Resetting the relationship between local and national government. Read our Local Government White Paper

Cambridgeshire County Council: Tackling the climate emergency by engaging young people

Cambridgeshire County Council partnered with researchers from the University of Cambridge to address the question of how they should work with local communities to tackle the climate emergency, which highlighted the untapped potential of young people.

The challenge

In 2019 Cambridgeshire County Council declared a climate emergency and has since aimed to meet the Government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 at the local level. Given the scale of this challenge, and the collective work required to meet it, the Council needed to identify ways to understand and harness momentum around the environmental priorities of the area’s various communities, so that it could work with those communities in meeting the net zero target while creating more opportunities for communities to take climate change action into their own hands.

The solution

In early 2020 senior officers and members at the Council identified the increasing focus on place-based partnerships with communities as an opportunity to engage communities as partners in the climate emergency. A research question asking how best to work with communities for this purpose was formulated and proposed to early career researchers in the 2020 round of the Policy Challenges programme, which partners the Council with researchers from the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE).

A research team was formed around this question with CUSPE researchers, who were supported throughout by three council officers and one elected member. The research project ran from May 2020 to February 2021, with the team presenting their findings and recommendations to the Council’s Environment and Sustainability Committee in March 2021.

Noticing a shortage of young people’s views and geographic spread in the Council’s previous consultations with the public on climate change, and considering the generational changes taking place between now and 2050, the CUSPE research team quickly identified young people (aged 16-24) across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough as a demographic deserving special focus in their project.

As a result the team designed their own detailed focus group format to capture the environmental priorities and preferred models of organisation and engagement of participants. They then worked with youth coordinators from the Council and youth group leads to hold three virtual focus groups for small groups of young people in Autumn 2020, ensuring proportional geographic spread across the area. To supplement this more targeted approach, the team designed a questionnaire which was distributed to schools across the area and received over 600 responses.

Analysing the results of their focus groups and questionnaire responses, the team recommended the Council, among other things:

  • Pursue a model of engagement that blends the preferred aspects of a community champions network and a youth community trust
  • Provide qualification and accreditation opportunities for young people on environmental topics and advocate the inclusion of such topics in the school curriculum, ensuring these focus on local environmental issues and implications so that global priorities translate into local priorities and actions with identifiable barriers and enablers
  • Hold regular focus groups and surveys with young people using the research team’s models
  • Engage young people on environmental issues via their preferred social media platforms

The impact

While it is too early to measure the impact of the CUSPE team’s recommendations being implemented in the Council’s work, the research itself is already becoming a springboard for further thinking and research on how to engage communities on the climate emergency, and engage young people more generally.

Members of the team have presented their work at the recent Cambridge Zero conference, which led Cambridge Public Health and the Cambridge Museums Project to contact the team to discuss adapting their youth engagement strategies. The team is currently in talks with Cambridge Public Health, and potentially Public Health England subsequent to this, to incorporate their research findings into work at the intersection of climate and public health.

Furthermore, the Council has a priority of putting communities at the heart of its work and seeks to extend this focus on place-based partnerships with communities beyond the context of demand management of health and social care needs, which initially motivated it. The research project is serving as an example of how this can be done by engaging communities on the climate emergency.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The Council is including this among a range of approaches to working with communities in its refreshed Climate Change and Environment Strategy, which deepens the Council's commitment to working with communities on climate action. Furthermore, the 2022 Cambridgeshire COP will include activities led by youth groups to coincide with pre-COP 27 discussions.

Lessons learned

Young people across Cambridgeshire/Peterborough are engaged, knowledgeable, and motivated on climate change issues more broadly than often assumed – beyond those who participate in activist groups – and they are eager to engage with local authorities to collaborate on action.

While the environmental priorities of young people were found to vary across the districts and cities of the area, they did not always align with the more obvious issues in the local area. This suggests that climate change is still mainly thought of as a national/international issue and shows that more engagement on the local level would be beneficial.


CUSPE Policy Challenges Programme Lead: Patrick Kilkelly [email protected] (contact for info/questions)

CUSPE Policy Challenges Founder: Cllr Ian Manning

CUSPE Research Team for Tackling the Climate Emergency with Our Communities (University of Cambridge): Emma Clarke, Ellie Fox, Elizabeth Hampson, Lisa Hecker, William Moody, Timea Nochta, Olivia Shears