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Good News is No News for Environmental Campaigns

Today the Mayor of London launched a ‘no idling’ campaign, designed to encourage drivers in the capital to switch of their engines when parked. The campaign features cleverly designed adverts urging drivers to help prevent asthma attacks and other undesirable health impacts by switching off their engines and reducing air pollution.

It’s a great promotion to see up and running, it’s just a shame they ‘key messages’ accompanying it almost immediately shoots the whole campaign in the foot. The briefing accompanying the campaign gives two key messages, the first of which proudly states 'London’s air quality is hugely better than it was 50 years ago but there’s still room for improvement'.

You’d be excused if you didn’t get past the first few words. Whilst the message that air quality is better now than it has been in the past is undoubtedly true it’s hardly a rousing call to action. Faced with a campaign that proclaims things are getting much better most members of the public would wonder what the point was of them paying much attention to this call to cut air pollution.

The ‘air pollution is much better than it was’ message is not just in use by the Mayor of London, and most of the documents that the UK Government releases on air pollution lead with the same message. Crowing about success of air quality management is perhaps only natural - telling people that the air they breathe is less toxic now than it was in the past speaks of Government success, whilst letting people know that the air in our towns and cities is harmful to their health stinks of complacency and failure. But it won’t do much to get the public behind measures to improve air quality.

The Government doesn’t always take this approach. Let’s take something that’s in the news rather a lot these days: public sector debt. If you judged this by media messages emanating from the Government you’d think that the national debt is at crisis point, the worst it’s ever been. The reality in fact is that the UK’s total national debt as a percentage of our economic output (as opposed to the annual budget deficit) is quite low by historical standards. But saying that doesn’t help the Government’s cause: if people weren’t convinced that debt was at crisis point they would be less willing to see cuts to public services.

Finding the correct message for environmental campaigns can be difficult. A softly softly approach can result in public indifference, but on the other hand trying to scare the public into action can just create an aura of helplessness. The doomsday messages pushed by climate campaigns in recent years have often fallen foul of this latter factor – if there’s only a handful of years left to save the world and big emitters such as the USA and China are indifferent then what’s the point of me insulating my loft and driving the car less?

This needn’t be the case with air quality though. Whilst the health impacts are pretty scary the solutions often lie in cutting local emissions through individual action. The Mayor’s anti-idling campaign actually provides a good template of how this can be done, effectively linking individual action on emissions to health improvement. But next time it might be better not to paint air quality as a success story before asking people to take action.


  1. Extremely hard to get the tone right. Yes, the air is better than in the past. But yes, pollution is shortening your life and lessening its quality. We unfortunately have not evolved to seriously consider long-term, incremental threats, so there's a tendency for groups on all sides to lean toward shock and fear to get a reaction.

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