Environmental drivers

Greater political and public traction

Protecting the environment has emerged as one of the top political priorities. The government has signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord, parliament declared a climate emergency, and the UK will be hosting UKCOP26 in Glasgow this year. The government’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 has become has broadly got cross-party support.

Equally, there is broad public support for climate change solutions. Polling from Ipsos Mori shows that two-thirds of Britons see climate change as equally as serious as Covid-19 and support a green economic recovery built on moving towards net zero emissions. Another Ipsos poll shows that the public prioritises renewable energy as the most popular sector for job creation (46% of respondents), followed by nature conservation (37%) and energy efficiency (35%).

In terms of political and public shifts on climate change, civil society continues to play a prominent role. Campaigns like the Climate Change Coalition have taken on the role of a ‘critical friend’ of government. Young people are also playing a major role setting the agenda. There has been a marked shift in tone and action for grassroots environmental activism within the last five years focusing and use of words like ‘urgency’ and ‘emergency’ – best seen with Extinction Rebellion and the Student Climate Network’s school climate strikes. The shift in tone and tactics including civil disruption will likely continue as key features of the climate change movement for the foreseeable future.

The rise of sustainable consumption

As the environment and climate change grow as political issues, this will affect how charity activities are perceived by the public. Ethical consumerism continues to develop, with greater awareness and value of circular, repairable, recycled sourcing of goods, especially amongst younger generations[1]. This will benefit charity shops as existing suppliers of second-hand goods. Civil society has featured through movements such as Fashion Revolution, while local networks such as Freecycle and the Right to Repair movement promote the use of reusable goods. The Right to Repair is already influencing political change in the EU but also proving a major legal and human rights issue in the courts[2].

The shift to ethical consumerism has implications for charities and their practices. Charities will want to start considering their impact on the environment and how they can plan for meaningful action to improve where necessary while avoiding accusations of ‘greenwashing’ that has already been used against corporate social responsibility. Actions could include building standards for net zero emissions, supply chain transparency, setting emissions targets, carbon accounting, and greening activities such as installing solar panels on buildings, office recycling and green investments including reserves and staff pension funds.

More integration with racial and social justice

In recent years, the climate change movement has grown and evolved, especially with emerging groups like Extinction Rebellion rising as part of a wider shift towards decentralised social movements like Black Lives Matter that demand more widespread institutional change.

Pressure has mounted for environmentalism to become more intersectional in proposing solutions to climate change. More than one year on from its global mass protests and actions, Extinction Rebellion is acknowledging criticism about its lack of attention to class and race in the context of an environmental movement that has historically been seen as white and middle class. There have been calls for greater recognition of the disproportionate impact of climate change on working class and disproportionately Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. Education, job insecurity and ethnicity are linked to the likelihood of living in polluted areas and feeling the impact of climate change-induced disasters in the Global South, yet whose voices are often marginalised[3]. In the context of Black Lives Matter, climate change has been inextricably tied to race.

Some organisations suggest that any solutions to climate change must tackle structural imbalances to simultaneously address racial justice and poverty. The RSA has advocated social, economic, environmental justice as interconnected, resilient systems. Moving forward, charities will need to think about how their outlook on climate change links with wider economic and social considerations and how this informs their activities.

The lessons of covid-19 for climate change

With covid-19 lockdown resulting in reduced commuting and air travel, carbon emissions have fallen locally and globally. With more people walking and cycling, local authorities have invested in schemes to boost cycling and walking space, including pop-up cycle lanes and pedestrianisation of city centre streets. These temporary changes may well last beyond the pandemic[4], illustrated by Common Wealth’s visualisation of Glasgow showing how the impact of a green approach to urban planning would look like in daily urban life. Sustrans, the custodians of the National Cycle network, are campaigning for a more permanent change in urban planning ethos in terms of measures to protect cyclists while local groups are providing practical information and advocating for changes to local authorities. However any urban planning changes must be inclusive, taking into account the impact of changes for accessibility including for disabled people.

National and global responses to covid-19 have long-term implications on how to manage the impact of climate change. Former DfID Secretary Douglas Alexander and former Obama Official Alex Thier proposed a similar approach to climate change in terms of treating net zero emissions as ‘flattening the carbon curve’. This, they argue, requires global leadership and local action including national and local government, charities and activists, preventative actions such as building new, resilient systems, and learning the right lessons from the crisis to set socioeconomic priorities going forward.

Charities helping to ‘build back better’

Politicians and policy thinkers have been debating ‘building back better’ with an emphasis on a green economic recovery. Proposals include building and retrofitting infrastructure, retraining workers in those high-emissions industries which were hit with redundancies like aviation into green jobs, and redesigning the economy to become more circular and regenerative[5]. However, concerns have been raised that any stimulus must be well-targeted, with the New Economics Foundation prioritising speed, job creation, regional equality and social distancing.

Civil society will likely play a crucial role in influencing any national green recovery package. On a policy level, there are calls to devolve decision-making. The Centre for Local Economic Strategies has advocated for a green, generative, place-based policy model that uses local charities and social enterprises. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has recommended relying on community input for localised, green solutions. Citizens Advice suggests best-practice green energy policies to reduce the cost impact on consumers.

On a practical level, NPC has called for charities, funders, communities and environmental groups to consider how to transition to a green economy fairly and consider their own contributions to climate change. There have also been calls for foundations to fund supporting civil society and green social movements, investment in green research and public education.

Conservation charities will likely play a big role in carbon capture via forest and peatland maintenance and restoration. However, facing the same financial challenges as the rest of the sector, and despite extra government funding, it is uncertain what their future will be.

Meeting social and resilience needs from climate change

Despite the push to stop climate change, its impact is already being felt and charities will have a role in meeting the needs of people most at risk as well as needing to adapt their own operations. The biggest concern is the impact of changing weather: increased temperatures and natural disasters will have an impact on food and water supplies and quality, diseases, and air pollution and allergens which would have a significant effect on those most at risk in terms of housing and shelter, food and public health.

Changing weather has already seen the plight of climate refugees – of which there has been over 700,000 within Europe in the last decade – as the result of displacement due to coastal erosion and floods. On this and other issues, central and local government and charities will need to consider the impact of climate change on public services and emergency response plans for floods and other disasters. Given the changes in emergency response plans in recent decades, this will likely involve communities and plans to mobilise volunteers during emergencies and there will be valuable learning from how this was done throughout the covid-19 pandemic. Charities should consider the potential impacts of climate change into risk assessments and business planning.

Moving forward

Questions your organisation might want to consider:

  • With climate change becoming a top political and public priority, what role do you see your charity playing in influencing this agenda?
  • In what ways could your charity’s trading activities benefit from ethical consumerism? Which of your charity’s activities could become more environmentally sustainable?
  • How does your charity’s approach to climate change fit with your activities and outlook on economic, social and racial inequalities?
  • Are there lessons from the covid-19 pandemic which could be used in your charity’s response to climate change?
  • What role do you see for your charity in influencing the green economic recovery? What changes in the sector?
  • How could your charity support climate change solutions on a local level and who would you work with?