Surrey Countryside Champions – Ben McCallan – SCC and Zero Carbon Guildford
Fighting the good fight against climate change can feel like a full-time job. This is literally the case for Ben McCallan as Senior Climate Officer at Surrey County Council. But his passion for battling climate change spills over into his spare time too as he volunteers with Surrey charity Zero Carbon Guildford.
We managed to grab some time with Ben to find out what’s next for Zero Carbon Guildford and how Surrey County Council is working to tackle climate change.
1. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Please can you summarise who you are and what you do?
You’re welcome! I do 2 things. Firstly, I’m involved with the community-led Surrey charity Zero Carbon Guildford, which runs a premises in the town centre (called ZERO) focused on restoring the Surrey countryside, reducing waste and emissions locally, and building collaborative action to help create a secure future for the community. We’re all volunteers there, so my paid job is on the Climate Change team at Surrey County Council.
2. What does your role as Senior Climate Officer at Surrey County Council entail?
Well, the county council is directly responsible for only about 1% of Surrey’s emissions. 97% of the emissions in the Climate Change Delivery Plan are classed as ‘community emissions’ – so residential housing, transport, industry, etc. It’s obviously the local authority’s job to lead in creating a healthy and safe future for its constituents, but no local authority can tackle climate change alone. So, I lead on engagement and work to build collaborative action across communities, businesses, and residents which can help drive forward Surrey’s Climate Change Delivery Plan.
3. How did your involvement with Zero Carbon Guildford come about?
A few climate and environment groups in Guildford had been doing bits and pieces together for a year or so, and around the start of lockdown I had a conversation with someone who was using a business rates relief model to put an empty premises to community use. This seemed a great opportunity to create a collaborative project focused on driving behaviour change, so we started getting a few active people from the various groups involved and it snowballed from there. It was just 15 of us to start, working with a very kind donation of £1250 from Guildford Environmental Forum. That was all we had to get started and 3 years later we have 200 volunteers and, earlier this year, won the Innovative UK Community Project award from Climate Coalition and then got mentioned in Prime Minister’s Questions.
4. Tackling climate change is clearly important to you, what inspired you to get involved and take action?
I did geography at Royal Holloway in Egham as a degree, so I was always interested in climate change. But having a little girl, and then the release of the 2018 IPCC report, effectively forced me to take action. It’s really easy to miss the severity of climate change. People still think ‘oh it’ll just get a bit warmer’, That’s not how it works at all. Climate systems work on feedback loops, and if they hit a tipping point the system can go into runaway mode. We really don’t know how triggering one tipping point will affect the others, but it’s safe to say that it’s not something we want to find out, and our current trajectory toward 3 degrees warming or more will be catastrophic for life on earth, including us. I didn’t really feel I had much choice other than to commit time to tackling the issue to try to create a secure future for my daughter. Putting our kids first is no longer about providing a nest egg for them, it’s not hyperbole to say that on our current trajectory it’s about providing a habitable planet.
6. Why is working together as a community so important for tackling climate change?
The scale of the task to stay under 1.5 degrees warming is enormous. In fact, it’s probably already slipped out of reach. But every 0.1 of a degree warming we avoid could literally spare hundreds of millions of lives. So, it’s not a case of thinking we’ve already lost, everything is to play for. The task is so big it is absolutely impossible for any organisation to tackle it in a silo. It needs a hugely concerted effort across communities, local authorities, businesses, schools, etc. Despite our day-to-day arguments and differences, we are all united around the common value of wanting to protect the people and places we love. Currently, we’re not doing that, and I think the amazing work happening in diverse communities is setting the pace for national governments to keep up with.
7. How can local residents support your work both at Surrey County Council and Zero Carbon Guildford?
That’s a timely question actually! ZERO is currently moving premises. Our 2 year lease is up and we’re moving to a new home. We’ve made it this far on volunteer power alone, which we’re really proud of. But to build real longevity into what we’re doing we’re currently crowdfunding so we can employ some folks to lead on our engagement space. If you can donate to the fundraiser please do! Help Zero Carbon Guildford Move To A New Home – a Community crowdfunding project in Guildford by Zero Carbon Guildford (avivacommunityfund.co.uk)
Secondly, we’re in the early days of an urban greening project with Surrey Wildlife Trust and Surrey County Council which aims to reconnect the habitats fractured by Surrey’s town centres. 11% of our native species have gone extinct over the last few decades, and green corridors that reconnect habitats can help reverse this decline. Urban greening also improves air quality and access to green spaces, as well as having great mental health and wellbeing benefits, and providing natural shading in hot weather. If you would like to get involved email email@example.com. There are 18 urban greening sites mapped across the county, so you can get involved in your local area.
8. You’re doing amazing work for the community. What’s your favourite Surrey greenspace to explore?
I used to live in Woking, and really wanted to be a bit more rural. We found a really run-down property in the Surrey Hills which my other half, being Canadian, fell in love with as the area is so quintessentially English. We love it round here, Abinger Roughs and Stepping Stones at Box Hill are great (less so now with the unregulated sewage discharges destroying the experience at Stepping Stones!). That said, the charity got in the way whilst I was refurbing and the house is still half finished 5 years later! I actually spent earlier today insulating the eaves cupboard in 30-degree heat. Still in the long run it was worth it to find a bargain price property in such a beautiful part of the country, even if increasing extremes of temperature make doing any kind of physical work a nightmare.