Guest blog: Green volunteerism in the UK — we need to scale up asap

This was originally commissioned for my CIC
By Lia Flattery

Effectively confronting the climate crisis will require vastly more volunteers giving their time to environmental and climate action.
There are already some signs of this happening — between 2000 and 2017, the amount of time volunteers contributed to conservation activities in England increased by 40%, reflecting a growing awareness of the importance of protecting biodiversity. This is a welcome trend but the overall numbers are far behind other sectors. This needs to change.

Volunteering in the UK is a major contributor to our culture and economy
The UK’s volunteering culture is a dynamic and thriving one, deeply embedded in the nation’s social fabric. 20.1 million people volunteered through a group, club or organisation in the UK during 2017/18, with huge but often overlooked benefits for individuals and society. The NHS, local communities and legal sectors are immensely supported by volunteers.

According to a 2014 Bank of England lecture, estimates of the overall contribution of volunteering to the UK economy could exceed £50 billion per year, while surveys of volunteers have found a wide range of personal benefits including skill-building, improved physical health, stress reduction and more.

Volunteers are vital to the green sector
For many environmental organisations, this volunteer workforce is fundamental to their operation. In 2017, over 61,000 volunteers donated nearly 4.6 million hours of their time to support the National Trust. In the same year, volunteers made up 85% of the RSPB’s workforce, giving nearly one million hours of their time. And the achievements of these volunteers are equally impressive.

Since 2012, over 500,000 records of undersea species and habitats have been collected by volunteer divers working with the Marine Conservation Society. In the 2019 Great British Spring Clean — now the country’s biggest mass-action environmental campaign — over 500,000 people collected 957,377 bags of litter.

Low turnout for green volunteers compared to other sectors
According to a 2019 report from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, just 11% of recent UK volunteers (those who had volunteered in the last 12 months) said they gave time to issues relating to the environment or animals. This places the environmental sector on par with the percentage of people volunteering in relation to religion. The areas with the greatest percentage of volunteers included ‘hobbies/recreation/arts/social clubs’ at 20%, ‘local community or neighbourhood groups’ at 20%, ‘health, disability and social welfare’ at 18% and ‘sport and exercise’ at 15%, among others.

More support needed now!
As we approach the start of 2020, now with just 10 years left to keep global temperatures to a maximum of 1.5C, there is an urgent need to transform the environmental sector’s 11% and rapidly mobilise far greater numbers of volunteers for environmental and climate action. The benefits would be great for society, for individuals, and for the planet.