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How can the social sector catch-up and keep up with the transition to net zero?

By Liz Gadd 5 July 2021 4 minute read

When so many other issues demand the attention of the social sector, many are asking how we can catch-up and keep on top of activities to address the climate crisis. The climate emergency is too urgent and all-encompassing for environmental activists, charities and funders to work on alone. Without stronger engagement from the social sector, opportunities will be missed and the communities we support risk being left behind or disadvantaged by changes to the climate and changes to climate related policy. This blog details our recent roundtable on how the social sector can embrace its role in the transition to a net carbon zero economy.

The world is waking up to the urgency of the climate emergency and the government has committed to ambitious carbon reduction goals here in the UK. The transition to a low carbon way of life is already underway, but in the UK and globally we are insufficiently prepared for the upcoming changes to our lifestyles. The pace of change will increase, and we should now expect a rapid, disorderly transition, given the urgency that is required.

If not managed well, some of the most vulnerable in our society could be hardest hit, not only by climate change itself, but by the measures introduced by countries to manage and mitigate it. Yet many social charities and funders, that work with and represent these people, are yet to respond to the climate emergency. And it is hardly surprising. This sector is already dealing with massive challenges, from responding to heightened need as a result of the pandemic to experiencing a loss of funding and the necessity for redundancies in some cases. Not to mention, the ripples of Brexit continue be felt by many in the sector.

The low carbon transition will undoubtedly benefit some groups. Children, people with respiratory health conditions, and those living in cold and damp housing will benefit from improved air quality and better insulated homes. However, others may do less well if policies are poorly implemented. For example, people on low incomes and those reliant on personal transport, such as those with disabilities and older people, may find the cost of their traditional transportation options increase. Plus, we will all experience an increase in heatwaves and an increase in rainfall, which will bringing more frequent flooding.

With international climate agreements and national climate plans due this year, social charities and their funders need to quickly understand what the climate transition means for them and for the people that they work with.

What the social sector needs to do now

On 16 June 2021, we brought together a roundtable of charities and funders to discuss how our sector can embrace its role in the transition to a net carbon zero economy. Our attendees identified three key areas where action is required:

1. Create space to reflect on the opportunities of the net zero transition

[We need] the breathing space to think long term … across the different challenges and how we can have a … better approach … we need help, as we look at our net zero strategy, to really focus in on the stuff that really materially matters.

Roundtable participant

The social sector is under pressure. The recovery from Covid-19 and the associated economic challenges will be a long process. The sector needs space for reflection and to have key information provided in an easily accessible and digestible format, to enable informed conversations. This will empower the sector to understand and maximise the opportunities and benefits associated with the transition to net zero.

2. Lay foundations for future policy collaboration

The upshot is just everybody calling for loads of money, and ultimately that cannot realistically be delivered at scale … there needs to be a much more integrated and holistic approach to the policy proposition that people are putting forward.

Roundtable participant

The social sector needs to collaborate on policy influencing, to ensure that the needs and voices of all communities are represented. However, further work is required to enable this collaboration. The sector needs support in order to understand the common ground, and to frame the narrative across social and environmental organisations.

3. Develop leadership to manage climate risks

The level of awareness of the risks of climate change which affect charities’ missions and operations is very low … the Charity Commission guidance around risk is ten years old, there’s no mention of, well, there’s no real question of climate change at all.

Roundtable participant

What made a big difference with [our] trustees was really that awareness of the significance of the risk to the operations and significance of the risk to income, and that was what drove … trustees to raise their ambition, time and time again on climate change.

Roundtable participant

The social sector needs support to understand and mitigate the risk, to their operations and to the communities they support, in the transition to net zero. Risk management will require strong leadership, to navigate the challenges ahead and to maximise the opportunities that the transition presents for communities. Sector leaders are increasingly stepping into this space and ACEVO is working with senior leaders across the sector to develop climate leadership. The social sector’s trustees need to be aware of the opportunities and the risks, and be empowered to play their role in support of their organisations. Funders also have a critical role to play in supporting the social sector’s climate leadership, through sharing their insights and learning as well as providing funding.

A sea-change in how the sector understands the climate crisis

NPC will be using its experience as a trusted and independent convener, to collaborate with charities, funders, infrastructure bodies, existing coalitions, and experts on carbon reduction, to take forward the actions set out above and to further explore what it will take for the UK social sector to play its role in the transition to net carbon zero by 2030. Our aim is to spur a sea-change in how the social sector understands this role of responding to the climate crisis and also how it can do this while continuing to meet its social mission. We will also facilitate increased conversations between social and environmental organisations, to enable them to support and amplify each other’s messages.

We will be working with partners to develop our plans over the coming months. We will begin with two low-resource working groups that will look at:

  • Creating space for a broader group of social charities to understand the opportunities and risks that climate change will pose to their organisations and the people they work with and for.
  • Creating more common ground for climate campaigning between social and environmental charities.

If you would like to be involved in co-designing our next steps, or if you would like to have a more detailed conversation about collaboration, please contact

The recent roundtable was composed of 18 charities, funders and infrastructure bodies, including ACEVO, ACF, Asthma UK, British Lung Foundation, Citizens Advice, Green Alliance, the Health Foundation, John Ellerman Foundation, Mencap, Rethink Mental Illness, Shelter, Samworth Foundation, Save the Children, Swire Charitable Trust.

Image shows the logos of ACEVO, ACF, Asthma UK, British Lung Foundation, Citizens Advice, Green Alliance and the John Ellerman Foundation

Image shows the logos of Mencap, Rethink Mental Illness, Shelter, Samworth Foundation, Save the Children, Swire Charitable Trust

Many charities and funders are yet to respond to the climate emergency. Here's how the social sector can embrace its role in the transition to net zero. If not managed well, the most vulnerable in our society risk being left behind: Click To Tweet