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July 6, 2021

Climate commons

Elinor Ostrum, the political economist who died in 2012, once declared, ‘there is no reason to believe that bureaucrats and politicians, no matter how well meaning, are better at solving problems than the people on the spot, who have the strongest incentive to get the solution right’. Her theories applied to the stewardship of natural resources by indigenous peoples which are threatened as never before by the climate and nature emergency.  Think tank IPPR have worked with Ostrum’s ideas and argue that a ‘climate commons’ should be acknowledged as the locus of community action on the climate emergency.




The climate crisis, and the response to it, present opportunities for communities in the UK as well as threats. The threats that communities face range from the impacts of the climate crisis itself (flooding, heatwaves) to the impacts of the economic transition (jobs, industries), as well as the need to make changes within neighbourhoods and local areas to reduce carbon emissions and meet the challenges of the transition. But, managed well, the transition to a greener economy offers the opportunity to reshape local areas in a way that improves health and wellbeing, tackles inequalities and improves quality of life. 

The next wave of decarbonisation will impact people and communities far more than it has to date and so must necessarily involve them more too. There will be changes to industry, food, land use, transport, housing and planning, right across every aspect of the economy and society, in a way that everyone and all communities will see and feel. 

Communities across the country are already making progress in collectively addressing the climate crisis. Our report highlights the breadth and depth of local community innovation that is happening across the country, where local people are coming together to create shared low carbon assets and in so doing improve their health, wellbeing and local neighbourhood, while reducing poverty and increasing local control. This is what we describe as ‘local climate commons’ – local stewardship of resources, created and owned locally, for example community owned wind or solar, community land trusts creating affordable low carbon homes and local food cooperatives.

Climate action is often not the primary goal for many successful community-led initiatives – emissions reductions are often a co-benefit. Local climate commons are increasing community wealth, agency and regeneration, creating thriving places while also addressing the climate crisis. 

At present, we are neither making the most of the opportunities available nor managing the unequal negative impacts of the climate crisis and the transition. Policy responses are too dependent on top-down interventions to manage the mitigation and adaptation efforts, on market solutions, or are too reliant on achieving individual behaviour change, when it is a collective response that is required. 

For communities to thrive in a climate changing world they must be given greater ownership and agency not just over the process of the transition but of the assets and benefits that arise from it. Such an approach will result in better policy and fairer outcomes, as it is communities, and their local leaders, who have the best understanding of their local areas – the geography, the assets, and its strengths and weaknesses. 


If local communities are to be successful and thrive in a climate changing world, this report finds that a number of barriers must be overcome, and crucial issues recognised. 

  • A vision for action: Successful cases of community action are able to articulate a strong vision for how their projects deliver direct benefits to the community rather than just focussing on addressing the climate crisis alone. 
  • Local framing drives engagement: Community initiatives are more likely to be successful when they resonate with or help create common community identities and align with perceived shared interests. 
  • Inclusion and diversity: Ensuring the objectives of climate justice deliver social and racial justice helps broaden participation and ensure community action delivers for all members of the community. 
  • Volunteer engagement: Where community-level climate action relies on voluntary time, success centres on the ability to foster inclusive voluntary engagement. 
  • External, professional support: Professional support, to guide a community group through the complex, technical planning hurdles is a key enabling factor to success.
  • Funding support: Funding is often critical to success, but it must be invested in people as well as the projects at a community level, led by local needs and available over the long term. 
  • The importance of networks: Projects which facilitate relationships between people and different organisations within a community are more effective.