Zero Carbon Britain: Stories for Change

How three people are shaping a more sustainable world, in their own words

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain research shows that we have all the technological solutions needed to reach zero carbon. A much greater challenge is how to change mindsets — how to shift the status quo — in order to make these solutions happen.

We all tell ourselves stories, framing events to make sense of our lives. And we do it as societies as well, to help us better understand the world. Stories offer a hugely effective way to transcend the limits of our worldview and rehearse new ways of being. They can enable us to explore our cultural paradigms and how they define our reality, the way we think, the ways problems are solved, what goals we pursue and what we value. Stories can help us envisage, and then move forward to create, a zero carbon future.

CAT’s latest report Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen explores the social, economic and political barriers that are preventing a shift to zero carbon, and how we can overcome them. Whilst writing the report, the team interviewed six sustainability pioneers about their work, and asked them how they are breaking through barriers to change.

Here are the stories they told (part 1 of 2)…


Veronica Burke — Co-creator, Bread Matters

Bread Matters promotes the social, economic, cultural and health benefits of making bread using slow fermentation and homegrown grains. Their purpose is to inspire the individuals and groups, and to disseminate the knowledge and skills, that will enable communities to nourish healthy people from the fields around them, enrich their local economy and cultivate food sovereignty.

Nordic Svedjerug grain crop — Bread Matters

Veronica: “One part of the work is discovering the best adapted wheats for our climate and conditions. We’ve found an innovative milling method that we’re hoping will enable us to keep more layers of wheat in, at the same time as producing a lighter flour. We’re going to bring nutritionists in and agree a nutritional standard for the flour and the bread. We’ve started on organic farms and we want everybody who grows it to participate in an agreed certification system, so that we’re all growing to sustainable standards and taking care of the soil. Because that’s our real asset, in terms of food, and that’s what we’re depleting all over the world.

We’ve created a community benefit society, so that ordinary people own it. It’s not an institution that’s also being funded by one of the big food interests or some corporation, it’s an independent body.

And the milling being close to the farm or the bakery, you take away the massive footprint of shipping the stuff around. And you take it out again by having real bread within walking distance of everyone.

The other big theme is teaching people, supporting them to start community-scale bakeries. Which means real jobs in respected work — not machine-minding. More jobs per loaf, not less.

It can be socially unacceptable to say it, but food banks are not solving the problem. People who are hungry need to be fed, and if what’s available is sitting in a carrier bag in George Square in Glasgow, then yes, it’s absolutely right to give them that food. But it doesn’t address their dignity or improve their entitlement to a basic income to support themselves.

We get loads of enquiries from people who want to start a community bakery, or add a bakery to a community shop or Post Office. It’s partly a fiscal thing, we need to make our local economy work. And it’s about identity: we want to make this place flourish and have decent jobs, because without those we’ll need a food bank, won’t we?”

(images courtesy of Bread Matters and Yorkshire the Bread)


Sheridan Piggott — Founder of York Bike Belles

York Bike Belles encourages women to start riding, or ride a bike more often, through an inspiring combination of motivational communications and confidence-building activities in fun, relaxed environments. Bike Belles addresses the fact that while on average 20% of men cycle, only 10% of women do.

Sheridan: “When I moved to York about four years ago, York City Council very forward-mindedly decided they wanted to target cycling for women and families, and I came up with the concept of Bike Belles.

Sheridan out riding, photo: Chandra Prasad, Sustrans

One of the cultural barriers to cycling in this country is that it’s viewed primarily as a sport — a male dominated, competitive sport. Don’t know how that happened, because cycling for centuries has been a form of everyday transport that women and all members of the community have thrived on. It’s one of the best, most sustainable and healthiest ways to get around.

What we had to do with Bike Belles is to go back and look at what the barriers are, address them in an appealing way and recreate that everyday cycling culture.

Women don’t feel they’ve got the right skills in terms of cycling in traffic, with children, and doing maintenance. When they overcome those barriers it leads to all sorts of other benefits — we’ve seen massive increases in confidence, independence, improvements in physical and mental health.

Photo: Helena Groom

Women want activities that feel not just important to them, but to their communities — their families and friends. It’s about collaboration and co-operation and in our meetings everyone has an equal say. Starting from the female means that those qualities are central to the project.

Photo: Helena Groom

We engaged about seven and a half thousand women in the York area and at least twenty thousand people have engaged with the project online. We do activities like bike maintenance, bike rides, bike loans, that address some of those key barriers women face. We have a group of women champions who help promote it in their circles and deliver activities themselves.

We target women, but we don’t exclude anybody else. We often get men coming along on rides. We’ve recently engaged with some mental health groups in York and their clients have come along. It’s grown from being just for women to being an everyday, friendly cycling community for everyone — one of the things that’s lacking in our cycling communities across the country.”


Arno Schmickler — Programme Director, Energiesprong UK

Energiesprong refurbishes houses to Net Zero Energy, meaning that annually a house does not consume more energy for heating, hot water, lights and appliances than it produces. The refurbishments are financed from the energy cost savings and executed within 10 days, so residents don’t have to move out. Energiesprong UK has 17 founding partners. These are frontrunners in the field of sustainability and innovation from the social housing sector; as well as construction companies that share the vision of working together towards more comfortable, better looking, affordable and sustainable housing.

An Energiesprong refurbishment in progress, photo: Frank Hanswijk

Arno: “Energiesprong were looking for other countries to take the concept of net zero energy buildings to, because they felt the Dutch market is too small for big enough innovation to drive down costs. They felt Britain was the country to go to, because we’ve got very poor building stock to start with, poor energy performance and quite a market driven approach to interventions.

The social housing sector is a rewarding starting point, because social landlords tend to care about the residents. It’s important to work with the residents as well, because they are the ambassadors.

Photo: Frank Hanswijk

If you’re thinking about enveloping a building, you’ve got a huge opportunity to uplift the kerbside appeal and deliver a more desirable property. That’s what we’ve seen in the Netherlands. It started in the social housing sector and then owner-occupiers came knocking on the door saying “Where can I buy one of those?”. You start with individuals and then transform the business that person represents.

It’s important to also link from residential buildings to office buildings to industrial buildings, so we think about how we decarbonise neighbourhoods. It might be that if we’ve got a new development, we could supply renewable electricity through that to existing stock. That’s the wider vision.

At the moment in the UK, new build is all about quantity rather than quality. Building regs have been lowered so we’ll need to retrofit the new build properties 5 years from now, they’re so bad. We need to challenge that.

A big risk at the moment is the pressures the UK Government have put on the social housing sector with the rent cuts, the right to buy extension and forced council house sale. There’s uncertainty into the future as well, because government might turn round overnight and change something else. Where there’s so much uncertainty, people retreat to what they know and try to cut out every risk. That’s the biggest barrier in terms of implementation.

We’ve created the stage for people to come and act on, but at the moment in the UK everybody is still sitting in the audience. We’re trying to pull people onto the stage and say, “Let’s do this together”.

Energiesprong new build, photo: Frank Hanswijk

There are two steps towards meeting our targets. One is the 2030 target of decarbonisation of residential buildings. Then 2050 is the overall carbon emissions. If we want to meet the 2050 targets we’ve got one chance to retrofit property to net zero energy standards. Improving a little bit here, there and everywhere — where you might get double glazing or boiler replacement — that will never get us there. We need to go in big.”

Energiesprong’s work receives funding from Transition Zero: an EU Horizon 2020-funded project to establish the right market conditions for the wide-scale introduction of net zero energy homes across Europe. This will build on the success of Energiesprong in the Netherlands and advance its implementation even further.


For more inspiring examples of how we can break down barriers to change, and make the shift to zero carbon happen, download the full Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen report here.