Tackling the climate emergency starts on your doorstep

Katharine Lewis of Helston Climate Action Group

Tackling the climate emergency starts on your doorstep

Helston Climate Action Group has brought together people of all ages and backgrounds to find imaginative – and fun – ways to cut carbon emissions. And it’s also been bringing real mental health benefits to local people during the pandemic. 

Last week, Katharine Lewis, one of the group’s founders, told a virtual meeting organised by local MP Derek Thomas and Pippa Stilwell from Cornwall Women’s Institute about how she’d been spurred into taking action on the climate and ecological emergencies in her community.

“I’m a mum and a teacher,” Katharine said. “And I’m terrified about what the future holds for our children if we continue on this path. So one day just over two years ago, I walked out of school and into my first ever council meeting, and asked them to declare a climate emergency.”

Katharine described how Helston Climate Action Group has grown since then into a dynamic force for positive change in Helston, working with a wide range of local people on community projects aimed at making the town carbon neutral by 2030 – and in a way that “leaves nobody behind”.

The Helston Climate Action Plan outlines 32 projects as part of this goal, and Katharine said that 22 are already underway, some led by Helston Climate Action, some by other local organisations, with the group’s support.

The group has been working with four Helston schools and a local nursery, organising a workshop for teachers, parents and home educators, and developing a toolkit of resources for schools.

It’s also established a Helston Repair Café, with 30 volunteers registered, to repair items that would otherwise have been thrown away. The café has proved a great way for residents to learn new skills and meet new people – and it spans the generations, involving people aged from 8 to 75+.

Helston Climate Action Group has also thrown itself behind the idea of a Forest for Helston, with 2,626 trees planted by the community across ten different locations in and around Helston. A hundred children and young people have helped with this, from three different schools.

And nature restoration isn’t just about trees – working with local volunteers and schoolchildren, the group has planted 150m2 of wildflower meadow and 1,300 spring bulbs for pollinators.

Planting for the ‘Incredible Edible Helston‘ project, Helston Climate Action Group

Then there’s the ‘Incredible Edible Helston’ project, which has created a community garden at Coronation Park with the help of 31 volunteers aged 4-75.  As well as a wide variety of flowers favoured by bees and other pollinators, the garden will feature a feast of edible plants, including hazel, cranberry, spinach, strawberries and sorrel.

Creating it has involved volunteers sharing lots of skills, from planting and tool use through to Cornish dry-stone walling. Katharine told the audience how this has been a hugely valuable way of supporting mental health and wellbeing for community residents through the Covid-19 crisis.

She also described how the group has set up a Helston Local Food Hub to help put residents in touch with local producers and cut down on food miles – and how its success has already resulted in £30,000 being kept in the local economy, as well as raising donations to a local food bank over the Christmas period.

Describing how Covid has impacted on the group’s work, Katharine said:

“This has been a very difficult time for lots of people. But so much of what we are doing is addressing these difficulties. We’ve been able to support mental health and wellbeing, support livelihoods, address food poverty. It’s possible to address both crises at the same time.

“We’ve had to learn very quickly how to make best use of social media, and this has helped us link up with people in our community who were keen to see a community larder project get started, and to encourage people to plant flowers and greenery in pots outside their front doors – to bring the streets alive again after a long, hard winter, and benefit people and nature alike, boosting our spirits and creating wildlife corridors through our town.”

Katharine shared her frustration with the way government is failing to keep pace with the scale of climate and ecological breakdown:

“I find it really shocking that two years after Cornwall Council declared a climate emergency, new homes are still being built that aren’t to low-carbon specifications. It’s meant that while we’re working hard in our community explaining to people how they can make energy-saving changes in their homes, 1000 new homes are being built in Helston, every single one of which will need retrofitting.”

Addressing local MP Derek Thomas, Katharine said: “There’s a new bill going before Parliament in May, the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, which provides the bold legislation needed to forge a path away from disaster and show the world that we are serious about tackling climate change and environmental destruction.

“It involves dealing with our real fair share of emissions and takes our entire carbon footprint (UK and overseas) into account. It’s been written with help from top scientists, and it enables ordinary people to have a real say on the way forward. I really hope, Derek, that you will feel able to support this. We really need you to.”

Above all, Katharine stressed, tackling the climate emergency is about imagining a better future for local communities:

“One of the first things that we did was to go to our community and invite them to imagine Helston in 2030. We know we need to be carbon neutral, but what do we want it to look like? And how do we get there?

“I think we need to be constantly asking these questions, encouraging people to re-imagine our futures – and to do this together. Otherwise, how do we know what we are working towards? And how do we make sure that we leave no one behind?”