Last week, Louise and I attended the Business Green 2023 Net Zero Festival, in London.
We were there to talk about public mobilisation on climate—in the space between direct action, on one hand, and government ‘business as usual’ on the other—and to share examples of how citizens are already using mySociety’s services like CAPE, the Climate Action Scorecards, and Local Intelligence Hub to track, challenge, coordinate, and collaborate on local climate action. You can read Louise’s slides and notes here.
It was also a great opportunity to connect with both existing contacts and partners (hi Climate Coalition, MCS Foundation, and Anthesis!) and new organisations we could potentially collaborate with in the rapidly approaching fourth year of our climate programme.
But it was also interesting to see how mySociety’s democratic, citizen-led approach to climate action compares with—and fits alongside—the festival’s strong focus on business actors.
Many of my fellow attendees have already shared their highlights from the festival, but here are two challenges that struck me in the days after the festival, and how I think mySociety’s work could contribute to solving them.
The role of local authorities, local businesses, and local residents in taking climate action together
With the festival being hosted in the beautiful Business Design Centre in Angel, it was particularly interesting to hear from a number of local, Islington-based organisations on how they’re addressing the climate emergency. I sat in on a particularly good pair of talks with representatives from organisations like Islington Council, Caxton House Community Centre, a number of London BIDs, and Anthesis, who recently launched a Net Zero Strategy for Angel Islington, and who we already know through their support for our and Climate Emergency UK’s Council Climate Scorecards project.
Islington Sustainability Network in particular was a great example I’d not come across before, of coordination between a huge number of private, public, and third sector organisations in a local area. I think it was Simeran from Anthesis who reiterated her experience that building trust between businesses and residents is crucial, and I expect networks like these, while not a silver bullet for citizen engagement, at least encourage a holistic climate response from all of the local institutions a citizen might engage with. (This is something PCAN has been exploring with their very exciting Climate Commissions in places like Leeds, Edinburgh, Belfast, and Yorkshire.)
I was also reminded of an example given by one participant in our Neighbourhood Warmth prototype testing last year, where the owner of a local corner shop had become a sort of trusted demonstrator/influencer of climate action, because they’d installed solar panels on the shop’s roof. Utilising these trust-based networks to encourage faster, more regret-free home energy action from citizens, is something we’re particularly interested in exploring at mySociety.
In one of these sessions, I asked the panel for any examples of resident power, or residents signalling demand for home energy services like retrofit and energy flexibility. Sue Collins from Caxton House Community Centre, which has run workshops for local residents on topics like energy saving, said they’d seen a lot of residents asking about funding for measures like insulation, heat pumps, and solar panels. Islington councillor Rowena Champion added that, while many people in the area might have the means and the interest to undertake works like this, complication around planning permissions, Victorian housing, and conservation areas is a big blocker. It sounds like Islington Council is looking at producing guidance on net zero actions—how you do retrofit, how you do double glazing in a conservation area—to overcome this, as well as setting up regular panels where residents can raise issues and find out more about actions the council is taking. It’d be interesting to see how a service like Neighbourhood Warmth could tie into hyperlocal advice like this, or even become a source of new knowledge sharing and advice, as groups of neighbours progress through the retrofit journey together and want to share their findings.
There’s still lots of talk about climate, not so much action
The music-themed title of the second day’s opening keynote was, fittingly, “A little less conversation, a little more action”. Speakers in a number of sessions noted that both national and local governments seem to be discovering that it’s easier to talk about climate policies than to implement them. The rallying cry of the festival’s organisers is that business leaders need to lead – to show that there is both commercial and public support for (and demand for) climate action.
I thought it was particularly interesting that both Chris Stark of the CCC, and climate activist Farhana Yamin, forecast that the threat of litigation from citizens/customers will be a growing motivator for businesses (and, I’d add, local and national governments) to address their climate impacts. “There will be a reckoning,” in Farhana’s words. Chilling!
We’re now less than a month away from the start of COP28. This year’s COP is a critical one, because it marks the start of the global stocktake – participating countries will essentially be “handing in their homework” on their climate actions over the last few years, and experts are already bracing themselves for disappointment.
Giving citizens, campaigners, and even local authorities themselves, open, actionable data about the progress local authorities are making, and the barriers to faster action, has obviously been a core strand of mySociety’s climate programme, and will continue to be so. We’ve also been campaigning for not only the quantity but the quality of local climate data to be improved. Without rigorous, open, standardised data, we cannot exert the level of scrutiny on local and national climate action that we need as a country. We hope that through projects like CAPE, the Council Climate Action Scorecards, and the Local Intelligence Hub, we can provide some of that data.
I also found it interesting that contracts came up a few times over the festival, as a tool for enforcing climate action – turning a business or local authority’s voluntary commitments into something legally binding. Fans of mySociety’s Climate programme will be aware that, last year, we ran a prototyping week on the potential for greater transparency of local authority contracts with high climate impacts. Our Contract Countdown prototype aimed to give citizens and campaigners advance warning of contracts that are approaching renewal, so that conversations could be had—for example, with local councillors through WriteToThem—on strengthening the climate requirements in those contracts’ upcoming replacements. We were particularly interested in folding in the amazing work that The Chancery Lane Project has been doing on pre-written climate-friendly clauses ready to drop into contracts.
As the Procurement Bill (which introduces some significant changes around the scale and quality of procurement/contracts data available from public bodies) was still working its way through the Houses of Parliament at that time, we put Contract Countdown to one side. The Bill has now passed, as the Procurement Act 2023, and it’ll be particularly interesting to see whether this has an effect on local authority decision-making, and whether a tool like Contract Countdown could once more give citizens greater influence over the decisions made in their name. If you’re interested in exploring the role of contracts and climate action together, please do get in touch!