'By working together, we eliminated that feeling of being an environmental pressure group. Instead we made it normal to talk about energy savings.'
Welcome to Ashton Hayes — the small English town that's casually leading the way toward carbon neutrality.
"Carbon neutrality" is a fancy way of saying that Ashton Hayes is working toward reducing its carbon footprint until it produces as much energy as it uses.
Upon first glance, Ashton Hayes may seem like any other countryside town, but when you take a closer look, you start to notice solar panels on roofs, clothes drying outside on clotheslines, and houses with glazed windows designed to improve insulation.
It might not sound like much, but these community efforts have effectively reduced the town's greenhouse emissions by approximately 40% in just 10 years.
The idea to make carbon neutrality a community-wide mission was planted by Ashton Hayes resident Garry Charnock, a former journalist and hydrologist.
He was attending a lecture at the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts, which called for the audience to think about what they could do to help curb climate change. While he said he was skeptical about a single individual being able to make any sort of significant impact, he wondered if his town as a whole could.
Charnock asked the town's parish council if they would support a community-wide carbon neutrality pledge. On Jan. 26, 2006, in the presence of 60% of the town's adults (and a large percentage of the children as well), the idea was publicly proposed and accepted.
Just like that, the people of Ashton Hayes took one significant step toward a greener future.
Members of the community started implementing small changes in their daily lives to promote carbon neutrality, and slowly but surely, their greenhouse emissions have shrunk.
They saved energy by turning things powered by electricity off as much as possible, switching to LED bulbs, relying on heat and air conditioning sparingly, walking more, and using public transport.
According to Charnock, they cut their emissions by 20% in the first year by doing so.
When neighbors started sharing what solutions were working for them, the ideas grew in size and scope. Soon, solar panels began to pop up all over town.
Community members, like Kate Harrison, are seeing their energy bills plummet, but even more exciting is how this collaboration has unified the town under one common goal. "What I really enjoyed was getting together with other people and talking about what we did," Harrison says in a video on Ashton Hayes' carbon neutrality project.
Community cohesion has increased significantly since the carbon neutrality mission was adopted. One reason for this, Charnock suggests, is that the carbon neutrality mission was created by and for the people in the town, without the influence or direction of politicians (who are only allowed to listen at meetings if they attend).
There were never any community-wide mandates to contribute to the cause — just neighbors inspiring each other to make an effort here and there.
"We also felt that by working together, we eliminated that feeling of being an environmental pressure group. Instead we made it normal to talk about energy savings," Charnock wrote in an email.
The children of Ashton Hayes are also incredibly involved in the town's work to reduce its carbon footprint.
"The primary school has been a catalyst for the project," Charnock wrote. "All our major meetings are held there and the kids always do a project that they demonstrate to the public."
Aside from harboring an active eco-team, the school's roof is made entirely of community-funded PV panels (photovoltaic solar panels), which in turn have helped the building become carbon negative between the months of May and September.
Involving the children in the project gives the next generation a firsthand look at just how simple it can be to reduce one's carbon footprint and have a real impact on the community overall.
With Ashton Hayes' efforts proving so effective, other towns have gotten in touch to ask for advice on how to start similar initiatives. Ashton Hayes is only too happy to help.
People from Ashton Hayes have given talks to over 150 communities in the United Kingdom alone on their work to lower emissions and they've made award-winning videos that've reached many more.
According to the detailed diary on the Ashton Hayes town website that chronicles their progress, they've been contacted by towns all over the world that are looking for ways to lower their own carbon footprint. Little by little, the Ashton Hayes carbon neutrality movement is picking up steam.
With the onslaught of alarmist news about how harmful climate change is becoming and all the things we've done wrong up to this point, the mission to try to turn things around for the planet can often feel hopeless. When you look at a town like Ashton Hayes and see all that its members have accomplished in just 10 years, however, it's clear that hopelessness is far from true.
Sure, Ashton Hayes is just one small town, but imagine if every small town the world over followed in its footsteps. Sometimes all it takes is one simple, well-implemented idea to start a powerful trend that could change everything.