Environmental drivers

Rise of political and public recognition

The political debate over climate change has shifted from scientific evidence towards what actions to take to limit global warming.

Environmental sustainability and responding to climate change continue to increase as public priorities, matched with growing political support from the government and opposition who have both committed to net zero carbon by 2050, and to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Recent polling shows that the public is supportive of action from government, business, industry and energy suppliers to tackle climate change.

Emerging divisions on the environment and climate change relate much more to the level, cost and pace of change and degree of responsibility of different sectors to ensure a fair, inclusive transition towards a green economy.

Charities and civil society will continue to play a major role in influencing the environment and climate debate, whether through the government on issues such as improving wastewater infrastructure or direct action such as marches, sit-ins, and walkouts during the UN Climate Change Summit (COP26) last November.

In the immediate future, COP26 will likely remain as a rallying point for civil society to pressure government to translate pro-environment commitments and perspectives into government policies to meet net-zero targets.

Changing practices during the pandemic – no going back vs pressure to ‘return to normal’

The pandemic has seen massive changes in behaviour resulting in a big, albeit temporary, reduction in emissions and air pollution.

More people are working from home, are more likely to cycle and walk, and have been less likely to fly abroad. Local authorities have introduced car-free streets, pop-up cycle lanes and low-emissions zones.

The end of lockdown restrictions and the return to commuting and international air travel provide a challenge of meeting an estimated 72% cut in transport emissions by 2035 to meet net zero by 2050.

Rising train fares, coupled with increased use of international flights and an announced decrease in domestic aviation taxes in the spending review, send confusing signals.

Responding to climate change will require increased public transport use, which needs to be cheaper and incentivise lower polluting options.

Going forward, charities and civil society will have a role in informing green urban planning design, such as lower emissions zones, car free streets, and public transport to better address inequalities.

This would include more regular, accessible, integrated public transport to underserved communities and more inclusive design and dispensation for disabled people who rely on vehicle transport and/or accessible public transport.

Role of charities and civil society in climate change

As more scrutiny falls on the public and private sectors, the voluntary sector is thinking about how it can advocate for the environment and embed sustainable practices.

Campaigns such as Crack the Crises and the Climate Coalition each involve a diverse range of subsectors beyond environmental ones.

The voluntary sector can hold national and local governments to account on environmental issues such as meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals and 2019 manifesto promises to make sure policy proposals meet net-zero.

It can act as a voice and mobiliser to counter the political and financial influence of powerful lobbies such as coal, oil, gas and privatised utilities in mobilising support against:

Alongside this, to oppose practices like:

This also requires challenging rural landowners, including custodial requirements to rewild and reforest, maintain and strengthen flood defences, and end moor burnings and peat mining.

One approach is to promote nature as a human right. Organisations such as the Ramblers and the group Right to Roam advocate improvements to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to increase right of access across wildland and waterways.

While others suggest cheap public transport from cities to nature and more national parks on urban fringes.

However, the diversity of the sector can present a challenge to finding common ground across the voluntary sector.

This includes the different priorities and standards between subsectors (for example, animal rights and vegetarian/vegan organisations) and some charities' reliance on activities like driving.

Charities and green levelling up

The case continues to grow for a green levelling up. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Environmental Justice Commission’s final report recommended:

  • a localised approach involving green housing
  • jobs and retraining informed by citizens assemblies
  • local power to take charge of land and buildings
  • and free public transport.

Conservation charities could play a key role in carbon capture through rewilding land and oceans, reforesting and peatlands protection. 

The Green Alliance argues that such activities have a high cost-benefit ratio especially in creating jobs in areas with greater employment challenges.

Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain have produced research advocating natural regeneration of forests and nature with an interactive map of potential rewilding and woodland locations across England. 

Wildlife and Countryside Link and other campaigners have lobbied the government to establish a National Nature Service to support a jobs-driven, conservation-based recovery.

Many charities are already practising or thinking about sustainability including practices such as recycling, green office buildings through:

  • insulation
  • wind and solar generation,
  • applications to procurement
  • investment and pensions schemes
  • and sponsorships and partnerships.

Such behavioural changes will require charities to embed Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) in identifying and mitigating risks. 

This requires access to funding especially for smaller charities, including grant funding that includes an allocation to fund sustainability in projects or one-off expenses such as insulation.

Lessons from pandemic and climate change

Responses to the covid-19 pandemic continue to provide good examples of how to respond to approaching crises such as climate change. 

The IMF has highlighted common themes including rejecting short-termism in exchange for coherent, credible policies for a ‘just transition’, recognition of the role governments can play in ending systemic crisis and providing capital for technological solutions, and collaboration between governments.

Parallels have been drawn between climate and vaccine inequalities between the global north and south where, in both cases, economic inequalities and lack of resources are big barriers.

Like the ‘people’s vaccine’ campaign to lift copyright restrictions on vaccines to ramp up production and distribution through the global south, a similar large-scale transfer to the global south will be needed to cut emissions.

For example, international development funding, green finance, and technological assistance through better use of open-source and transfers of green technology.

The pandemic and the vaccine programme have also provided a parallel of the need for a new, long-term political mindset.

Economist Marianna Mazzucato, in her book Mission Economy, has argued for greater recognition of the ability of government to set big long-term goals, take risks and provide research and business development.

More evident in post-war goals like the US Apollo project and military technology like GPS and DARPA (forerunner to the internet), the revival of this approach was evident in the vaccination development in reaction to the pandemic.

An approach to climate change that both uses the lessons of the pandemic and is led by government strategy could have implications especially for the work of charities involved in areas like conservation and international development.

Immediate needs of climate change mitigation

Despite a greater public and political willpower to address climate change, charities will inevitably need to consider the impacts which are already happening. 

Gradual coastal erosion and  increasingly erratic weather patterns such as nature fires and rainfall and flooding and higher temperatures have caused massive disruption in 2021.

The impact of weather changes falls disproportionately on working-class neighbourhoods which are more likely to be in low-lying areas that are more prone to floods and lack green space during heatwaves.

Higher temperatures are also more likely to affect people in urban areas and those with pre-existing health conditions. Charities will likely see rising service demand due to the impact of weather changes including illness, material loss and displacement from homes.

Any potential solutions that the voluntary sector might advocate for or be involved in, such as flood barriers and drainage, green infrastructure to cool homes and buildings, and green spaces to reduce temperatures, will need to consider how spending and activities can be allocated fairly.

Our research found that charities that had been involved in emergency responses prior to 2020 were in a much stronger position once the pandemic started.

Charities involved in emergency planning for increased natural disasters will likely adopt newer ways of working that emerged during the pandemic.

A new culture of collaboration between local authorities, national government, charities and mutual aid groups can be a model for flood prevention strategies such as:

  • building and maintaining flood-barriers
  • reforesting and rewilding
  • and mobilisation of emergency services, relief supplies and volunteers.

Questions for your organisation to consider

  • What role can your charity play in supporting the response to climate change as part of the civil society and political agenda?
  • How do your charity’s activities integrate fairly with social and racial justice?
  • What would be the environmental impact of your charity’s working arrangements? How can your plans support and advocate for inclusive working and commuting arrangements and accessibility of your services?
  • What would be the likely impact of climate change on your beneficiaries?
  • What collaborative actions could you take in holding the voluntary sector to account?
  • What contributions can your charity make to green levelling up on a local level?
  • What areas could your charity improve on to make its operations more sustainable?
  • What plans do you have for your organisation around risk mitigation for natural climate disasters? How would your charity assist in natural climate disasters and who would you work with?

Further information

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 18 January 2022