How can we support local climate leaders in a cost-of-living crisis?

The UK’s Energy Security and Net-Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho posted on X this week that “when any nation has to choose between net-zero and keeping their citizens safe and warm, believe me, they’ll choose to keep the lights on”.

The post coincided with a confirmation from her Department that it will, as a strategic priority, support the construction of new gas-fired power station to provide backup electricity generation capacity.

This decision – part of the Government’s wider push for a ‘more pragmatic’ net-zero transition that also includes North Sea oil and gas expansion –  has proven unanimously unpopular across the green economy, given the UK’s pledge to bring all gas-fired electricity generation without carbon capture offline by 2035. Moreover, it has been flagged that lower-carbon alternatives such as energy storage and demand-side flexibility do exist but are being sidelined by Coutinho’s team.

Others have argued that Coutinho’s changes could do little to impact the UK’s gas power plant stock but will doubtless feed in to the positioning of net-zero as a wedge issue at the upcoming general election.

Ahead of Ashden’s appearance at edie 24 next week (scroll down for details), the climate charity’s CEO provided his advice on communications to galvinise locally-led environmental initiatives throughout the current recession and mega-election year, which have made for much short-termism.

He explained: “We know that the changes happening to our climate and our nature are getting faster. This is very fast, and very serious. But most ordinary people don’t see it. If it’s a difficult day, it’s because they’re on the edge of survival financially.

“Going out there and saying ‘we are on a precipice so you simply have to buy in to this green agenda’ will not work. People want to be told what will make their lives better, because so many of us are struggling right now. They need a vision of the green transition which is about having it all.

“So when we go out and talk to people in our local areas, it’s important that we start with the things that people need and want now. They need warm, dry homes. They need affordable and reliable public transport. They need clean air. They need space to go outside, for free, to relax. They need careers. They want their children to have good chances to succeed. We have to communicate that this is all possible… and can be built through tending to our environment.”

Talk and action

Ashden is a charity which specialises not only in communicating the possibility of a sustainable future, but taking action to create the change needed. It provides funding, practical support and amplification to innovators and community project leaders in the UK and in the Global South.

An annual award scheme is one way of providing this amplification. 2023 winners included a solar skills academy in Nigeria that also helps women into employment and a British home retrofit project through which social housing providers can generate extra income from accessing the carbon credits market.

Beyond the award scheme, Ashden runs several year-round projects, with focus areas ranging from clean energy access in sub-Saharan Africa, to nature-based climate projects in South America, to building energy efficiency and community garden projects in the UK.

Sinha believes that, regardless of policy flip-flopping or stagnation, the people leading such projects remain energised to continue and accelerate their work.

Reflecting on his attendance of COP28 in Dubai late last year, Sinha said: “I know there’s always a lot of emissions generated through COPs and invariably there are lobbyists there, including from the fossil fuel industry and others trying to frustrate progress.

“On the other hand, I felt that the bulk of people I met at COP28 wanted to get stuff done. Businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and not-for-profits came wanting to collaborate with other people and advance decarbonisation and adaptation in a way that also furthers social justice outcomes. That’s a very positive development; it is the silver lining of having such a bloated activity.”

A record 100,400+ people registered to attend COP28, which ultimately concluded with a new international agreement for nations to reduce the production and consumption of fossil fuels in a manner aligned with global net-zero by 2050.

Sinha added: “COPs are important to set a direction of travel for the world and to hold national governments to account… and, yes, we need that. But I get a real sense of momentum from people outside of the political space wanting to get on with the business of addressing the climate emergency. That is extremely encouraging.”

Building networks and finance

A key part of Ashden’s reasons for attending COP28 was to “amplify” and “showcase” its award-winners on the international stage, with this global meeting providing ripe opportunities for startups and scaleups in the Global South to receive backing from investors in the Global North.

The business presence at this particular COP was notable. The UAE Presidency team included a summit specifically for business leaders and philanthropists for the first time, and organisations like the We Mean Business Coalition and World Business Council for Sustainable Development had spaces in the Blue Zone – the part of the conference venue in which world leaders and official negotiators meet.

“The clamour of opposing action has gotten louder – possibly because they know they are on the wrong side of history,” said Sinha. “In this context, it’s so important for progressive businesses to be standing up and saying they want policymakers to be ambitious.”

edie asks Sinha whether progressive organisations which are smaller and potentially operate on a not-for-profit basis face practical barriers as well as ideological ones in this era of polycrisis.

He notes that while a lot of investors are looking to back solutions, they may still be looking through the lens of short-term returns rather than multiple systems-level benefits over the long-term. To change mindsets, he argues, a reframing of relationships may be needed.

“We go into these business opportunities not asking how much profit can be squeezed out of them, but looking at investors partnering with local innovators to deliver a genuine approach towards commercialising clean energy solutions to achieve the economic and social development needs of communities.”

Investors may also, in Sinha’s view, need to rethink how they assess risk and determine good governance to account for the realities of businesses operating, for example, in an off-grid region or in a humanitarian setting like a refugee camp.

“A general investor will perceive this as a very fragile place, making very high risk for them.

“But, from working with people in these settings, I know they have some of the strongest social networks on the planet and are experts in keeping communities together. These people are not a risk – they are a rock-solid investment in many ways.”


Ashden will be represented at edie 24, taking place on 20 and 21 March 2024 in Central London.

edie 24 is the brand’s largest face-to-face event of the year and will convene hundreds of sustainability and energy leaders in for two monumental days of keynote speeches, panel debates, unparallelled networking opportunities, interactive workshops and more.

Experts speaking on this year’s packed agenda include:

  • Chris Packham, renowned naturalist and presenter
  • Chris Skidmore, author of the Net-Zero Review
  • Claire O’Neill, chair of the WBCSD and former UK Minister for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy
  • Chris Stark, outgoing CEO of the Climate Change Committee
  • Hannah Cornick, head of sustainability and social innovation at Danone
  • Natalie Belu, co-CEO of Belu and independent candidate for London’s Mayoral Elections

Tickets for the event are available now on an individual, group and sharing basis, with a full price list available here.

With places limited, edie users are encouraged to book edie 24 tickets now. You can secure your place here.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie