The Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant, funded by UKRI and delivered by the British Science Association and Science Ceilidh, awarded nine community organisations with funding of up to £5,000 to run community-led projects related to climate change, realised through collaboration with a researcher. The projects ran between April to October 2022.   

The Knoydart Foundation was awarded a grant to develop and deliver a community-led carbon audit of the Knoydart Peninsula, in partnership with a researcher, and work towards setting a timeline for achieving net zero.  

Here we find out more about the project, how the community and the researcher adapted to the challenges they encountered and what was needed to make a new approach to community-research collaborations work.  

This case study was prepared by Heather Mendick, Independent Research Consultant, who conducted in-depth interviews with eight community organisers and eight researchers as part of an independent evaluation of the Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant scheme. 

Knoydart Foundation logo; square shape with the letters KF in white text on a dark green background

About the Knoydart Foundation 

The Knoydart Foundation is a community-run charity that administers 17,200 acres of community-owned land on the Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland. The Foundation is developing ways to better look after the land and the community, including addressing a range of environmental issues. 

The project: Quantifying household carbon usage 

The project grew out of a series of climate conversations organised by the Foundation’s Knoydart Climate Conversations Working Group (now the Knoydart Climate Action Group), led by Lachie Robinson and two other community facilitators.  

Following a conversation with carbon footprinting expert Mike Berners-Lee, the Group wanted to quantify carbon use by Knoydart residents and businesses and work towards a timeline for achieving net zero.  

Older woman looking at the heating and electricity readings on her smart meterMike put them in touch with Gary White, a freelance researcher with Agenda Resilience who has 25 years’ experience in environmental consultancy. When they heard about the Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant scheme, Gary visited Knoydart and, together, they discussed doing a carbon audit and created a proposal.  

When a full carbon audit proved too ambitious for the time available, they focused instead on conducting a survey of household carbon usage. They reported findings back to the community throughout the process via three interactive workshops and individual feedback to the 31 participating households (out of 55 in Knoydart).  

Community climate action projects must be willing to change and adapt to succeed 

Lachie recalls that they initially thought a complete peninsula-wide carbon audit was doable and that they could use that to set a date for achieving net zero. But “the more we learned about it, the more our expectations got more realistic.”  

Although Knoydart’s population is only 110, there are “lots of different layers to it”They decided to focus on household carbon surveys because it was achievable and, as Lachie says:  

We wanted to get people excited about it, … and give people some … sense of agency over their carbon footprint, and also because Gary had done household surveys before so he had a household survey calculator tool that we could adapt.

Laptop open displaying timeline for a community carbon audit, alongside an open ring binder folder displaying a pie chart of UK average carbon usage

Gary remembers suggesting to the Knoydart Climate Action Group that they rethink “their first request”, which was a “massive piece of work.” He talks about the project as “an iterative process” of working out “what could they do because it was really about community capacity building. It wasn’t about me parachuting in, doing stuff. It was about them learning how to do it themselves and me really just signposting.”  

Lachie found asking residents the detailed questions in the household surveys face-to-face quite stressful and raw; a sentiment, in his view, shared by the other two facilitators.  

When one of the facilitators had to pull out of the project in the early stages due to personal reasons, it was necessary to adapt the project once again. Instead of recruiting another facilitator to fill the vacancy, Lachie recruited and, with Gary’s support, trained several new community members to do the surveys, using the budget to offer the community members payment on a ‘per-survey’ basis.  

To further boost the number of households completing the survey, they created a paper version that could be distributed door-to-door for people who wanted to take part but did not have the time for an hour-long interview.  

As Gary says, “getting people to do a household survey is not an easy task.” The survey covers details on travel and other areas and “these are quite challenging questions.” The whole team has learnt from this and in particular, “Lachie now is highly articulate around carbon and climate and … how you think about the impact of community action on carbon.”   

Lachie also thinks that the household focus has paid off and that “having results is going to make people happy.” He feels that “there’s more excitement” now about the project.  

The idea of having a minibus service on Knoydart has been given new impetus by the survey results showing levels of carbon emissions currently produced on the peninsula through household travel.  

Communities are at the centre of successful research collaborations 

Gary did not start the project with a research agenda. He wanted to support and learn from the Knoydart community:  

They’re a really interesting, very dynamic, very organised community. … The whole climate thing is quite complex. It’s really challenging in lots of different ways, in that there are no single simple solutions to working at the community level. I saw it as an opportunity to deep dive into a really high-functioning community. … I wanted to understand what they do, how they do it and why they’ve been so successful.

Row of white cottages on a rural road in Inverie, Knoydart, Scotland

Gary was involved from the start of putting together the proposal and spent time in Knoydart: “having time to get to know a community, like go up there for three or four days and hang out, go to the pub, walk around the place, get to know, I think was important, a luxury you don’t always have. Just building good relationships with the key people.”  

He mentions Grant, a “stalwart” and then Chair of the Knoydart Foundation: “If Grant said, ‘we’re going to do this’, then it happened to some extent. Having that buy in from key influencers in the community is a really important thing.”  

Because Gary didn’t have an independent research agenda and because he got to know people, he was able to work at the community’s pace: “I was being very careful about bringing the community with you and not going too fast” because “by far the best way is … to take a slightly slower but longer approach.” 

As opposed to more traditional relationships between communities and researchers, which are often led by the research or researcher’s agenda, the success of this collaboration comes out of the researcher being present in the community, developing relationships, finding out what people’s needs and strengths are and then developing these to build skills and capacity within the community.  

Lachie describes how this felt: “it was just a really interesting process, having someone who’s an expert in the field, but it really didn’t feel like we were being lectured to. … We’re people in the community, putting pieces of the puzzle together and then Gary being able potentially to interpret what that means.”    

Developing community-researcher relationships and building local capacity  

When starting a community-research collaboration, a lot of time goes into building relationships and learning how to work together. Gary spent time in Knoydart and, from early on, “really embedded with the senior members of that community.”  

The Foundation ran interactive community events that built more links between Gary and the community – “light touch, quite funny and a lot of chocolate biscuits flying around”. This meant that later events got a larger and more engaged audience “because they really enjoyed it. It wasn’t like sitting there getting lectured to by a talking head. They’re up there, running around the place, and there was lots going on.” 

Lachie was not excited about the project at first but as his knowledge grew, that changed “as soon as I had the confidence to go into our carbon calculator tool and actually address things that I felt weren’t right.” He would raise these problems with Gary. He has learnt that it is “really important how you present data to people” to build their trust and engage them with the project.    

If he were doing this project again, Lachie would consider creating the carbon calculator tool himself, and it would be simplified and more customisable, allowing the input of actual usage rather than UK averages so that areas that are particularly relevant to Knoydart could be explored in more detail: 

Hindsight’s 20/20 and I have a better handle on it now than I did at the start. I wouldn’t have been able to create that tool… [as] something that was simpler and more accurate […] then. I wouldn’t have had the confidence […] and I probably wouldn’t have had the time to be honest and I probably would have got it wrong or done this, that and the other, so that I think is learning.

Lachie, not Gary, presented the results to the community at the final workshop: Gary was unavailable for the final community workshop due to unforeseen circumstances, but luckily by that point we felt confident enough to run the event, that Gary would have run, without him.” 

Successful relationships need more funding to thrive 

Rich relationships and knowledge have developed through the project. However, these will not be extended and expanded without further funding. Gary makes this point:

There needs to be a follow on. … You would get so much more efficiency the second time you do things. … We’ve already built all that capacity in the community. We’ve built all that trust. … You have to support those second phase pieces of work because the second phase is where all the interesting stuff happens. It’s not in the first phase. The first phase is developing the relationships. It’s getting all of that early engagement happening. The second phase is when you actually do stuff. And that’s what’s often lacking in funding. You never do a second phase.

Happily, in this case, UKRI and the BSA are offering projects involved in the first phase of the Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant scheme the opportunity to apply for funding to run a second phase. 

Find out what’s next for Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant