December cover feature: The future's green

If greed is good was the mantra for the 1980s, the modern day version is more akin to green is good. Politically and culturally, the green/climate change agenda has taken hold in all parts of modern life and the impact within the third sector is all too evident. Charities have modified their operations to become more "green" and probably most importantly, charities, new and old, are key in actively promoting the climate change agenda.

On the political stage, the issue of climate change is now arguably the most important modern politics and society faces. A strong climate change consensus has emerged that action needs to be taken urgently to address the problem. Stephen Hale, director of think tank Green Alliance, puts it thus: "Climate change is the next big historical challenge, up there with the emancipation of women and the end of slavery." Within this historical project, the third sector has a central role.

Though, beginning from a practical standpoint, how can charities change their everyday operations to improve their green credentials?

Big challenge
Nick McAllister, procurement and commissioning executive at Acevo, says: "In the short term charities should look at mitigation and adaptation, in the longer term, look at how to meet society's issues. It is a big challenge. But the sector has a good track record in meeting sustainability over many years. That is not to say that all charities are doing enough. There has not been a focus on health and safety implications on society and that needs looking at."

In this regard, Acevo has its second sustainability report coming out in January to advise CEOs of charities. "From the position of charities there is so much going on, there is what is happening at Copenhagen, or more what is not happening, there is the change the light bulbs in your office, and there is what we can do as a society," says Belinda Pratten, senior policy officer at NCVO. "Charities need to focus on climate change from the point of view of their mission as a charity, " she says.

In this way the NCVO, ACEVO, the Green Alliance and others have been involved in the Third Sector Taskforce on Climate Change, involving third sector organisations to engage with government to move forward in a practical way. The Third Sector Task Force on Climate Change will issue a report on climate change and the sector in February.

"Third sector organisations have had a good deal of constructive discussion with government though the taskforce on the issue of how to deal with climate change on a practical level," says Pratten.

On a micro-level, charities are adapting their organisations to deal with the issue. One such charity is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), which has taken measures to become more environmentally friendly with the help of over 200 energy monitors. The monitors have been donated to the charity free of charge by company Current Cost and will be distributed to the 235 lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland.

By installing a monitor in a station, staff and volunteers will be able to identify where energy is being wasted. There are other benefits for the charity. Jo Jones, environmental manager at the RNLI, says: "The added benefit to this is that the RNLI can potentially save money in the process, which is a huge incentive. Our aim is to change habits towards energy use across the charity to reduce consumption."

Sue Ryder Care is another example. The health and social care services charity appointed a recycling business development manager to look into ways to develop green partnerships with businesses and also green ways of working across the charity. Moreover, BTCV recently achieved a 40% saving in energy costs, which inevitably released resources for core activities as well as improving their environmental impact.

Some charities, such as Pure, a UK based carbon offset charity, was set-up with the aim of combating climate change. It goes as far as saying it was the first UK charity to do this, in 2006. Pure says any charity can offset its carbon footprint.

Environmental issue
These may seem like small, token examples, but as Hale notes, it is evidence of how charities and the sector have come to deal with the issue: "What has happened over the last two to three years is that climate change has shifted from being an environmental issue, to one where it will have an impact on wider society, and you are now seeing more and more groups engaging with the issue as they see the genuine threat is poses. Third sector organisations are playing more and more of a central role, which is vital. But it is not just about carbon footprints, but dealing with the greatest threat there is to mankind."

The Charity Commission noted a number of trends among charities in its Going Green report last year. One, was that charities are often implementing environmental initiatives as a result of pressure from key individuals within the organisation - and when these individuals move on, the impetus for change can be lost.

Second, that just under half the charities surveyed either had, or were, developing, a written statement that covered environmental issues, another reflection that the issue is certainly taking hold in the sector. Also, some trustees were revealed to be concerned that engaging with environmental issues may not be a legitimate use of charity resources. But while a range of barriers were cited, concerted agreement or individual pressure usually proved successful in overcoming them.

Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, says: "As environmental sustainability moves up the agenda for all sectors, it's important that charities explore the opportunities open to them.

"This report tells us that 'greening' your organisation needn't be complex and can actually save money.We are keen to help all charities - whether they have environmental aims or not - who want to find ways of taking environmental responsibility."

Campaigning change
Arguably the most important development is how charities are now central to dealing with climate change on a wider, macro-level. The NCVO states that civil society organisations have a crucial role to play helping people and communities to meet the challenges of climate change by campaigning for change; mobilising action; and developing innovative ways of living and working.

Belinda Pratten, senior policy officer, at NCVO says: "There is a growing awareness that environmental issues will have a deep social and economic impact on the sector for communities, charity beneficiaries and their missions."

McAllister confers. "Charities have a huge role to play in dealing with the dangers of climate change. The issue of demographics alone, the shift in immigration a lack of habitable living and health services, means there will be a push on the sector."

Moreover, Stephen Hale, states in his publication The New Politics of Climate Change: "We must establish a widespread understanding of the connections between climate change and issues of poverty, housing, health, security and well-being that are of concern to so many.

"We will only succeed if we establish awareness throughout the voluntary sector of the links between climate change and a myriad of social and economic issues.We must mobilise the full power and influence of those outside government to drive political action and public behaviour. The rapid growth of action by faith and development groups, trade unions, and community initiatives, such as transition towns, are evidence that this is beginning to happen. But far more is needed."

For a larger, more international charity like Oxfam it is natural for it to take on a substantial, campaigning and raise role on the issue of climate change. It recently published a paper: Now or Never - Climate change: time to get down to business showing how companies must help to tackle climate change. In it, Oxfam warned big business is maneuvering to increase its influence on international climate change negotiations which could make the difference between an ambitious UN deal and a fatally flawed one.

Oxfam believes that climate change is today's biggest threat facing poor people and human development. The report states: "Climate change affects poor people first and worst. It is a major obstacle to development and poverty alleviation, as well as a serious threat to business supply chains and markets in developing countries. Oxfam believes that companies can help to determine whether the world wins or loses the fight against climate changes."

Climate change knocked out every other issue from the environmental activists' agenda in the last year, said a report Where are NGOs concentrating their campaigning resources? produced by SIGWatch, the NGO on NGO campaigning.

Life threatened
It is when climate change statistics predicting Armageddon are mentioned that the debate can take a different turn. According to Defra and UKCP09, the fifth generation of climate information for the UK, the data is startling. For example, warming of the global climate system is unequivocal states the data, with global average temperatures having risen by nearly 0.8

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