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There’s no vaccine for climate change!

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…but the public may be more amenable to unpopular policies


Dear consultee,

We would like you to give us your views about these proposals. We realise that the options require communities to adjust to significant behaviour change and that many people worry about infringements to our traditional liberties. However…

This kind of consultation has become more frequent.

That is because we face two serious threats to our way of life. One is the worldwide pandemic with its dreadful consequences for individuals’ health and our economies. The other is the long-running issue of climate change. In both cases, informed opinion holds that involving people and communities is a pre-requisite for successful policy-making and effective implementation.

So, 2020 has provided us with a real-life experiment. The policy-making laboratory has enabled us to watch and learn how people react to rapid change. Behaviouralists who have speculated about a population’s tolerance of draconian interference with our lives have been able to observe what actually happens. To what extent do governments need to win the argument? To what extent will people acquiesce provided leadership is strong, and policies are considered reasonably equitable?


No wonder many climate activists are delighted with the speed with which lockdowns stopped many carbon-intensive activities in their tracks. If top-down diktats can work for a pandemic, could we, therefore, enforce much-needed behaviour change on a whole range of difficult climate change issues?

Alas, there is a big difference between the two scenarios, as the last three weeks have made clear.

The latest COVID-19 lockdowns have been assisted by the magic ingredient – hope. From the outset, scientists – with justifiable caution, offered the prospect of a vaccine. As evidence mounted and media hype gathered pace, a degree of optimism started to infect parts of society. The danger right now is that this will become a rampant surge of unrealistic expectations. Any consultation undertaken this week may have a significant dose of optimism-bias.

There is no comparable vaccine for climate change. We have no pill that can decarbonise our transport system; there are few painless, quick-fixes that reduce CO2 emissions in a hurry. And there is no prospect of ‘herd immunity’ for the planet. Even if the UK reaches its 2050 target, so many other countries must also meet theirs before meaningful progress is made. A consultation cannot easily be sugar-coated; there are few solutions with zero impacts. There is no option equivalent to ‘grin and bear it for a little while longer, and all will be well again.’ It’s likely to be a long-haul.

And yet, delve into the detail, and we find that there already exist policies that are known to make a difference. Just focus on one example – one that brings together the two scenarios of health and climate change – the introduction of Clean Air Zones (CAZ’s) in our biggest centres of traffic pollution. If ever there was a do-able local policy that communities could support, surely this is it? Tough choices for HGV fleets, difficult decisions to phase out high-emissions buses and taxis, and not wonderful news if you drive an old diesel car perhaps. But, proven to work and save lives. No wonder medics, as well as environmentalists, approve.

Yet our history on CAZs is hardly glorious. They were first provided for, legislatively, as far back as the Transport Act 2000. Still, just before the 2017 General Election, Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom had to be ordered by the Court to publish her long-delayed Air Quality Plan. Only in the last two years have CAZs started to emerge – with 12 of England’s largest cities currently committed (though Leeds seems now to have changed its mind!) Why delay?

One clue is that local authorities are wary of imposing them on reluctant communities, and the economic disaster that comes from COVID-19 makes it challenging to penalise people even further if a CAZ means more unaffordable change for hard-pressed families and communities. In the words of lawyers, BDB Pitmans’ Laura Thornton, “One of the key challenges for local authorities in developing any scheme is getting their local communities on board.” She points to the requirements to consult and stresses “the communications need to explain why a scheme is needed, the benefits it will bring and its impacts. And further, she reminds us that “There is no guarantee that a scheme will be popular, and councillors will be particularly attuned to this.”

Laura and her colleagues at BDB Pitmans are involved because the legal powers and, sometimes the infrastructure of charging – taken alongside the public engagement and consultation that’s required place a burden that can be a barrier to councils with so much else to do, as the pandemic continues to plague our nation in the weeks ahead.

Leap forward six months, however, and there is a fair chance that the vaccines may have worked their magic and inoculated enough of the population to allow recovery to start. How green will this recovery be? Will there be a fresh impetus on carbon-reduction? Or will we squander the opportunity? Much depends upon leadership in our larger local authorities. But it also depends upon communities themselves taking the initiative and lobbying for improvements in what lies around them. Air quality is but one of these measures but is surely deserving of full local consultation and debate.


  1. The joint DEFRA/Ministry of Transport Clean Air Zones framework (Feb 2020) contains useful information that may have been missed because of Lockdown. Paragraph 162 confirms the requirement to engage and consul local people.
  2. To recall the High Court action against the delay in publishing an Air Quality Plan back in 2017, click here to see
  3. Laura Thornton’s quotes are taken from her article in LocalGov magazine in September 2020. Read the Full article here .
  4. The Institute has made the case for ‘bottom up’ community activity and engagement See Bursting the Barriers to Green Recovery – Engage, Engage, Engage!
  5. The Institute will join forces with BDB-Pitmans in the New Year to hold an online Roundtable (via zoom) on the subject of Tackling the Air Quality Problem, and during which we will explore the challenges of Council-led public consultations on Clean Air Zones and other initiatives. Further details soon.

How are you affected? Does your organisation have the power to create or call for a Clean Air Zone?  Have you experience of what they mean and whether they work. Would you like to share your views at the forthcoming roundtable? Please contact the Institute office and let us know.

This is the 365th  Tuesday Topic; a full list of subjects covered is available for Institute members and is a valuable resource covering so many aspects of consultation and engagement.


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About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

Read more about Rhion

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