most significant impact is people’s travel to and from the Lake District. That’s hardly surprising, as sixteen million people visit each year. So we are investing in alternatives to car travel, from better rail connections to electric bike hire. We discovered that sourcing food and drink locally can make a significant difference to emissions (as if we needed an excuse to patronise the 36 local breweries in the area ). And it was no surprise that making buildings more energy efficient is the cheapest and most effective form of emissions reduction.
Lessons learned after three years
Of course, our contribution, measured in tonnes of carbon, is tiny. But its significance is far greater than the 40,000 tonnes we saved last year. It’s an experiment, an attempt at a comprehensive, positive local response to a global challenge. Three years into the experiment, here’s what we’ve learned:
• A serious local response is, of course, about far more than energy saving and energy generation. It’s about travel, food, tourism and land management, not to mention expectations and assumptions.
• As a result, you need lots of people to join in. We were lucky that the National Park had already established a partnership of 24 organisations, who agreed to work together on our carbon budget. Everyone from the National Farmers’ Union to the Forestry Commission has agreed to the targets and action.
• It’s a slow burn. In year one, people agreed to the idea, but it was hard to get a debate about what should be done. In year two, a group of enthusiasts formed, and we started to get traction. In year three, the whole partnership agreed it should be a core priority, not least because they began to see the benefits.
• On which point, it’s worth repeating that it’s not enough to sell the carbon benefits alone. In fact, in the absence of incentives like carbon pricing, you need to sell the economic and social benefits first and the carbon savings second. Luckily, there’s a lot of overlap: sustainable transport makes life better for visitors; farmers can be paid for managing land with carbon in mind; promoting local food and drink is good for tourism and for emissions.
• There’s a pleasing rigour to the process of counting emissions savings. It’s a bit like a fundraising totaliser. People can see their contribution to the overall target and feel part of a joint effort.
Creating a local strategy is difficult without national clarity
Despite a lot of hard work from a lot of people, we’re not yet meeting the targets. It has taken us three years to achieve what we should be saving each and every year.
There’s more we can do locally, but it’s been really difficult to pull together a strategic approach at a local level without similar levels of clarity and strategy at the national level (let alone the global level).
Local areas are not required, or even asked, to contribute to national carbon budgets. We get precious little thanks from government for doing so. And the lack of incentives, or a clear national strategy, makes it harder to sell the case to local players.
Ideally, a global carbon budget would cascade to a national budget in each country, with a clear, long term strategy attached. Local plans would then be nested within that national picture. But we’re not in that ideal place, and it would be defeatist to say we need to wait for national support before we act.
Our local experiment is modest, but we’ve counted the benefits in terms of pounds and pence, providing better holidays and a more secure future for farming. It may be a tiny fraction of those gigatonnes but, as the IPCC reports a challenging picture over the years ahead, it’s nice to know we’re off the starting blocks.