Tom Lusink strides along the pontoon to greet us as we arrive in Raasay Island on the sailing vessel Novara. Raasay, in the Northwest United Kingdom, is a dramatic landscape – rugged coastline, trees struggling to take hold, wind whipping in from the Atlantic – and the people are resourceful and welcoming. And as Tom, the local coordinator for Carbon Neutral Islands (CNI), knows only too well, Raasay is on the front line of climate change adaptation.

The Scottish Government’s CNI initiative aims to demonstrate the climate-resilience and low-carbon potential of island communities. The Government selected six islands as pilots: Barra and Vatersay, Cumbrae, Hoy and Walls, Islay, Raasay and Yell with the aim that all these Islands would become carbon neutral by 2040.

The CNI has two key elements to the approach. First, the CNI programme is rooted in the community. A steering group is appointed made up of key members of the island communities and the work is coordinated by a local anchor organisation who employs a community development officer (CDO) like Tom and his colleague Rosie Mcleod Macinnes on Barra. The CDO’s role is to coordinate community discussions, gather ideas, create and implement strategies for a climate-safe future. Second, the Scottish Government provides initial funding to the anchor organisation to cover the salary of the CDO and £166,000 for plan implementation.

Tom Lusink & Rosie Mcleod Macinnes aboard the Novara

The CNI had been underway for two years when we visited the CNIs in the expedition sailing vessel Novara in the summer of 2023. Our mission on Novara is to connect coastal communities to the impacts of climate change. We do this in part by documenting the stories and lessons from coastal communities. Arriving by sailing vessel, having braved the elements to get there, gives us a unique credibility to engage with the coastal communities, all of which live by the rhythms of the sea. The opportunity to visit and work with the CNI CDOs allowed us to learn from this ambitious programme first hand. It also gave us an opportunity to look for lessons that could assist other coastal communities attempting to deal with the impacts of climate change.

SV Novara

From our time in the Islands, we identified six key lessons we consider are important to share.

First, it is critical for climate adaptation actions be designed and implemented locally. While visiting the communities on board Novara it was clear that climate adaptation is strongly located in the local, and deeply personal. From discussions about the frequency and location of road damage during storm events to conversations about whether homes will need to be moved away from coastal flood zones, having solutions imposed from a far-away capital city simply aren’t welcomed. Solutions need to be discussed, argued and resolved in the local community. In this context, the role of the CDOs is critical. CDOs, by being local, by being trusted members of the community, can navigate the local in a way that external change agents cannot. “Being a young person returning to my home in Barra after studies has really helped me in my work on the climate action plan. This is because being from the community I understand the community's needs and challenges in a way that people from off the island can't appreciate. It's so important for climate action to be developed by the local community for the local community” says Shona, the CDO on Barra and Vatersay.

As a result of this strong local connection, the CNI plans released in mid-2023 are more widely accepted by the communities than would otherwise be the case.

Novara crew member Despina Gotsidou (right) hazard mapping with a community member in Lerwick

The second lesson from Scotland’s CNI is that the CNI’s regionally-coordinated approach is a strength of the programme. This strength is enhanced by two features: temporal and team coordination. The temporal coordination comes from the Scottish Government’s requirement that all six CNIs develop and implement their plans along the same timeline. This did introduce a challenge because some islands were not able to move at the same speed through the planning cycle as others. Nevertheless, being at roughly the same stages during their climate plan development, the CDOs were able to support one another, share and explore ideas.

The CNI also established strong team coordination between the CDOs. While not rocket science, the regular coordination calls among the CDOs, and face-to-face gatherings at least a couple of times a year led to a strong CDO team spirit. “The CDO role for Hoy and Walls is huge. There's so much to cover in such a short time. One of the things that has really helped me is being part of the CDO network where I've been able to share ideas, get feedback and receive support from other CDOs under similar pressure. The CDO network has been absolutely critical for me being able to deliver on my CNI objectives.” Says Aisling Philips, CDO for Hoy and Walls. This coordination among CDOs has given them the opportunity to learn from one another, to test ideas and to encourage and support each other during the planning and implementation process. As a result, the CDO team has become more than the sum of its parts – and so too their plans and implementation.

The third lesson from our time amongst the CNIs is that funding is an ever-present challenge. The CNI was fortunate to have seed funding for their initial work. However, there are two challenges with this funding related to the quantity and timing. A review of the climate plans clearly shows that the £166,000 grant is a drop in the ocean. The most sensible way to use this money is to use it to leverage other funding and finance. But how? Many CDOs have limited experience at this sort of thing. In this case, they can learn from the experience in Raasay and from others. In Raasay, for example, the community successfully raised finance for a community-owned small hydro scheme. The fund raising began with a grant from an energy company, and then this funding was augmented by interest free loans and a community share offer. As Rosie says, “The initial SSE grant made it much easier to raise the remaining money through the share offer and decreased the amount we would have to pay back to investors in the long run”.

Beyond Raasay, there are many climate finance experts who have experience with this approach of leveraging. Through Novara's networks we have been able to link some of the CNIs to climate finance mentors. These mentors are available to other communities upon request. The second funding challenge is related to timing. The CNI grants have to be spent within a 12-month period (by March 2024). This time pressure creates a real potential for ineffective and inefficient use of the funding. It is critical that funding agencies are realistic about the time needed to develop and deploy funding.

A fourth lesson from the CNI work relates to interconnectedness. As many of the CDOs discovered, developing action plans to tackle climate change and adaptation invariably intersects across many dimensions. For example, discussions in Hoy about coastal erosion of road infrastructure quickly turned to access to employment, health services, food as well as appropriate housing locations and cost of living. By virtue of their local knowledge, the CDOs have been able to successfully integrate the many impacts of climate change on their communities into their climate action plans.

Another lesson that we consider could be useful to other communities is the usefulness of capturing accurate information to help guide community action plans. A good example of this is in Raasay, where the CDOs conducted a census of the island community. As well as canvassing views on the climate challenges the community is facing, they also gathered information on demographics. The latter information identified that half the houses on the island are unoccupied for much of the year – a real concern in a community with a housing shortage, and a potential opportunity given the need for energy efficiency retrofits for the houses.

Finally, during our time in the CNIs we identified a number of capacity gaps within the CDO network, and beyond. In particular, we noted that while the communities are clearly focused on physical climate risk in their planning, they are not accounting for transition risk. That is, the potential impacts of changing policies (for example, a carbon tax) may have on their assets and infrastructure. Also, there was little discussion of the implication of climate changes on ability to insure community assets. Novara is preparing to deliver capacity building workshops on these topics. We wonder if these are common skill gaps in other communities?

As Novara leaves Raasay, Tom is standing on the dock. As a young person fighting for climate action in his community, we can only imagine what he's thinking as he looks out to sea – possibly hoping for a better future where Raasay’s climate challenges are addressed and his family are climate safe.

SV Novara and crew arriving in Campbeltown to begin work with Scottish communities