English village strives for carbon neutrality | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 04.10.2016
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English village strives for carbon neutrality

Tired of politicians failing to address climate change, people in a small village in England have taken matters into their own hands. They are working toward full carbon neutrality - using sheer community spirit.

South of Manchester, Ashton Hayes is a collection of tweed cottages and pretty houses, nestled between green fields and trees. But for the past 10 years, this small village has been showing world leaders how to save the planet.

"I switched things off, wore more jumpers, changed how I used electricity - for example, I never used it after that for heating water," says local Kate Harrison, as a way of explaining how she managed to cut her energy consumption by a whopping 60 percent over a short period of time.

"Eventually I replaced my boiler for a much more efficient one - and just threw myself into the project, really."

Großbritannien Ashton Hayes, CO2-neutrales Dorf in England

Solar panels have sprung up in the most unlikely places, like in this field

First carbon-neutral village

Kate, like a number of other locals, got inspired 10 years ago when another villager proposed the already close-knit community get together to try to become England's first carbon-neutral town.

"I went to the first meeting, liked what I heard, and decided to go home to do something about it," she says. Making carbon emission cuts can be that simple - but in the decade since the carbon neutral project started, much more has been done.

"We've recently completely covered the primary school roof with panels, and that has actually since May made the school carbon negative," explains Garry Charnock, a former journalist who first presented the carbon neutral idea to a group of friends during a pub quiz.

"The school exports more energy than it uses. And the school is delighted because it saves them a small fortune."

Creating energy

The village now has a community-owned renewable energy company, which rents roof space from several other public buildings too. The venture harnesses solar power and generates profits to reinvest into projects aimed to make the village even more sustainable.

Elsewhere, people have installed their own solar panels, cut down on flights, changed their cars and stopped using their tumble dryers. And it turns out every little bit really does help.

Infographic: Emissions by economic sector 2012

Data shown is from 2012, the most recent available

"We got a reduction in our domestic carbon emissions of about 20 percent in the first year, and we've increased that slightly," explains local resident Roy Alexander. "If we look at some individual houses that were present in the survey in both 2006 and 2015, the average there is at least 33 percent - more than that if we include carbon offsets for flying," he adds.

Alexander is a professor of environmental sustainability at the nearby University of Chester, and has been responsible for several detailed surveys of the village's energy consumption over the 10 years the carbon neutral project has been running. He is convinced local action is needed to make real change to the world's climate challenges.

Großbritannien Ashton Hayes, CO2-neutrales Dorf in England, Roy Alexander

Roy Alexander, professor of environmental sustainability, University of Chester

"What's being planned by governments falls short of the commitments made at the Paris climate summit," he says. "But if we can bring on all the population making those small changes in their lifestyles, then we can help fill that gap between what's been committed and what we need to do."

No politicians

There has been plenty of political interest in the project, and several visits from London government officials. Yet the villagers have been keen to keep party politics completely out of it. Governments' inaction or inadequate response to the challenges of climate change was partly why they decided to go it alone.

"We've had quite a few politicians who have been allowed to come and listen and find out more, but they've never been allowed to address us," says Garry Charnock.

"We wanted to keep this a non-combative environment. Just to encourage people not to point the finger, but say 'what can we do in our own sphere of influence.'"

Local produce

The village shop, also owned by the community, is further evidence of the commitment to cutting carbon emissions. Local produce abounds, from honey and vegetables to cheese and meat.

Großbritannien Ashton Hayes, CO2-neutrales Dorf in England

Kate Harrison (left), and Deb Deynem shopping for local produce

"We have some lovely cakes here, these are made by Heather who actually works in the shop as well," says shop manager Deb Deynem. When the shop was threatened with closure, the community got together and bought it, she explains.

"Had we not saved the shop, we would have had to travel 3 miles [about 5 kilometers] to the nearest store, which again is not good for the environment," she adds.

Ashton Hayes is still some way off from its goal of becoming completely carbon neutral - but that doesn't really matter, locals say. What sets this project apart is the way that people have taken the matter of climate change into their own hands, and actually done something about it - unlike the governments of many countries, which continue to discuss without taking concrete action.

And their message is spreading: Some 200 towns and cities from around the world have been in touch to learn from this village's experience.

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