At first glance, Ashton Hayes, near Manchester, England, looks like a regular English village, but if you look more closely, you start to see some oddities. There are way more solar panels than you might expect. They cover the elementary school roof, for example, and sit in fields. The village also has its own community-owned energy company, which rents roof space from locals to add more panels.
Poke around a bit more and you'll see that people have stopped using their clothes dryers, and they have efficient water heaters. Local stores carry local produce—cheese, meat, and honey. What's going on?
Ten years ago, Ashton Hayes set out to be the country's first carbon-neutral village. According to Deutsche Welle, one villager proposed the scheme during a pub quiz, and then held a meeting. The movement grew from there. People immediately made small changes at home, taking measures to save electricity, cut down on air travel, and eventually replaced their cars and upgraded home appliances.
Solar has become the norm, and when the local village store was in danger of closing down, the villagers got together and bought it communally. Their reasoning? The next nearest store is three miles away, which means a lot of driving, and a lot of wasted gasoline. And the school, recently covered in solar panels, is actually carbon negative, and exports more energy than it uses. That saves it a lot of money, too.
Surprisingly, the biggest changes were made 10 years ago, in the first months of the project. One local reduced her energy consumption by 60%, just by cutting down on daily use, wearing extra clothes instead of turning up the heating, and other small lifestyle changes. "We got a reduction in our domestic carbon emissions of about 20% in the first year, and we've increased that slightly," local resident Roy Alexander told DW. Now, for homes that have been in the local carbon survey since the beginning in 2006, the average reduction is 33%.
This shows just how much can be done with very few resources—just a conviction to reduce energy use is enough to make a big difference. The population of Ashton Hayes is keen to keep the scheme as a community effort, too. While they welcome folks from other towns who wish to learn from them, they don't want politicians to get involved.
In fact, part of the inspiration to turn the village carbon neutral was the lack of political will to do anything. Now, as politicians come sniffing around, attracted by success, they are told where to go. "We've had quite a few politicians who have been allowed to come and listen and find out more, but they've never been allowed to address us," says Garry Charnock, the ex-journalist who made that first suggestion at the pub quiz.
Not every village can be as cohesive in its intentions as Ashton Hayes, but at the very least, we can take inspiration as individuals. Often, it seems like making personal changes won't really make a difference in the world. Ashton Hayes's biggest contribution to fighting climate change might be that it shows that individual efforts really do add up to something big.