Late last month, the Icelandic capital city of Reykjavik announced plans to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2040.
Although the plan is no doubt ambitious, the city of 120,000 already has a more-than-decent head start. Reykjavik, along with the rest of the country, is already famously powered by renewable energy sources including geothermal and, to a lesser extent, hydroelectric and wind. In turn, the emphasis moving forward will be almost exclusively on slashing transportation-related emissions by upping the city’s public transportation game and improving cycling infrastructure. Governmental leaders are also looking to limit urban sprawl, an area in which vengeful elves have already leant a helping hand.
In terms of guidance and inspiration moving forward, Reykjavik could benefit, much like over 200 of its carbon-cutting forbears around the globe have, from taking a good hard look at a single teeny-tiny village in northwest England.
Sporting a population of just over 1,000 residents, the "well-knit" community of Ashton Hayes — a name that could also very well also be the moniker of a tween YouTube vlogger — first announced its plans to go carbon neutral in January 2006. A decade later, this rural Cheshire County outpost has emerged as a somewhat unlikely template for other towns and municipalities seeking to dramatically reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Most crucially, Ashton Hayes has proven that it can be done and with little to no governmental involvement: over the past 10 years, the village has slashed its emissions by 25 percent, according to a recent university study. And villagers show no signs of slowing down.
Reykjavik and Ashton Hayes — England’s first carbon neutral-aiming village as it describes itself — are obviously very different places. And although Reykjavik’s move toward climate neutrality has been established by parliamentary vote, it might be wise for governmental officials to take a step back and allow the people take the lead.
Located outside of the historic walled city of Chester not too far from the Welsh border, the English village of Ashton Hayes has been striving toward carbon neutrality since 2006. (Photo: Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral)
As the New York Times recently reported, it’s this key aspect — minimal political interference — that’s emboldened the residents of Ashton Hayes to take action.
One of their secrets, it seems, is that the people of Ashton Hayes feel in charge, rather than following government policies. When the member of Parliament who represents the village showed up at their first public meeting in January 2006, he was told he could not make any speeches.
No politician has been allowed to address the group since. The village has kept the effort separate from party politics, which residents thought would only divide them along ideological lines.
Due to the size of the city and its distinct, transport-centric plan of attack, it’s highly unlikely that Reykjavik’s city government will fully remove itself from its own carbon neutrality-achieving mission. But like a host of other carbon neutral-aiming towns — Notteroy, Norway; Upper Saddle River, New Jersey; Eden Mills, Ontario; and Changhua County, Taiwan, to name a few mentioned by the Times — have in the past, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if Reykjavik studied Ashton Hayes’ uniquely humble, apolitical and largely low-hanging fruit-tackling approach to emissions reductions.
As the Times and the Telegraph explain, the residents of Ashton Hayes haven’t cut village-wide CO2 emissions by nearly a quarter via governmental mandate or force. They’ve reached this benchmark by their own volition. Voluntarily, they've embraced simple shifts in habit: switching out incandescent bulbs for energy-efficient models; line-drying their laundry instead of using dryers; walking, cycling or carpooling in lieu of taking solo rides; being mindful not to overfill their kettles. Many residents have taken it a step further by re-insulating their homes, installing efficiency-boosting windows and investing in rooftop solar panels and wind turbines.
Others have gotten into the common-sense habit of pulling on a sweater instead of cranking up the heat during those dreary winters on the English countryside. “We wanted to take it into our hands and do something about it,” village resident Kate Harrison explains to the Telegraph. “What’s wrong with putting on another cardigan?”
What's more, villagers — a well-educated and nearly half-retired lot — also pledged to take fewer flights per year.
“I think that the idea that Ashton Hayes had — to make caring for the environment fun, without pointing fingers — was quite revolutionary,” Janet Gullvaag, a councilwoman from the island-bound Norwegian municipality of Nøtterøy explains to the Times. “Whatever you’re trying to do, if you can create enthusiasm and spread knowledge, normally, people will react in a positive way.” Inspired by Ashton Hayes during the village’s CO2-curbing infancy, Notteroy has gone on to witness numerous positive, community-focused changes (with only some governmental nudging).
The camaraderie-boosting, emissions-reducing community efforts of Ashton Hayes, which have also entailed improving access to the local train station, planting trees and topping the village elementary school with a solar array, hasn’t just received accolades from — and been replicated by — numerous other towns and municipalities. The sleepy little former farming community located about a 45-minute drive southeast of Liverpool has also been transformed into something of an international media darling.
“It was a little bit of a surprise when all of this started happening,” Roy Alexander, a resident and professor of the environmental sustainability at the nearby University of Chester, tells the Telegraph of all the attention. “We just somehow caught the zeitgeist. In the end, people got quite blasé: we got used to a camera crew appearing in the corner of the pub.”
And as for that pub, the Golden Lion — this is where it all, not surprisingly, began. After all, the pub is the de facto center of this self-described "archetypal English village," which also includes two churches, a post office-cum-shop and about 350 homes. (On a side note, the pub is apparently now being threatened by new development).
As the story goes, longtime Ashton Hayes resident Garry Charnock first vocalized the idea for a carbon-neutral village at a quiz night to one of his teammates, a gent who just happened to be somewhat of an expert on the topic: local professor Roy Alexander. Charnock, a former journalist who has a background in hydrology and currently serves as executive director at an environmental consulting firm, took the somewhat radical idea to the parish council. After the council voted on and passed Charnock's proposal, roughly 400 eager village residents (about 75 percent of the adult population) attended a launch event in Jan. 26, 2006.
The rest, as they say, is history.
As leaders in Reykjavik move forward with their own plan to eliminate the city’s already somewhat modest carbon footprint, they should consider doing like Ashton Hayes. Because really, no matter how many new bike lanes you create or how many billboards pushing bus ridership you plaster around town, the power to truly institute positive change, in the end, lies in the hands of residents. And as Ashton Hayes has discovered, the less heavy-handed, authoritarian approach is ultimately the more effective one.
“People are not so keen on being told what to do,” says Alexander. “They prefer to feel they’re in control and doing what they think is important.”