Channel takes on the carbon challenge

Garry Charnock is a retired engineer and journalist who lives in a village named Ashton Hayes in Cheshire, England. To see his face and hear him speak, go to Youtube and search for his name and his village.

You’ll discover he’s a self-assured chap who knows how to work the system. In 2005 – back before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came to the screen – he went to a meeting where a scientist and a businessman discussed climate change. He came away knowing something had to happen, and that nothing would happen if no-one stepped up. 

So he stepped up. It started at the pub (as many good things do), where to his surprise his quiz team pressed him to seek approval from his local parish council to get his village to become carbon-neutral.

The council approved his project by three votes to two – not a ringing endorsement – on condition he joined the council (they were short a few members), didn’t expect money from them, showed that the community would engage and freely shared all the information he gathered.

Charnock got on the phone to local business people he knew. Within two days he had cheques for £3600 – around $7000 – from donors who also said they’d provide extra help in kind. He roped in teachers and children at the local school who made advertising posters.

Charnock’s team expected 50-odd people at a school hall meeting on a freezing January night, but 400, three-quarters of all villagers, turned up – probably enticed by the promise of a free glass of English sparkling wine (a windfall from global warming) bought out of the donated funds.

The meeting agreed to ground rules that information had to be freely exchanged, activities had to be fun and politicians could not take leading roles. And there was to be no arguing over global warming and climate science.

The village team got to work. Children used a supplied plug-in monitoring device to cajole the adults in their lives to change the way they did things, including improving home insulation. One family managed to reduce its entire annual carbon footprint to 5.21 tonnes, compared with a current Australian average – per person – of well over 20 tonnes.

The word got out, and Ashton Hayes began to figure prominently in news reports about “the village that could”. Government grants from 2006 to 2019 added up to $1.5 million, enabling the village to fit solar panels to every rooftop, build a sports centre and buy the Golden Lion (the pub where it all started). All while reducing emissions, without offsets, by 40 per cent.

Phil Tomney is an action man; like Charnock he’s a retired engineer from the UK. As an immigrant to Tasmania he joined the Kettering Community Association and persuaded it to join forces with next-door Snug, Coningham and Woodbridge to become “Net Zero Channel”, Tasmania’s first net-zero community.

Coming 16 years after Ashton Hayes started on its carbon-neutral journey, this will be a challenge. The English village has enjoyed a serious advantage over any Australian town: bipartisan political agreement on strong climate policies. Ashton Hayes has benefited handsomely from long-established national funding programs.

Thirty years ago a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, of all people, responded to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit by setting up a public-private partnership called the Energy Saving Trust. Successors, both Conservative and Labour, have maintained national energy efficiency grants schemes ever since. 

That’s a massive head start on the partisan divisions that have stymied climate policy here. Programs managed over the years by Tasmania’s Climate Change Office (now with a politically-charged new title, “Renewables, Climate and Future Industries Tasmania”) have suffered from frequent policy shifts. It’s a sad truth that no-one at the top has grasped the grave reality of climate change and the need for continuing bipartisan programs.

Rather than government handouts, Net Zero Channel will pursue real actions in real communities. It knows that its value lies in the example it sets, spreading the word that becoming a real climate champion – not a confected, statistical one – takes effort and commitment. 

This is a two-way street. While it’s increasingly important for people to engage with the climate challenge, it’s also good for their health. There’s nothing more draining than watching a threat grow and feeling separated from it, powerless to do anything. Community programs are genuine therapy, a counterpunch against the blight of our age, alienation. 

A public meeting at Kettering Hall at 6.30 pm on Thursday week, 12 May, will discuss ideas and pathways leading to a carbon-free future for Channel communities.

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