A woman speaks to two men who are wearing hi-vis orange jackets. They stand on exposed earth whilst in the background more women carry trays of flowers to be planted.

Common good: how Bristol’s communities are redefining climate action

In recent years concern about climate change has rocketed from fringe to mainstream. Bristol City Council’s 2020-21 Quality of Life Survey suggests that 86% of residents are concerned about climate change, whilst research from Ipsos suggests that two thirds of people across the country think failing to act, individually and collectively, will be to fail future generations. 

Yet taking action is sometimes easier said than done. Sustainable products are often more expensive, public transport is unreliable, and many people are squeezed for time between work and looking after family. These and many other things act as barriers to participating in climate action. 

Since October 2020, a scheme led by Bristol Green Capital Partnership has challenged those barriers by reframing climate action as community action to tackle inequality, reduce social isolation and improve the local environment. 

The six groups that took part – ACH, Ambition Lawrence Weston, Bristol Disability Equality Forum, Eastside Community Trust, Heart of BS13, and Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust – were chosen as they represent communities that are often ignored in conversations around climate change and excluded from climate action. 

These plans draw together the ambitions and knowledge of their respective communities to see climate change through the lens of ordinary people and to co-create solutions that are not only good for the planet but are good for individuals and communities, too. 

Take action or be left behind

A 2020 survey of Bristolians’ attitudes to climate change and climate action found that many people, particularly outside the city centre, feared that efforts to reduce emissions could result in them being left behind. 

Respondents to the survey were also keen that any climate action must be inclusive and not have a disproportionate impact on lower socioeconomic groups. 

Similar concerns are at the forefront of the Action Plan of Heart of BS13, explained Kirsty Hammond, climate action lead for Heart of BS13. 

‘If you don’t include communities like BS13 in the climate conversations and within the green economy and [the] decarbonise revolution then we’re just gonna get left further behind than we already are,’ said Kirsty. 

BS13, which contains Hartcliffe, Bishopsworth and Bedminster Down, is one of Bristol’s most deprived postcodes and in the top 10% most deprived in the UK. Residents can expect to live ten years less than people in Clifton. It’s also an area in which fewer than 2% of young people go into higher education, with most working a lifetime in low skilled, low paid jobs. 

‘We know that the climate crisis is already, and will disproportionately affect people who live in our area and they will be hit the hardest by the climate crisis,’ said Kirsty. 

For that reason, a chief concern for Heart of BS13 was getting young people involved in the Action Plan. Using arts and music, Heart of BS13 connected with thousands of young people and were able to have conversations which showed that young people care about plastic waste, pollution and litter. 

Climate and ecological education, and investment in local green jobs are a priority in Heart of BS13’s Action Plan, utilising their new Roundhouse Climate Hub and Hartcliffe City Farm. 

“Residents aren’t the type of sandal-wearing vegans living off-grid in a straw house you see in the news”

Carbon footprint surveys produced for each community by the Centre for Sustainable Energy show that their residents consistently contribute less to Bristol’s emissions than the average citizen.  

But for Bristol’s refugee and low-income BAME population, this hides deeper inequalities. 

The community has twice the average rate of food insecurity and although emissions from transport are well below the city’s average, air pollution levels in areas with a high proportion of BAME residents, like Barton Hill and Lawrence Hill, are higher than average. 

‘It’s not because they’ve got cars it’s because people who commute to work through their communities in their cars,’ explained Tom Dixon, research and project lead for ACH, a refugee integration organisation. 

With such discrepancies in mind, Tom said that ACH wanted their Action Plan ‘to try and do something more meaningful than just simply going in and showing people how to do their recycling.

Read more: Make clean air fair, demand activists

Central to their final Action Plan is the business sector, specifically getting refugees and migrants into green jobs. 

ACH is developing training programmes both to support refugees and migrants to get into green jobs and to advise existing businesses on how to be greener, which Tom said will have the knock-on effect of making the community at large greener as many people in neighbourhoods with a high proportion of migrants, like Barton Hill and Lawrence Hill, shop locally. 

Moreover, getting the voices of refugees and migrants into businesses will further the sector’s efforts to be greener by ‘diversifying the conversation in the place where it’s happening directly, rather than in a focus group,’ said Tom. 

Barriers to action

The Action Plans began life in October 2020 when the six participant groups started consulting their communities in a process known as co-production, in which residents have a direct part in deciding what types of services are provided, designing how those services will run and even helping to run them. 

Bristol City Council’s 2020-21 Quality of Life Survey suggests that people in the most deprived areas of the city, which include Hartcliffe, and Lawrence Weston, have the least concern about climate change and the environment. 

However, this hides the true story, said Suzanne Wilson, chief executive of Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust, who explained that climate change is pushed down residents’ list of priorities by more immediate concerns like putting food on the table and making ends meet. 

Faced with more immediate concerns, ‘those kind of things about climate change and extreme weather events feel like not immediate enough and not in your control anyway to do anything about,’ said Suzanne. 

As well as material barriers to taking action, like cost and accessibility, Suzanne said that in her conversations she found that some residents felt they lacked legitimacy to take action as they did not fit the stereotypical ‘sandal-wearing vegan living off-grid in a straw house sort of person’ that climate activists are often portrayed as being in the news. 

Suzanne encountered hesitation to get involved in climate action from people who felt they might be judged for, say, driving a car. 

In response to this, Suzanne said it was important not to have any ‘gold-standards’ for what action is or looks like, but to instead welcome everyone and work with them from where they are. 

“One third of UK adults in poverty are disabled”

Sometimes barriers to action come from within the climate movement itself. 

Emma Geen, climate lead for Bristol Disability Equality Forum (BDEF), said there is a current of ableism running through a lot of climate action, with disabled people excluded from conversations about the issues and its solutions, and sometimes even blamed and demonised as “wasteful” or “scroungers”.

Not only is this a false impression, argued Emma, but it can actually lead to the climate movement pursuing misguided ideas. 

Consider the plastic straw ban in 2020, touted as a way of reducing plastic pollution in the oceans. Plastic straws, Emma pointed out, were invented as a medical device to help people drink before they were co-opted by fast food restaurants. 

The ban, said Emma, did almost nothing to reduce ocean plastic – the fishing industry is far more culpable – but did impede the disabled people who need them. 

Instead, BDEF’s Action Plan proposes to make real change to reduce waste by creating a mobility equipment repair shop, run by disabled people, and an equipment library where disabled people can borrow what they need rather than having to buy new. 

Not only will this reduce the amount of, used or unneeded mobility equipment going to landfill, said Emma, but it will also relieve some of the financial burden on disabled people, who, like the refugee community, are over-represented in poverty statistics: in the UK, one third of adults in poverty are disabled. In part this is due to the additional costs disabled people face for expensive mobility equipment, which can be upwards of £500 a month, explains Emma.

Food as activism

For Action Plan participants Ambition Lawrence Weston (ALW) and Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust, change is about building support from the grassroots and conversations about transport, food, waste and litter have opened up new avenues for action within the community. 

Food is a big part of ALW’s first Action Plan initiative. Grow, Cook, Eat Lawrence Weston, a joint project with Incredible Edible, aims to create community allotments and other spaces where people can grow their own food. The project also provides education on ways of cooking that save energy, foraging, eating less meat and making foods like bread and jam. 

Donna Sealey, community development and engagement lead for Ambition Lawrence Weston, said that although some people have always been interested in environmental action – ALW is building the country’s largest onshore wind turbine, for instance – conversations about food were a successful way of bringing new people into the conversation. 

Talking about climate is not the way to reach people, said Donna. ‘Although some people are interested in that, and they genuinely are, the hook in is I can make you feel better and I can save you some money,’ she said. 

Through such an approach, Donna and her team were able to reach people they never thought would want to be involved in a climate project: ‘I’ve lived here, I’ve worked here a long time but I’m even now meeting people I’ve never met before because this is something they’re really interested in, or the other surprise is people you wouldn’t even dream would be interested is actually interested.’ said Donna. 

A similar approach has worked in Lockleaze. Community vegan feasts have helped break down the barriers to eating more plant-based food. 

A survey of Lockleaze residents conducted during the Action Plan creation process revealed that 65% of residents would consider eating less meat in their diet, challenging the’ perception of vegan food as something Suzanne said can be seen as ‘worthy and sad.’

Such numbers put Lockleaze residents ahead of the national average. Data from Ipsos suggests that 40% of people are unlikely to eat less meat and 51% are unlikely to eat less dairy in the next year. 

Rethinking climate action

Thanks to a £2.5mn boost from the National Lottery’s Community Fund, Bristol’s six Community Climate Action Plans are getting underway and initial projects are beginning across the participant communities.

As much as we may wish for a world where everyone feels comfortable taking to the streets, this is not likely to happen. Many people do not identify as activists and perhaps never will. This does not, however, mean that they have no role to play. 

As Suzanne said: ‘The more that we bring people together in place the more they can be a really powerful force for good.’

By speaking to real people’s needs and concerns, the Community Climate Action Plans of the six participant groups have opened up climate action to entire communities rarely even considered by climate movements in the past. People who may never even identify themselves as activists or environmentalists can, through the Action Plans, lead efforts to bring about a greener, fairer future. 

Feature image: Ambition Lawrence Weston.

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