A friend recently explained that ‘if you want to make people’s lives better you need to prioritise solving social problems such as poverty first. Looking after the environment comes after.’
Environmental sustainability is often discussed and debated separately from the social agenda. But should this be the case? Is the notion of environmental sustainability irrelevant to the work of tens of thousands of UK charities that work with social issues? The Energy Bill Revolution suggests otherwise—a campaign to end the energy bill crisis that involves Age UK, Barnardo’s, MS Society and around 30 other social charities as well as a number of large environmental charities, including Greenpeace and WWF.
Heat escaping from windows, doors and walls causes energy usage to skyrocket during winter, contributing to the UK’s large carbon emissions. The interest in this problem for a broad spectrum of ‘green’ charities is clear, so where do charities dealing with social issues come into the picture? The link lies in fuel poverty: with rising energy prices, many people can’t afford to heat their houses sufficiently. Living in cold conditions impacts directly and indirectly on people’s mental and physical health, and is particularly dangerous for older people, children, and people with disabilities—many of the vulnerable groups that charities work with.
The campaign offers a straightforward solution: the government should spend the income it gets from carbon taxes on making homes more energy efficient (eg, through better insulation and renewable energy), cutting both energy bills and carbon emissions. Essentially, it’s a two-birds-with-one-stone situation. And its voice is coming through strong, with 201 MPs supporting the cause so far.
Leaving the campaign aside for a moment, it’s not hard to imagine other issue areas in which there would be benefits for social charities in being able to prove a positive environmental impact as well as a social impact. We need only think about the correlation between pollution and health, or food waste and food poverty—and the list is much longer. Incorporating the environmental aspect could potentially give social charities increased leverage in advocacy within these issues, as well as access to an additional pool of resources, namely foundations and funders particularly interested in supporting ‘sustainability’ projects.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that social charities should shift their focus away from what they’re best at. But I do think the Energy Bill Revolution signals an important move away from thinking about social and environmental impact as two separate worlds. It will be interesting to see whether the Energy Bill initiative is a one-off, or if we will see more issues around which social charities unite fronts with green charities.