A greener future is essential and possible - The work of Swale Friends of the Earth

By Anna Stanford

On a warm market day in September 2019, a loud and colourful protest snaked through Faversham demanding action on climate change. Striking students were voicing their demand that those in power really must do better.


Just weeks before, the new administration at Swale Borough Council had passed a motion to declare a climate and ecological emergency, and set ambitious targets for the borough to be carbon neutral by 2030.


Whether inspired by Greta Thunberg, concerned by the science, or simply in need of cheaper energy bills and a warmer home, the public appears to be on board about the need to cut carbon emissions. Climate sceptics have become an endangered species.


Beating climate breakdown


But, despite greater awareness, record levels of renewable energy generation and a sudden boom in the electric vehicle market, we are still not doing enough. Experts say we have to throw every technological, cultural and economic solution at the problem. Climate change therefore remains a priority issue for Swale Friends of the Earth and we’ve joined a growing UK network of Climate Action Groups campaigning for faster progress.


To avoid dangerous climate change, we need to keep global warming below 1.5 ˚C, but it’s touch and go. In 2020 the world was 1.28 ˚C warmer than pre-industrial times and 2020 was the second hottest year on record, according to the Met Office. We are seeing the consequences around us – from more frequent floods, storms and melting Arctic ice, to heatwaves, wildfires and droughts. And it is always poor and disenfranchised people who are hardest hit.


But if anything characterises FoE’s approach, it’s optimism. While we must raise awareness of problems, we must also empower people with positive, pragmatic solutions. We have the technology, we understand the science, polls show there is a mandate from the public, and even business is on board – what we need now is political will. Just like the Montreal Protocol closed the ozone hole, swift action at scale can solve the climate crisis. Government policy to ban new diesel and petrol cars is already accelerating the electric vehicle market.


A Green Recovery from Covid-19


It’s even possible we have seen carbon emissions peak with the help of Covid-19. Data this month indicates that they’re starting to rise again, but the pandemic has shown what can be done when humanity is faced with a crisis – how quickly we can act and how we can find different and innovative ways of doing things.


So Swale FoE has joined with others in the environmental movement to push for a Green and Fair Recovery. The past year has been very difficult but we have also seen a new sense of community (Faversham is a fantastic example of neighbourly support during lockdown), and a greater appreciation of the beauty and value of nature. We need to hang on to this and build on the vision of a better, cleaner and greener world, with less traffic – and more birdsong!


Sadly, the government might not have got the memo. The recent budget practically ignored the environment and the green industrial revolution, and Johnson’s 10-point climate plan is light on detail. Warm words have been spoken about sustainable travel but billions of pounds are still being spent on the road-building programme, even though investing in cycling and public transport would save lives, NHS resources and precious wildlife habitats. Here in Kent we have easy access to the Eurostar but this more eco-friendly form of foreign travel could go bust if it doesn’t get the kind of financial support given to airlines (there’s a petition doing the rounds on this). Investment in a massive nationwide home insulation programme would be an easy win – slashing carbon emissions, creating jobs, cutting fuel bills and improving people’s health and comfort – but the programme is unambitious.


A simple measure like doubling tree cover across England would help absorb CO2 while providing homes for nature. And supporting investment in green and cheap renewable energy technologies would provide skilled jobs and careers for our young people. FoE has just launched a call for the government to invest up to £10 billion in five years to create 250,000 green apprenticeships – research shows that more than 500,000 people aged 16-24 are now out of work, but the opportunities are huge.


Later this year the UK will host the global climate conference in Glasgow (COP26) – a critical opportunity for greater greenhouse gas limits to be set. Let’s see if the government matches its actions to its rhetoric.


Thinking globally, acting locally


All of these are live campaign issues for Swale FoE and anyone interested can find out more – and send a message to decision-makers – through our website.


While the group’s activities have been curtailed over the past 12 months, our members have stayed active signing petitions, joining meetings on Zoom, sharing our news on social media, picking litter, planting trees (such as the brilliant £50M Woodland Carbon Guarantee project which encourages farmers to plant trees), building wildlife-friendly gardens or just keeping the environmental conversation going. It all makes a difference.


In June 2020 we met MP Helen Whately during the ‘Time is Now’ virtual lobby of parliament, asking her to support a green recovery. Disappointingly, she was the only general election candidate at our green hustings in 2019 to decline to sign a climate pledge.


A new campaign for us this year will be lobbying Kent County Council to divest its pension funds from fossil fuels. New research has shown that KCC is funding the climate crisis to the tune of £210 million.


Locally, we are seeing genuine commitment from our councils and practical action on our streets to address the climate and biodiversity crises, such as installation of EV charging points, tree giveaways, the speed limit campaign 20’s Plenty, and plans to make Faversham pesticide-free. We are lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world we need to protect and enhance it, drawing on Faversham’s community spirit and local groups like Faversham Trees.


Making a hands-on difference


Last year Covid meant we did a Tiny Creek Clean instead of our usual big event, but we’ll be back and it’s great to see Plastic Free Faversham and the new Swale Litter Squad out and about. Another of our popular events – our Green Christmas Market in the Guildhall – was transformed into a virtual event on our website, enabling us to support local businesses and charities with a free listing during difficult times.


Through the Wilding the Rec project, which we initiated in 2019, volunteers have planted several thousand woodland bulbs and a mini orchard at Faversham Recreation Ground. The council has taken forward many improvements during lockdown and the Making a Buzz garden is taking shape. We were delighted when Faversham was named ‘Neighbourhood with the Best Buzz’ by Kent Wildlife Trust and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.


And, talking of bees, we hope to continue with our local schools talks, teaching young children about the importance of wildlife and insects and the fun things they can do to help our threatened pollinators.


A greener future


Looking forward to 2021 we are opening up our group to more opportunities to get involved (we’re looking for help with press, the website and campaign roles like green living, planning and development). We’ll continue to share top tips we can all take in our daily lives, like switching to a green electricity supplier, eating less meat and taking political action. And we’ll be tapping into the creativity and commitment of our members and the relationships we have with other brilliant and like-minded local groups to ramp up our climate and nature campaigning.


Every new report of extreme weather, environmental degradation and government indifference adds to our apprehension – and to our resolve to work for the brighter future that we know is possible. Together we can hold our politicians and big business to account, drive greater ambition and see a truly green recovery that answers the demands of our young people and provides them with a safe, sustainable and prosperous future.