What Happens When Issue-Attention Moves On: The Case of ‘Neonic’ Pesticides

 Chris Rose July 2020

pdf download

In Europe, Neonic’ pesticides have dropped from the heights of the public agenda following a ‘ban’ in the EU in 2018. As anticipated in Anthony Downs’s 1972 ‘Issue Attention Cycle’, neonics seem consigned to a ‘twilight zone’, with the result that alarming new evidence of their impacts gets little attention.

This blog examines the neonic case and others, and proposes ways that campaigners (on any issue) might plan so that they stand the best chance of escalating issues where necessary, and getting around the public attention dynamic trap created by the Issue Attention Cycle. It also calls for bolder action on pesticides by well-established groups such as the RSPB.


In 1972 Anthony Downs published Up and down with ecology—the “issue-attention cycle”  describing how public interest would become ‘alarmed’ on discovering a problem, ‘euphoric’ about solving it, then hit ‘realisation’ of the costs of action, lose momentum and see interest fade away before the problem was truly resolved.  This five-stage cycle became a popular idea in political science for some years.  Is the current situation with ‘neonics’ (neonicotinoids) best known as ‘bee killing pesticides’, now a case in point?

Two truly alarming UK scientific studies have recently been published showing the levels of exposure to neonics among farmland birds, yet to no noticeable response.  The distracting effect of Covid aside, the lack of obvious reaction to these studies made me wonder if this is because Neonics were ‘banned’ in the EU from 2018 (indeed while these studies were in progress) and so are now regarded in Europe as a problem solved: a validation of the Downs hypothesis.

Back in April 2018, after a considerable struggle, NGOs campaigning in Europe declared victory, ‘a historic day’, and told their supporters ‘you did it’.  The ‘bee-killers’ were vanquished.  Neonics were prohibited from outdoor use on all main crops and it was a real success but as Downs anticipated back in 1972, it wasn’t really a problem resolved.

The Two Studies

Many studies have shown the ecological havoc wrought by ‘neonic’ insecticides but these two recent papers on birds bring detailed observational and sampling evidence to add key evidential links in the chain of cause and effect.

The first, From seeds to plasma: Confirmed exposure of multiple farmland bird species to clothianidin during sowing of winter cereals, was available in Science of the Total Environment on 19 March, and the second High prevalence of the neonicotinoid clothianidin in liver and plasma samples collected from gamebirds during autumn sowing, was available online in the same journal from 24 June.  Both were by teams led by Rosie Lennon of York University, and included Will Peach from the major bird conservation group, the RSPB.

‘Global Implications’

The first paper reported that cereal seeds treated with neonicotinoids ‘were found on the soil surface at all 25 farms surveyed’ (shortly after sowing wheat).  A much-repeated argument in the chemical industry’s case that neonics cannot be causing harm to wildlife is that they are ‘safe’ if used according to instructions, or in American parlance, to ‘the label’.  In practice that is usually impossible. In this case the Bayer Crop Science label specified that seed should be buried 4cms deep – in reality a lot was left on the surface.  Essentially similar agricultural processes exist worldwide.

Using camera traps, ‘15 species of bird were observed consuming clothianidin-treated seed at seed piles’. As I read it, the study effectively calculated the amount of neonic that birds feeding on the left-over seed (and seedlings) would consume over several weeks.  After catching birds and taking samples, ‘Clothianidin was detected in the [blood] plasma of 10/11 farmland bird species sampled. Birds consumed up to 65% of a chronic toxicity estimate for clothianidin’.  This included two birds (Yellowhammer and Tree Sparrow) which were exhibiting signs of acute poisoning when caught.

Tree Sparrow – Creative Commons Stefan Berndtsson

A third of the species and half the individual birds examine had been exposed to the neonic chemical and levels in their bodies were ‘among the highest recorded for wild birds to date’.  The study does not directly tell us anything about what would happen to birds exposed over several seasons but the authors state:

‘Overall, these data are likely to have global implications for bird species and current agricultural policies where neonicotinoids are in use’ (in 120 countries).

The second paper found 89% of gamebirds analysed after autumn seed-sowing (from carcasses of shot birds, including red-legged and grey partridges and pheasants) contained clothianidin, whereas only 11% sampled before sowing had the chemical.  Birds with higher levels of the pesticide in their livers also had more internal parasites, which the authors suggest may be due to interference of the immune system by the chemical.  (Bees affected by neonics can have increased parasite burdens).

Aside from robbing insect-eating birds of food by being very efficient at killing insects and in the case of bees, increasing their vulnerability to parasites and interfering with their ability to navigate, so reducing their chances of survival, at high enough levels neonics can kill birds directly and at lower levels, impair their ability to migrate and navigate.  A Dutch study published in Nature found a pattern of fast declining bird populations in areas with significant levels of imidacloprid, a ‘pattern of decline [which] appeared only after the introduction of imidacloprid to the Netherlands, in the mid-1990s’.  Another very recent study in Nature found ‘alarming’ effects on ants (ants are related to bees), which like bees are a huge part of the natural ecosystem.

‘Problem Solved’ in EU Would Delight The Chemicals Industry

If the European public is largely in Downs’s ‘declining interest’ phase following the breakthrough ‘ban’ of 2018 and thus not responding to new signals that neonics area problem, the chemicals industry will be delighted, because outside the European Union, neonics are in massive and increasing use around the world.  The EU is the only significant market in the world where the chemicals industry has been ‘defeated’ over neonics.

A blog by science analytics company SciEx states:

‘Given the concern about the impact of pesticides, you would expect their use to be strictly governed globally. The reality is that 35 percent of the world has zero pesticide legislation, and restrictions on neonicotinoids are only just emerging’. 

It’s not easy even to get firm data on neonic use unless you are prepared to pay sums of around $3,000 for market reports and forecasts, which is one of many reasons why campaigning on pesticides is a niche activity.  But one market analyst forecasts “robust growth” in neonics to 2025, and another notes that ‘Asia Pacific dominates the global market in terms of value and volume’.   An argochemicals industry insider told me not long ago that the industry, or at least the Europeans, thought they had ‘lost’ the battle over neonics.  It is true that there is increasing investment in alternative ‘biologicals’ but in a way similar to the fossil fuel companies investing in renewables and hydrogen while still pushing petrol, disesel and gas: the chemical companies are also expanding their existing product portfolio wherever they can.

Mainly in the US but also elsewhere, the industry is still mounting a massive ‘product defence’ lobbying and propaganda campaign, as described by Lee Fang in a January 2020 article on neonics in Intercept magazine:  The Playbook For Poisoning The Earth. Fang details activities involving Syngenta, Dow and Bayer (now incorporating Monsanto), including the ‘co-option’ of science through their domination of research funding, and promoting the views of bee-keepers willing to stress the role of disease rather than chemical pollution, in bee declines.

From Lee Fang’s Intercept article

Even in the EU, the industry is still trying to mount a rearguard action against the ‘ban’.  As Farmers Weekly reports, the British National Farmers Union and Bayer are currently challenging it in the European Court of Justice.  Analysis by Client Earth and Pesticides Action Network also found that the EU’s 2013 neonic restrictions had been circumvented 62 times by Member States exploiting an ‘emergency use’ provision, and Unearthed recently foundthis loophole had been exploited 67 times since 2018.   As I was writing this blog, Britain’s Wildlife Trusts published an excellent report Reversing The Decline of Insects, calling for national pesticide use to be cut by at least 50% but neonics are hardly mentioned.  (Neonics were covered in more detail in a 2019 Wildlife Trusts report Insect Declines and Why They Matter).

If you are at all concerned about biodiversity, neonics are a significant and literally systematic threat to whatever you are working on.  This also includes bird organisations in Europe, even if the ban is maintained and properly implemented, because about half of ‘European’ birds spend part of their lives outside Europe, such as swallows, cuckoos, swifts and nightingales which spend most of their lives in Africa.    

‘Neonic’ Back Story

Neonics are systemic insecticides, meaning they get into a plant and make it poisonous to insects.  They were invented by a Japanese subsidiary of chemical giant Bayer in the 1980s and at first were welcomed as a more targeted use of pesticide than aerial or general spraying of insecticides such as organophosphates.  It has since turned out that neonics (a) don’t stay in the target crop but get into soil, water and thus other plants such as in hedgerows, where they also kill insects, and (b) as much as 95% of neonics applied to treat seeds sown by farmers, goes straight into the environment and not into the crop.

The first neonic, imidacloprid, was launched by Bayer in 1991, followed by a dramatic crash in zooplankton and fish in Lake Shinki from 1993.

Graphic from National Geographic article.

Neonics nevertheless spread quickly around the world and a further six types have been put on the market by companies including Syngenta, Bayer, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Nippon Soda.  By 2008 neonicotinoids had taken a 24% share of the total insecticide market of  €6.330 billion.  Widespread ‘collapse’ of bee colonies began in France in 1994, as the chemical ‘Gaucho’ was introduced by Bayer and used on sunflowers.  It was Imidacloprid.  By 1999 honey production in France had been halved.

Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes became one of the leading scientific campaigners against neonics when he realised that their ‘mode of action’ had ‘much in common with that of chemical carcinogens’.   He has also pointed to the pivotal discovery in 2001 by  Luc Belzunces, a bee researcher at  theFrench agricultural institute INRA, that ‘an acute lethal dose of [neonic] imidacloprid’ was only 40 nano-grammes, much lower than most other insecticides but ‘his greatest discovery was that the lethal dose from chronic exposure … was 4,000 times less’.

Citing Rachel Carson “knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept quiet”, Tennekes (not to be confused with a Dutch climate-sceptic of the same name) decided to write a book warning the world of their danger: The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making’, published in 2010.  By that time neonics were widely implicated in disappearance of bees, birds, and later insect life in general.  ‘Silent Spring’ was becoming a reality.

Scientists at the US EPA warned about the ecological dangers posed by neonics in an internal memo released by Wikileaks in 2010: “…The proposed use on cotton poses an acute and chronic risk to freshwater and estuarine/marine free-swimming invertebrates…” and “..Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis….” 

 In the UK, the area of land treated with neonics more than doubled between 2003 and 2013. Restrictions started to be imposed elsewhere in Europe, for example in Germany from 2008, and across the EU from 2013, leading to a ‘complete’ ban on outdoor use from 2018.

There are few restrictions on Neonics in the US.  In 2018 John Tooker of Pennsylvania University worked out that an area of corn (maize), soyabean and cotton crops the size of Texas* was treated with Neonics, and noted: ‘between 2011 and 2014 the mass of neonicotinoids deployed in each crop doubled, indicating that seed suppliers applied about twice as much insecticide per seed. Unfortunately, many farmers are unaware of what is coated on their seeds, while others like the peace of mind that comes from an apparently better protected seed … Unlike most insecticides, neonicotinoids are water soluble … But only a small fraction of the insecticide applied to seeds is actually taken up by seedlings. For example, corn seedlings only take up about 2 percent …  The critical question is where the rest goes’. [Germany is 53% of the size of Texas].

Polluting Pets

Within the EU, other uses of Neonics escaped the ‘ban’, including in veterinary pesticides such as cat and flea treatments for domestic pets such as cats and dogs.  3.6m individual British pet owners have pet insurance, and part of the insurance package often involves regular ‘flea treatment’.  In 2018 The Daily Telegraph reported that charity Buglife found over 60 pet ‘flea treatments’ contained neoniotinoids, and that rivers and streams were widely contaminated, even in areas with little arable farming.

UK freshwater pollution by neonics (from Wildlife Trusts report)

Was Anthony Downs Right?

The Downs ‘cycle’ has been much discussed in academia (for example).  Downs originally wrote:

American public attention rarely remains sharply focused upon any one domestic issue for very long—even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society. Instead, a systematic “issue-attention cycle” seems strongly to influence public attitudes and behavior concerning most key domestic problems. Each of these problems suddenly leaps into prominence, remains there for a short time, and then- though still largely unresolved—gradually fades from the center of public attention. A study of the way this cycle operates provides insights into how long public attention is likely to remain sufficiently focused upon any given issue to generate enough political pressure to cause effective change.

Downs conceptual model proposed five stages: ‘Pre-Problem’ when, he said, the problem is actually worse than by the time it is recognized; ‘Alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm’ when in America, a ‘combination of alarm and confidence results in part from the strong public prerssure … for political leaders to claim that every problem can be “solved”’; ‘Realizing the cost of significant progress’; ‘Gradual decline of public interest’, and ‘The post-problem stage’, a ‘prolonged twilight’.

The original article is still worth a read.  Although writing mainly about the environment in the US, his examples were mainly drawn from other issues such as racism and poverty, some of which are very topical today.

Some of Downs’s explanations may have been overtaken in subsequent social research but there is little doubt that innate human tendencies combine to encourage individuals and groups to focus on the most acute threat perceived at any one time.

This in turn combines with the crystallising, simplifying morés of news and social media and the limited space in a ‘news agenda’ and the herd-dynamics of common focus among media actors, to define ‘the threat’ or ‘the big issue’ of the moment.  CEOs, Premiers or rulers convene to discuss ‘the issue’, and while waiting in the wings are candidates for being the next issue, the constraints of a ‘summit’ agenda and awareness of media appetitites are in themselves sufficient to create a single action focus.

The same thing happens within any ‘issue’ sector: development will have it’s top issue of the time, as will environment, human rights, and so on.  Leaders and news editors are expected to know what that is, and maybe one or two things about it but no more. In so far as politicians and other leaders want to be seen to respond to ‘public opinion’ as manifest through ‘media’ these operating norms lead to a fix-one-thing-and-move-on effect, a scaled up version of single action bias.  In an earlier blog on the history of the plastics issue I argued that happened in the early 1970s, when the popularising impact of Thor Heyerdahl’s ocean voyage helped shoot ocean pollution up the international agenda but oil pollution rather than plastic was incorporated into UN plans for action.

Once that happens, and the next issue heads the agenda, the ‘done-with-it’ effect creates a one-way valve resisting attempts to revisit the topic.  In Europe, that may be happening right now with neonics, keeping scientific (Track 2 analytical) findings off the ‘mainstream’ agenda (Track 1, run on Kahneman’s System 1 rules).

Implications of the Downs Cycle for Campaigns in General

Since Downs wrote his piece in 1972, the lines between public, media and politics have become considerably blurred, as we have moved from a mass-media world with a few channel controllers (newspapers, radio, tv etc) to a much more porous online and social media web.  But the above dynamics still have an effect.  At least in the Anglo world in recent years ‘top issues’ have included ‘bees’, rightwing political populism, Me Too, plastic, climate (at times synonymous with environment), Covid and Black Lives Matter.

In some ways the ‘onlining’ of communications has made the Downs cycle effect even stronger because ‘issue agendas’ have themselves become more globalised.  Online has made it easier for activists and campaigners to discuss and create calls-to-action internationally and even globally but that can then embed an assumption that ‘messages’ need to work globally and resolutions require global action.  Both of these can make change harder to achieve.

It may be worth campaign designers asking themselves:

  • Can you get a result without having to ‘escalate’ your demand-making conversation, given that the escalating process involves reductionist focus? For example, designing campaigns to achieve change through geographically local or regional politics (and can add together to create a wider effect).
  • Can you get a result without broadening the public conversation so that it requires endorsement by ‘general public opinion’ ? For cause groups the very idea that ‘public’ pressure is always required is often built into the organisational DNA but even a brief encounter with the methods of the Public Affairs (lobbying) industry shows that many of their successes on behalf of corporate clients, involve much more ‘below the line’ methods. This might require more effort to research, segment and communicate with specific audiences.  The default audience strategy of many campaign groups seems to be to start with their own followers or members, and then work out to the wider public, with the aspiration to ‘reach the general public’.  This is rarely necessary, may even be grandiose, and sets the highest possible hurdle.


  • Can you get a result by changing behaviours first, from which changed opinions will follow, rather than setting out to win a public argument on the assumption that this. is necessary to ‘change minds’? For example one effect of the EU ban on neonics has been that conventional farmers have had to find alternatives and some are adopting non-pesticide methods (see eg the UK Farmers Weekly).  If these changes feel good to the individuals concerned, they may be available as influential messengers among their peers or in politics.  This is very different from ‘pressuring’ people into change by asking them to change their minds (for instance in Britain many conventional farmers have long adopted a view against Organic Farming so trying to get them to ‘go organic’ raises identity issues which a switch to different technical options like companion cropping and IPM does not).   See also Increasing The Impact of Individual Behaviour Change and VBCOP.

Implications For Environmental Campaigning

Plainly neonics are far from finished business even in Europe, yet the 2018 ‘ban’ may have pushed neonics into the Downs ‘twilight zone’.  But once an issue has dropped from the peak of public attention it is of course hard to re-escalate it.  In the plastics case Why We Suddenly Have a Plastics Crisis I suggested that it was the role of two dramatic story-makers (Thor Heyerdahl in the 1970s, Charles Moore in the 1990s, both ocean-voyagers) who made the problem ‘discoveries’ in Track 1 intuitive public terms, that escalated the issue from analytical technical science world of Track 2.  The subsequent slew of public plastic campaigns rode on the back of Moore’s wave, more than making it.

It was mass bee-hive deaths that catapaulted the neonic issue into public consciousness.  They were visible, and by comparison with wild insect deaths, easy to communicate and study.  They also came with human story tellers attached (bee keepers). They were disruptive of business as usual – no crop pollination = no honey, less food.  In 2018-19 XR attempted to be the disruption that elevated climate into an immediate (political) crisis.

If neonics are to be revived as an issue from problem-solved to a salient crisis, who will do this escalation from Track 2 to Track 1 now?

Governments allowing so-called ‘emergency uses’ on farms and ongoing pollution from uses such as pet treatments (presumably also contaminating the homes of unwitting pet owners), mean neonics are still getting into the European environment.  Little work has been done in that area.

Organisations like the RSPB, one of the worlds biggest conservation groups, are also deeply involved in work of BirdlifeInternational, and in Europe like the US, many of the most loved birds are visitors from other continents, where neonics are subject to few campaigns or controls.  Millions of Britons are glued to the BBC Springwatchprogrammes each year, and millions of birdwatchers track the arrival of summer visiting birds.  Are they a potential audience for Silent Spring II?


If the environmental movement is to deal with the global neonic threat, it will need the influence of major European campaign groups both for their resources and because companies like Syngenta and Bayer are essentially European.  Which includes groups like the RSPB.  The RSPB is a much trusted brand in the UK but has taken a very cautious and low profile approach to neonics.  In 2011 when I was researching what became Friends of the Earth’s ‘bee campaign’ and small groups like Buglife were going head to head with the chemicals industry and the entire faming lobby, I asked the RSPB about Tennekees’ research and was told that their Head of Science, David Gibbons, was ‘monitoring the science’.  Rumour had it that the RSPB had decided not to take on the UK government (pro-neonic) or the pesticides industry, and that Tennekees had sent a batch of his books to leading figures in the RSPB but received little or no response.

In May 2018 I spent some hours interviewing Peter Melchett, then Policy Director director of the Soil Association (an organic farming organisation), himself a farmer, previously Executive Director of Greenpeace, an RSPB Council Member and government Minister.  Melchett, who died later that year, was full of regret about the failure of environment groups to tackle the ecological impact of pesticides, and particularly frustrated with the RSPB.

He told me:

“Do you know they [RSPB] haven’t said a single [expletive] word about neonicotinoids?  From their introduction to their banning, from their science people.  And they’ve been doing research on them for 3 years, Dave Goulson gave a talk at an RSPB science event, at the Zoological Society, must have been 3 years ago now, I went up to the guy who runs it, David something he’s called, and said “are you gonna do any work on Neonics?”  And he said “oh yes we are” … And then a year or two later I met a young person who had been a RSPB volunteer who’d worked on this project, because we got talking about neonics; I said “oh really what were you doing?” and she said “we were watching the partridges and other birds to see if they’d eat spilt neonicotinoid-treated seed”. I said “oh really fascinating did they?”  Yes they did. And Dave had already shown it took 2 or 3 – 5 seeds to kill a partridge or something? Yes relatively few. So, so far as I know, they have been sitting on this information”.

So far as I can see the RSPB has indeed said little about neonics although it hasn’t said nothing.  Search for ‘neonicotinoid’ or ‘pesticides’ on the RSPB ‘news’ listing and nothing comes up but it has posted numerous blogs at its community site, produced position papers and taken part in lobbying and scientific research.

For instance, in 2012 the RSPB was asked about use of neonics on its own experimental farm (Hope Farm).  Ian Dillon the farm manager responded ‘this is a difficult subject, as conservation farmers we want to grow as good quality and high yielding crops as we can while at the same time encouraging wildlife to thrive’, and ‘it’s not yet clear whether neonicotinoids are causing declines of pollinators in the wild.  We’ve set out our views here: www.rspb.org.uk/…/Neonicotinoids_and_bees_RSPB_position_tcm9-327906.pdf and we’re keeping this policy under review as more evidence emerges. You’ll see from our policy statement that we do intend to phase out use of neonicotinoids on our land’.

In 2015 it published a blog by Ellie Crane who said:

‘There is very strong evidence that pollinators and other wildlife are being exposed to neonicotinoids at potentially harmful levels. Some particularly worrying research recently showed that even flowers around the edges of arable fields can be contaminated – a concern for any farmer doing his or her best to help pollinators. We are therefore calling for a complete halt on all uses of neonics and a clear plan for filling in the remaining gaps in our knowledge’.

In 2017 David Gibbons published a detailed blog on tracking the science (here) linking to a large review study he was one of the authors of (here) and alluding to RSPB research on birds.   He also said ‘The recent decision by the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to support a complete ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides came as a delightful surprise’.

The project Melchett was talking about seems (July 2020) to be the one described on its website here.  According to this RSPB page, after observations of large amounts of neonicotinoid-treated seed on farmland in 2013, the study began in 2015 with ‘assessment of exposure risk’, continued in 2016, followed in 2017 by ‘assessments of NN exposure on the survival and behaviour of partridges’.    It aimed to assess: the extent to which NN-coated seeds are left exposed on soil surfaces at crop sowing; NN residues on surface seeds and in growing crops; to identify the species of birds and mammals most likely to consume NN-coated seeds; and likely impacts of NN-exposure on bird survival and behaviour. Under ‘planned work’ it says ‘We recorded bird and mammal species seen foraging on recently sown fields, and consuming NN-coated seed at concentrations of seed spillage’.

In July 2020 I contacted scientist Will Peach at the RSPB who quickly sent me two papers which seem to stem from the work Melchett encountered, and which are described above. So from a science and conventional farm management point of view, the RSPB as a conventional (not organic) farm manager with its own science programme, could probably say that it has not been ‘sitting on’ findings, only waiting for the slow process of scientific research and pubishing to take its course.

What do you do as scientists if you discover something urgently important?  This dilemma has led to an increasing proliferation of online preprints, especially since Covid.

From a campaign point of view, the RSPB may have made discoveries which might have made a significant difference in the campaign to get rid of neonics.  Of course in terms of getting change,  it’s not just publishing evidence that matters but what you do with it.

Now that the normally even more cautious Wildlife Trusts have called for a dramatic reduction in pesticide use, I hope that well-resourced environment groups like the RSPB will become significantly bolder in opposing the ecological wipe-out being caused by neonics and other agrochemicals.  If the chemicals industry gets to decide the pace of change, the global picture for many forms of wildlife and the functioning of ecosystems that humans depend upon, is not good.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Increasing The Impact Of Individual Behaviour Change

(Long post – download as a pdf)

This post outlines a simple ‘three pillar’ framework to help realise the often untapped potential of behaviour change.  Pillar 1 is private personal action in the form of a new behaviour which stays in the private domain.  Pillar 2 is where that behaviour is made available in the public domain through informal channels such as face to face in ‘the community’ or networks, and on social media, enabling escalation of the impact if it is spread to others.  Pillar 3 is where the behaviour is taken into the domain of formal networks such as politics, campaigning, media and professional organisations.

It’s obvious that if nobody else knows about the new behaviour it has no effect on others and the change-impact goes no further than the individual action.  In reality most new behaviours (for example those that cut climate pollution, such as replacing a diesel/petrol car with an electric one, or eating less meat) do have some effect on others but if they are actively communicated, and especially if this is done effectively, for instance using heuristics, values and framing, the effect can be magnified.

It argues that a huge amount of ongoing and potential behaviour change by individuals is having far less impact than it could, because little effort is put into deliberately catalysing its spread to others, such as friends and family, neighbours, and others in a community or network.

Some ‘top down’ campaigns aimed at securing change through force of government regulation or the power of corporate decision-making, ignore individual behaviour change.  Other social marketing campaigns encourage only individual action.  Too often the ‘middle ground’ is left to look after itself.  This can leave highly motivated individuals worrying that their individual actions have little effect (eg ‘climate anxiety’), while the potential for adopters to become ‘champions’ and convert others, goes unrealised.

Cause groups often put a lot of effort into recruiting people into a ‘supporter journey’ leading to escalating activism or donations. The large number of people who are for one reason or another, not readily convertible to donors or activists, are frequently ignored.  Here I argue that they could make gains if more individual behaviours became more public, where these align with change goals – working to escalate behaviour visibility not just to escalate activism or donating.

The debate over whether campaigns should be top-down or bottom-up is long-running and when driven by competing ideological theories of change it probably can’t be resolved.  But for pragmatists, escalating the impact of individual behaviours so it is manifest in the ‘middle ground’ of society – the networks and communities between the individual and the ‘public’ – could make a significant difference on many issues.

The examples I give are mainly climate-related but the principles apply to many issues.

Remember The Climate Emergency ?

It may be hard to remember now but at least in some countries, in the world BC (Before Covid), the thing ‘everyone wanted to talk about’ was the Climate Emergency.

Worldwide Google Trends searches for ‘Climate Emergency’ (blue) and ‘Coronavirus’ (red) from 1 Jan 2019 to 8 June 2020, the latter copied and super-imposed. Apologies if this is an abuse of the Google Trends system – I couldn’t get them to work together.

In winter 2019 Bob Earll asked me to contribute to the January 2020 ‘Coastal Futures’ conference [1] in a session on climate change and communications. This annual event mainly attracts marine environmental professionals.  Earll worried that his audience, who were pretty well-informed about the science, had become ‘habituated’ to the issue and so not everyone was treating it as an emergency.  And many of those increasingly seized by the need to ‘do something’ beyond dealing with climate in some aspect of their day job, were in despair about whether individual action could ‘make a difference’.

The previous year an interactive session had showed that while it was not a topic presented at the conferences, his audience was already engaged with a wide range of pro-climate behaviours in their domestic/ personal lives.

That year I shared some slides about the use of ‘Track 1 tools’ of values, framing and heuristics in translating communication from technical/analytical (Track 2) terms used in professional and scientific communication, into intuitive terms for public communication.  This year Earll asked me to show how this could help individual action make a ‘bigger difference’ on climate.  (See conference presentation here, along with others on climate and psychology by Ralph Rayner, Sabine Pahl and John Englander.   Track 1 and 2 explanation here).

Proposed Model For Personal Action Escalation

Personal Action Escalation (Download bigger file) – a Three Pillar schematic

After some head-scratching I came up with the simple three pillar Personal Action Escalation model (revised shareable version above).   It’s based on three contexts or ‘pillars’ for action and effort to bring about change.  The above is not exactly rocket science and social marketers will recognize many things in it that they already do.  I’d be interested to hear of other methodologies which may be better – do contact me and please do leave a comment on this post.

Pillar 1 is individual behaviour change or behaviour ‘adoption’, Pillar 2 is further adoption through informal community or networks, and Pillar 3 is involvement with organised channels of decision-making, politics or campaigns.  These are in effect choices for an individual: you can just ‘stay’ in (1) or engage others and get into (2) or also (or only) get involved at (3).

Pillar 1 – I Make A Change

Assuming a situation where you as an individual want to do something yourself, it suggests thinking about your opportunities to make a change in behaviour at home, at work or at play (Pillar 1).

For example (in relation to climate): choices for diet, holidays, recreation, gardens, transport, energy, clothing, tech, services, investments, pets, building …

If this is not communicated to others, the change effect is contained here.  If for instance, I switch from a petrol car to an electric one, or from a ‘ordinary’ mixed source electricity supply to a green tariff, the beneficial climate effect is only proportional to the emissions that choice displaces, and nobody else may know about it.

If it ends here, net change is proportional only to the additive effect of all individual changes.  But if each individual change influences others, it’s more than additive, and if that continues, it can even become exponential (the ‘r’ rate above 1, one of the few bits of population biology to have entered popular consciousness, thanks to Covid).  In reality many things can stop a sustained chain of contagion from developing but it’s quite easy to get a degree of contagion.

Pillar 2 – Community Spread

Once a behaviour exists, we can ‘add value’ and multiply the impact by engaging others through informal channels, including face to face (F2F) and social media.  If I show my neighbour or relatives what I’ve done and they do the same, the effect is increased, and so on. The ‘Track 1’ tools of values, heuristics and framing can enhance the communication.

The Pillar 2 diagram above is my indicative British take on informal channels, contexts, moments or events in communities or networks, in other words the sorts of opportunities where this communication could happen:

 social media, meeting at the Primary School gate, fetes, talking to neighbours, meeting other dog walkers, local news, local council meetings, community boards in supermarkets, Christmas, the pub, a film club, a bar-b-que, the library, a gym or sports club, shops, and a party (adjust for covid lockdowns). 

If you make your own list of such touchpoints you’d of course want to take account of age, lifestage, lifestyle, disposable income and personal commitments (eg to children) to get a diverse range.

Applying these ‘Track 1 tools’ to enhance contagion of behaviours (emulating/ reproducing what someone else is doing) is more likely to work than trying to use them to get someone to adopt a new behaviour just by argument or advocacy, from a standing start.  Indeed advocacy often does not even specify a behaviour. Matched values, heuristics (cognitive biases) and framing can act like communications enzymes, as behavioural catalysts.

Seeing something done and then doing the same yourself, is the well known ‘social-proof’ heuristic.  A ‘heuristic’ just means that at a population level it’s likely to have that effect more than it does not (read Robert Cialdini or How to Win Campaigns ).  Add a values filter and you get a more refined design.  Settlers are more affected by social proof than Pioneers but it will help if the example ‘doer’ is someone like them, preferably someone they know (similarity, identity).  Prospectors likewise but it helps if the ‘doer’ is a success-model.  Pioneers are also affected by social proof but less so and in four different ways.  Framing it ‘right’ helps a lot but it needs testing on a case by case basis.

Graphics from Coastal Future talk

Above – some things a new electric car owner could do with a car to communicate her example. She’s already put it on twitter.  She could also take friends for a ride, park it where the neighbours would see it, hold a new car party or use it to give someone a lift – here it suggested giving young people a lift to the School Strikes (a genuine problem where I live, leading parents to drive their children to the strikes, usually in fossil-fuel powered cars).

A green tariff example might simply be if you switched to a green electricity supply and then communicated that to friends and neighbours, and they did likewise.  There is a suggestion of how to make this largely ‘invisible’ choice more visible and ‘transportable’, below.

Social Media

Social media, ‘old media’ and mediated media have considerably converged but as the lockdown experience demonstrated, human beings are social animals and so far, technologies like Zoom cannot substitute for the power of In Real Life (IRL) interactions.  So this process of trying to escalate the effect of individual action is going to work best where social media and F2F or other ‘community’ contagion work together.

If the campaign delivery mechanism is itself online – eg an online petition or purchase – then social media alone may be sufficient but in many cases, campaigns require real life action, and even an ostensibly pure-online mechanism like a petition, not only usually asks for an IRL action but will be more effective if validated by IRL communication, such as what family members say to a decision-maker, face to face.

Moreover, most effective online mobilisations require a social object, usually an IRL activity.

Social media makes the transaction cost of contacting others very low compared to the effort that may be involved in F2F and other channels but it also makes it very easy to acknowledge someone’s example (eg behaviour) in a positive way (invoking the liking effect, eg literally a Facebook ‘like’) without even sharing, let alone changing a substantive behaviour.  This can have the effect of stopping a chain of contagion.  The commitment (to act) effect generated by a personal F2F interaction is likely to be much greater, if only because of the effort involved (see this blog on online and offline petitions).

The Power of Utility: the Fax Dynamic

“American wedding guest: Do you actually know Oscar Wilde?” Gareth: “Not personally no. But I do know someone who could get you his fax number. Shall we dance?”

Four Weddings and A Funeral, second wedding scene

The holy grail of behaviour contagion is a new behaviour which gives you the doer more reward if others do it too, so you have an active incentive to spread it to others.  An ancient technological example is the fax machine.  The first one was incredibly expensive and useless in that there was nobody to send a fax to.  The second one was ‘better’ for the users and the utility increased with every adoption leading to the ‘fax dynamic’ (“you really should get one – so we can fax each other”).  Users became advocates: a free sales force.  And of course faxes got cheaper. Social media apps and messenger services can spread this way.

The spread of the integrated ATM network, now being phased out as cash is used less and less,  was driven by card-holders frustrated that they could not get money from another bank.  Once they started to migrate to banks with bigger networks, the banks had an incentive to ‘merge’ their networks. Right now electric cars are creating a similar dynamic as users become lobbyists for more and better charging points.

VISA is famously a chaordic network brand (a term coined by VISA founder, Dee Hock) with hardly any centre, which spread because it was useful to users, both buyers and sellers.

Change campaigns and movements are not usually selling technology or monetized services so what is their product utility ?  It’s not usually just the issue campaign objective but something to do with motivational values.  To be part of something, a community, an assertion or conservation of identity, safety, security or belonging (Settlers).  To achieve, to be part of a visible success, to have a good time socially, respected, famous or admired (Prospectors).  To have new and additional agency in changing the world ‘for the better’, to ‘give back’ (Transcender Pioneers), to be innovative and self-expressive (Flexible Individualist Pioneers), to live ethically (Concerned Ethical Pioneers), to seek a different way (Transitional Pioneers).

Pillar 3 – Engagement With Formalised Processes

To escalate personal action further, it can be taken into more formally organised channels such as associations, NGO campaigns, local politics and government, the media or affinity groups.  By formalised I mean anything which is an entity recognizably designed to take or influence decisions – from XR to a rally to local government.

Taking the example of a green tariff, if we users now persuade our elected councillors to also switch to a green tariff and the Council then does the same to power its own assets, the effect of our example is escalated (an example of going from Pillar 1 to 2 to 3).

In the UK the electric car charging network is already and live issue in local council discussions and councils which have signed up to declare a Climate Emergency are in a difficult position if they don’t act on it.  Due to fears about coronavirus transmission, the UK government has also advised people to avoid public transport with the consequence that (I heard) some London firms are looking at more parking to facilitate more car commuting – an opportunity for electric car ownership or maybe better rental, to resolve a dilemma.

Social Validation

An advantage of Pillar 3 action is that it can utilise institutional knowledge and assets as in a Campaign Organisation, making it possible to create focused strategic campaigns, including with the collaboration and cooperation of many people.   A disadvantage is that it can appear ‘tall but shrill’. It may embody a case by aggregating and mobilising a narrow section of society, and might manifest this through opinion polls or other statistics but it may not   be much evidenced through ‘real life behaviours’, necessary to create ambient community level signals.  Such campaigns can look as if they are not ‘real’ but ‘mainly an online phenomenon’ or ‘on tv’.

Being locally present is part of the case for an ‘Organised’ base of ‘local’ groups but if all those groups do is to articulate demands, rather than adopt behaviours aligned-to or consistent-with the demands, they can appear to be purely ‘political’.  In other words ‘local’ but still ‘theoretical’ or ideological.

The out-take from that may be to signal that this is something a section of people want but for which there is no evidence that if the demand was agreed to, it would be widely welcomed or that the intended behaviour would actually be adopted.  Action speaks louder than words.  Walking the talk makes it credible.  Just aggregating the strongest ‘believers’ and showing them to other people may simply make it clear that ‘we are not like you’ (reversing the similarity heuristic).  In contrast, organisations or movements which are socially embedded in ways that reach across differences, such as by providing community services, can avoid this problem.

An example of winning the media ‘air-war’ but not the political ‘ground-war’ is the way that the British green movement failed to repel a campaign by climate-sceptic politicians intent on disabling the government onshore wind programme, which has since spent four critical years in the doldrums (see blog ‘Killing The Wind of England’).  Opinion polling consistently showed high public support for onshore wind farms but there was no grounded community-level campaign to match the organised effort of a very small but very active and visible anti-wind campaign which presented itself as ‘community’ based and persistently lobbied local MPs face to face.  (In 2020 the policy was again reversed but not completely, as market access was granted but planning obstacles remained in place).

In the paper ‘Tragedy or Scandal’, I explored how Extinction Rebellion UK succeeded in raising public consciousness of the climate crisis in 2018-19.  XR’s ‘theory of change’ involved the ultimate top-down change of replacing the government, through ‘grass-roots’ mobilisation of several million ‘rebels’.

Yet even by XR’s own estimates, its national ‘rebellions’ only ever attracted a maximum participation of 30,000 over a week, and it deliberately eschewed any role for personal action, such as individuals buying green energy, or buying or renting electric cars.  When in 2020 it switched to trying to ‘decentralise’ its tactics of social disruption (eg in Cambridge), it suffered problems of community-level rejection and had little social validation to give it strength in depth.

If Pillar 3 type campaigning is  seen to grow out of Pillar 2 type social contagion, it has a legitimacy conferred by ‘community level’ action, rather than concerns of ‘elites’.

If politicians see people spending their own time or money on something it demonstrates that they ‘really care’ about it in an instrumental, not just an expressive way.  Seeing it spread in ‘a community’ shows politicians not just that it is popular but that it has the potential to grow.

Politicians are well aware that what people do has an enormous effect on their opinions.  Getting rid of fossil fuels has been hard not just because of the malign lobbying activities of the fossil fuel companies but because so many people have been using them in day to day life.  By the same token, the more people take up alternative behaviours, such as buying or renting electric vehicles, the more ‘political space’ there is to phase out fossil fuelled cars.  The more obvious that behaviour change becomes – the more salient it is – the more it undermines the political grip of the fossil fuel lobby, making a top-down campaign effort more likely to succeed.

So when ‘bottom-up’ individual change begins to occupy ‘the middle’, being perceived as a thing ‘the community’ is doing, or ‘the town’ is doing, or a majority is thinking of doing, it triggers what public affairs expert, the late Simon Bryceson called “the law of political anticipation”: politicians react, not to events, but to what they anticipate will happen.  In this way ‘consumer change’, rather than political theory or ideology, increasingly leads and catalyses political as well as retail decision-making.

Our mental model of politics may still say something like, ‘every few years politicians write a manifesto, voters are engaged at an election the politicians get elected on the basis of that programme which is the implemented in government’.  If that was ever the reality, it isn’t now.  Politicians are engaged in a permanent campaign, and in government they often navigate government with the two crude yardsticks of popularity (staying on the right side of what the public want, in a constant back-stage trade-off with what vested interests want) and feasibility (what can be done).  Big behaviour signals from the public act to lower the threshold to acting on evidence of feasibility.

Making The Invisible Visible

Unlike solar panels, green tariffs, along with ethical bank accounts and investments, are socially invisible, so just making this behaviour visible could in itself make a difference.  Simple measures could change this, such as some sort of sign that a house is using green power.  In the UK, homes of richer people used to have ‘fire-marks’: plaques indicating that the owners held private fire insurance, and showing the house was subscribed to a private fire service.  That practice died out after public fire services were introduced and in past-obsessed Britain the plaques are now a treasured part of our built heritage, and a status symbol for householders.

House Fire Mark from Wikipedia – the Hand in Hand Fire & Insurance Society operated from 1696 to 1905

Some green energy providers do send out window stickers to customers but these are not very attractive, visible or durable.  To work, such ‘signalling’ mechanisms would need to be well designed and appealing to householders, so they actually want to have them on their home.  This would be a straightforward thing to research and brief, or run in a design competition.

Another approach could be to make statutory Home Energy Rating schemes visible.  These already rate buildings by stars or A B etc grades depending on their energy efficiency in countries such as Australia, the US and UK.  The certificate may be a legally required documentation if a building is to be sold.   The rating could be mandated to appear on the outside of a building.

In 2015 before the Paris climate talks, I suggested that we could require green pilot lights on electric cars, to make them a more obvious signal of change.  On 16 June Sky News reported that the UK government is to introduce a green flash on electric car number plates to encourage the switch.  It’s great although I still like the green lights which could go on many renewable installations.

From Sky News – Green Flash Number Plates                           

Catching People Doing Something Good

Drawn up for the Coastal Futures conference,  the ‘three pillars’ discussed above are laid out as choices for an individual.  However from a campaign organisation’s perspective, the biggest potential gain is probably to engage new audiences, drawn from people who are adopting behaviours aligned with change objectives but who are not engaged by campaigning.  Working with these people can help diversify effective support for change as well as growing it.  Doing it successfully probably does not mean immediately trying to turn them into campaign activists or donors, but helping them become behaviour champions.

What does this mean in practice?  Locate people doing something consistent with your campaign goals.  It might be buying or renting an electric car.  Directly or indirectly congratulate them for doing a good thing.  Show other people that the behaviour is a good thing.  Then encourage or enable the first group to do more by sharing their behaviour with others.  It’s not a highly sophisticated process.

This approach of ‘catching people doing something good’ is quite well known in business, used in staff motivation, in innovation, and in politics.  Marketers use it by directly or indirectly making people aware that ‘people like you’ (the similarity heuristic) ‘also did this’, or ‘surveys show people doing A are X% more likely than others to do B’, and making sure the people who see that have done A, in order to prompt them to do B.

Giving praise or enabling people to bask in reflected glory is also likely to make people a bit warmer towards the messenger (the liking heuristic).  For some, probably a small minority, this might even make them candidates to convert into campaign activists but for many, the gulf between their personal lives (eating less meat) and what they often see as ‘political’ action (for example e-mail my MP about livestock farming), is far larger than many change campaigners realise.  Those working in change organisations are surrounded by people with far higher self-agency than the great majority of the population and so overestimate the appetite for activism.  But people are likely to be much more confident about sharing their new behaviours, especially with familiar contacts.

Different levels of self-agency and dominant needs among values-group act like a social sieve in sorting people exposed to a change-campaign proposition, leaving the end-of-the-line Transcender Pioneers as the group hugely over-represented in such organisations. (A process illustrated in How Change Campaigns Get Populated By The Usual Suspects).

A bonus with this approach is that although it might take a bit of thinking through and some research, you haven’t had to first put in the time and effort to get people to adopt a behaviour in the first place.  Strangely this is also why ‘behavers’ are often ignored by campaigns: triaged-out as ‘that’s happening anyway’ and so they don’t need attention.  But with some positive feedback – a psychological reward – they are a bit more likely to do something else along the same lines (consistency – see also the VBCOP model linking values, behaviour, opinion and politics) and possibly reach out to others.

Potential Scale

On some issues the potential behaviour signal may be large.  It may be much bigger than the number of people consciously engaged in explicit campaigns and change movements.

On climate for example, the numbers of people changing diet, or buying electric cars or signing up to renewable energy, are pretty big.  As a result of the covid-lockdown experience, cycling has been booming in Britain, at least in some cities. (up tenfold in London).


Changing diet – which has multiple motivations – is large scale.  In May 2020 polling company IPSOS reported:

‘In a global survey of more than 20,000 people across 29 countries, more than two in five people (41%) say they’ll eat less meat or replace it with alternatives like beans in the next year to limit their contribution to climate change.  Another third (35%) say they’ll eat fewer dairy products or replace it with alternatives like soya milk’.

IPSOS Mori survey 7 May 2020

Interestingly, the survey also found that on both eating less meat and on less dairy, it was those in developed countries who were less willing, and those in developing countries who were more willing.  In this case the question started by asking what people would be willing to do in the coming year to make a difference to climate change.  But if any campaign has the objective of reducing meat consumption, with whatever aim in mind, the reason an individual has for changing diet does not necessarily matter.  If they then share this in a way that encourages others to do the same, the contagion and escalation in numbers helps achieve that objective.  ‘Market signals’ do not just influence commercial decision-makers but also political ones.


Elsie The Cow – the large US milk producer Borden filed for bankruptcy in 2020 (image from Wikipedia)

Globally the amount of milk produced and drunk is increasing each year but in the mature US market it is falling and has declined 25% since 1975.

Falling UK milk consumption

In the UK, there is an even more pronounced trend of declining milk production in the UK (though not for cheese). Per capita UK milk consumption has fallen 50% since 1974, with non-dairy alternatives increasing.

Green Electricity

Shot from animation of the spread of solar panels in a part of Colorado, from a Vox article

A well known case of the social-proof heuristic is the clustering of solar power installations on domestic properties – behaviour influenced by the example of neighbours.  Some clustering is down to social housing provision but in private housing, it’s an individual decision. This contagion study of 60,000 homes with solar pv in Switzerland found that the more visible the panels were, the greater effect they had on encouraging others to get solar pv too.  Similar results have been reported from the United States and Germany.

In the UK, as of 2018/2019, UK government data suggests some 858,000930,000 households have solar pv on their properties, close to a million.  The UK average household is 2.4 people meaning that perhaps 2.3m live in homes with solar pv (about 4% of the population).  These aren’t the only people with ‘their own’ renewable power – they and others can also buy ‘green tariff’ electric power from the grid.  As of June 2018 30% of tariffs offered to UK customers were classed as ‘green’.

From Ofgem State of the Energy Market 2018

Customer numbers are harder to come by but www.comparethemarket.com says  its (undated) research found one in seven UK households have switched to a green tariff (14%) and 31% were thinking of doing it.   There are 28.4m domestic electricity customers in the UK so 14% would be around 4m bill payers.  Chris Goodall of Carbon Commentary says he suspects the number of ‘green tariff’ households is now over 4m, perhaps 5 or 6m. Octopus Energy alone has over 1.5m customers and only offers green electricity.

Although electricity users ‘going green’ is not socially intrusive or politically disruptive activism as XR’s escalating ‘rebellions’ were intended to be, it is a redirection of power generation.  Although many electricity suppliers run ‘recommend-us-to-a-friend’ incentives,  so far as I know, nobody in UK civil society has tried to engage this huge number of climate-friendly householders to go a step further into other climate-saving actions.

Other Behaviours

How much more ‘consistent’ behaviour change is going on?  I don’t know but on the environment, it looks like quite a lot.  As I noted in ’10 Things About Covid and Campaigns’ the pandemic interruption of Business As Usual has prompted new behaviours which are more likely to last than the ‘new ideas’ it has surfaced, if these do not lead to new habits before a new normal sets in.

A much discussed area is transport.  The official UK survey of environmental attitudes and behaviours has not been updated since 2014 but a survey by a leading UK driver’s association the AA, found in May 2020 that half of 20,000 drivers sampled said they would walk more and 40% intended to drive less.  In April the President of the AA, Edmund King, said that anecdotal evidence on more working from home during the covid epidemic suggested that planned government spending on roads would be better spent on improving broadband, and in May he called for a roads pricing scheme to encourage drivers to switch to cycling. That’s pretty amazing stuff.

In February a ‘global’ IPSOS survey (20,000 across 29 countries) found ‘71% of adults globally agree that, in the long term, climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid-19 is’.  In June an industry analysis forecastglobal electric car rentals would increase 11% a year 2020-2024 despite Covid, and in April the electric car market overall was forecast to grow by 23% a year to 2027.

My intention is not to encourage anyone to campaign for electric cars – there are all sorts of view pro and con – but only to suggest that there are huge numbers of people changing their behaviours and the potential audience this creates this should be considered by change organisations.

Concluding Thoughts

Escalating the effect of personal behaviour change could make a huge difference to many causes, campaigns and movements. It’s a largely untapped potential and could have a catalytic effect on both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ change efforts.

Research by Anne Owen of the University of Leeds shows that the signal of individual behaviour change in terms of household expenditure, can be detected in changing the UK’s national carbon footprint.  In other words, with a lot of statistical detective work, she confirmed the obvious truth that, at scale, individual behaviour decisions do have a big effect.  For instance trends and fashions in consumer behaviour on the negative side, such as buying SUVs.

So why is this often fiercely denied by some theorists, activists and campaigners but promoted by others?   It may come down to a combination of pre-existing ideological commitments and, just as important, methodological commitments to business as usual.

Business As Usual

A shift to spending time in the middle-ground of ‘community’ or ‘network’ behaviour escalation requires looking at potential public audiences in a different way, and doing public engagement which is not about donating or supporter activism.

The default public universe of a ‘supporter journey’ strategy (left) starts with a wide funnel and narrows it as commitment to the organisation is promoted.  A behaviour escalation strategy aims (right) to spread the behaviour across the population, so it expands. 

This may run counter to internal targets and priorities set to optimise income and take people along ‘supporter journeys’.  An unintended effect, or at least, a rarely interrogated consequence, can be that the campaign develops and satisfices its own support and mobilisation bubble, and measures success by what can be done within that resource, rather than experimenting outside it.  Promoting positive public behaviours beyond the bubble is often left to the market and government ‘public information’ campaigns, which may not exist.


At least in the UK, the idea that campaigns have to chose between a bottom up or a top down approach is so deeply entrenched as a polariser and simplifier, that it’s hard to have a campaign strategy conversation without it coming up.  ‘Behaviour-change’ campaigns, whose starting point is individual decisions, are often seen as bottom-up, and by many as not having much of an ‘up’ at all.  But this is political not just technical.

The top down/bottom up dichotomy doesn’t really capture how a lot of actual change takes place but it mirrors a dominant political axis.  At one end libertarians espouse individualism and personal responsibility, and at the other contemporary liberalism, socialism and some other isms.  The former promoting less government and the free-market and the latter favouring government intervention.

In a country like the UK with highly centralised power, these political differences translate into ‘right-left’ party political choices.  Without having to be explicitly acknowledged, these then colour and underpin the attitude of many campaigners to which strategies and tactics to adopt: individual behaviour change as a solution is often mapped onto the right, and government-action onto the left.  Anti-capitalism also leads some people to reject any change which involves consumer choices.

A combination of these prior and often tacit commitments can make both campaign NGOs and self-styled ‘progressive’ social movements deeply conservative about their strategies and tactics.  In this case it may mean they ignore individual behaviour change and the scope to escalate it at a community or network level, even where it’s aligned with their goals.  So perhaps this potential will only be realised if new actors take it up?

Written before the covid pandemic took hold,  ‘Tragedy or Scandal?’ looked at the ‘new climate movement’ of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, and suggested that we need a complementary new ‘social movement’ or campaigns to leverage household expenditure aligned to goals such as action on climate.

Culture ?

Is the individual-bottom-up versus top-down dichotomy partly cultural?  It may be. Perhaps it is not such a divide in countries which are less individualistic than ‘western’ Anglo societies, for instance in Asia where community acceptance tends to be an important norm in many walks of life, from business to family and possibly campaigns.  I’d be interested to hear from others about that.

It would also be great to hear about examples of campaigns which already do try to escalate individual personal action

Some change organisations already set out to send these sorts of community-level signals and to encourage individual action. Rachel Collinson suggests the Fair Trade campaign or movement, as an example, maybe along with Transition Towns.  Fair Trade supporters have long set up displays of Fair Trade products in shops or community venues and got some towns to name themselves as Fair Trade Towns.

One way of making a movement locally visible

Finally, Bob Earll the conference organiser has also been doing his own experimentation.  In 2019 he asked 93 delegates to the Exeter Marine Network conference “what actions are you taking personally” in relation to the climate emergency.  His results are here.  The 93 individuals generated 299 responses, of which 72 concerned diet, 69 travel, 31 energy, 12 trees and gardens, 30 consumption, 23 activism (ie pillar 3) 29 plastics, 16 actions at work, 10 communications and 7, other things.

Bob has also produced two documents he’d appreciate comments on (please contact him directly).  The first is A Guide to Individual Action on the Climate Emergency which includes a lot of information about other such guides and lists as well as his own.  The second is a description of a very interesting idea by Maggie Bligh that he is piloting with friends, and was prompted by a desire to get rid of plastic in people’s lives, and is called a Can Do Café.  Both of these are relevant to ‘Pillar 2’ behaviour escalation discussed above.


Thanks to Bob Earll, Chris Goodall and Rachel Collinson.

Please leave a comment if you have one and share this post if you find it interesting.

[1] The UK ‘Coastal Futures Conference’ was held in mid January. Organised by marine biologist Bob Earll, it’s an annual event attended by about 400 people.  The audience is mainly environmental professionals from conservation, planning, regulatory agencies and marine industries, along with some academics and and journalists.

Bob asked me and others to contribute to a session ‘The Climate Emergency and How We All Respond’, saying There are three key messages that I would like the audience to take away from this session; 1.The Climate Emergency is just that and much more serious than people realise 2. Understanding the problem is important but now How we respond now crucial …3. Since the societal and environmental changes will affect us all I’d like the entire audience to get the message that they can’t leave this to somebody else to sort out and they need to act”.

Earll has been running these conferences since 1994 and describes the audience (including himself) as ‘habituated’ to climate change as an issue.  Well informed and professionally engaged but for many, until the ‘Climate Emergency’ broke as a dominant social issue, climate change was something they dealt with in their work silos rather than through ‘political’ activism or personal lifestyle change.  Thousands of similar gatherings take place the world over. It’s not a small ‘audience’ in itself. In the UK alone the EIC says it provides ‘373,000 good jobs’ but others say the renewables industry alone employs 250,000.  At any event, it’s a lot.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Too Much DAD Leads To DADA

Too much Decide Announce Defend (Abandon)

The UK government, or to be more accurate the English Government which is the bit directly led by Boris Johnson with the advice of the propaganda specialist Dominic Cummings, continues to write the textbook of how not to handle a coronavirus crisis.  Communications failures are a central factor.

Two days ago the Daily Mail, normally a supporter of right-wing governments, reported

‘Boris Johnson’s government has the worst approval rating in the WORLD for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic – below even Donald Trump despite the US having the highest death toll’.

From the Daily Mail – based on a YouGov poll

The Johnson government has navigated the covid epidemic like a drunk in charge of a runaway car, in a series of crashes and u-turns.  On top of this it has failed to show any leadership in a massive public row over the Black Lives Matter-led campaign to remove the country’s numerous statues commemorating people who were slavers or who benefitted from the trade.

One cause of this incompetent performance is the Johnson-Cummings addiction to old-style Decide-Announce-Defend, or DAD.  As I explored in much more detail in this Newsletter back in 2010, DAD may have worked quite well in a Settler-dominated  society which respected or at least did not challenge ‘authority’, which was the case in the UK as late as the 1970s but it does not work in a society in which the majority are the more critical (evidence-demanding) Prospectors and the more questioning, involvement-seeking Pioneers (see previous blog).

Share Consult Decide – SCD

The result is that DAD turns into DADA – or Decide Announce Defend Abandon, at the cost of credibility and public trust.  Under the last UK Labour administration there was a trend to seek ‘evidence-based’ policy and officials and Ministers gradually turned away from DAD because of communications evidence showing that it simply did not work, to more consultation and involvement.   Working for the Environment Agency on seeking public backing for flood policy and preparation, my suggestion at the time was to replace DADA with SCD – Share, Consult, Decide.  Another consultant running public engagement exercises pursued much the same thing but as EDD – Engage, Deliberate, Decide.

This is exactly what the Johnson government has not done in the Covid/Corona virus outbreak.  It has been secretive, not even wanting to reveal the names of its scientific advisers on ‘SAGE’ until forced into it by leaks to The Guardian, finally prompting a retired government Chief Scientist to set up a parallel open source version of SAGE.

Secrecy around the covid SAGE experts committee may have been driven by a desire to control the media agenda but instead led to the establishment of an independent alternative and loss of control.  Here the Independent SAGE criticised a plan to re-open schools without adequate preparation and reduction of the disease – the government subsequently u-turned on the policy.

It lacks an evidence-based culture, treating science as a pick-and-chose prop to shore up its policies and perfering bluster, spin and constant resort to values dog-whistles to try and inflame support from it’s Settler base (Cummings’s speciality), and use of Lynton Crosby ‘dead-cat’ distraction tactics, as if it was still running the smoke-and-mirrors style Brexit campaign which brought together Johnson and Cummings.  But real-world governance is not like running an election or referendum campaign.

The government has managed to alienate most of those ‘on the ground’ charged with or left with trying to deliver its covid crisis policy, by making announcements about what will happen before telling them, and not involving them in making or testing policy. It has announced a policy of localised lockdowns without agreeing that with Local Authorities.  It has avoided engaging local Public Health experts and General Practice doctors and instead out-sourced testing and other key logistics to centralised commercial suppliers – with disastrous results.  It has announced policies on opening and then not re-opening schools without any meaningful consultation with teachers, and did the same with the police on rules, regulations and ambiguous ‘guidance’ on travel and lockdown terms (then broken by Cummings himself).

In the last week it suddenly announced that all hospital staff would need to use masks from a few days time without consulting NHS hospitals.  Today, amidst uproar about its latest schools u-turn it suddenly announced that zoos and safari parks would re-open, a move widely seen as an attempt at distraction by playing the animals and children card.   Meanwhile its own MPs are kicking up about a decision by Home Secreatry Priti Patel to impose a blanket two-week quarantine on all incoming air travellers, which flies in the face of all available evidence.  Even some Conservative commentators see that as an ‘anti-foreigner’ dog whistle from the Cummings stable.  Given the UK’s continuing high covid rate it would make more sense to quarantine people going out of the UK than coming in.  (Patel’s policy is being dismantled by the government bit by bit; given time, the zoos may yet yield their own fiasco).  And there are plenty of other examples.

Meanwhile London Mayor Sadiq Khan took a step in the Share-Consult-Decide direction by announcing a review of all the ‘slaver’ statues in London, after the Black Lives Matter protests led first to the toppling of a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, and then the removal of a statue of Robert Milligan in London’s docklands.

The statue issue is of course a long-running one but re-ignited by the blowtorch of international outcry over the murder of George Floyd.  It has already provoked an avalanche of debate and position-taking about what should happen, who should decide, what should happen to the statues removed, what they should be replaced by if anything, and the pros and cons of the symbolism and the possible impact of the statues issue on the wider question of  practical action to reduce and eliminate racism in the UK.  Personally I’d favour putting them in an open-air history-of-slavery museum and replacing them with something decided on through public involvement.

Facilitating national debate on racism, slavery and our imperial past is an un-appetizing prospect for government as it promises at the very least, the prospect of a ‘logjam of violent agreement’ as people with different values agree on something that should be done but not why or how.  But it’s not something government can or should ignore.  Sadly, if Covid’s anything to go by, Johnson’s government looks unlikely to handle it well, and may start by trying to deflect it before making an ill thought-out announcement and having to abandon it.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Values Group Changes In The UK 1973 – 2020

Every few years the motivational values researchers CDSM Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing run a national survey to take a snapshot of values groups in the UK, broken out as 12 Values Modes and three large ‘Maslow Groups’, Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers.  (For explanation and links to the many papers/blogs using this system at this website see here).

Pat Dade at CDSM has just shared some 2020 results with me, which I’ve summarised in this post.  ‘Values’ in this sense are linked sets of attitudes and beliefs which are deeply and largely unconsciously held to be true – how the world really is.  We see the world through them and they play a big role in how we interpret information, developments, opportunities etc.   They tend to change slowly, and numerous researchers such as Ron Inglehart in the World Values Survey, have tracked them changing across generations.

The current UK survey – conducted in early May in the midst of the covid epidemic – shows the proportion of Pioneers (Inner Directeds) and Prospectors (Outer Directeds) have both slightly increased since 2016, while the proportion of Settlers (Security Driven) have slightly decreased (this is a zero sum game – everyone is in just one of these Maslow Groups or the smaller Values Modes within them).

This continues the long term trend of the society becoming more Pioneer-ish as a gradually increasing proportion of the population meet their needs for safety, security and identity (hence individuals moving from Settler to Prospector), and for esteem (hence moving from Prospector to Pioneer), seen since 1973.  I’ve plotted the percentage of each ‘MG’ here, taking 1973 as year 1.

Students of values will notice that unlike the 2005-2010 dip in the number of Prospectors and the rise in Settlers, which was associated with the recession, so far there has been no such effect in 2020 but it is early days.  That ‘glitch’ in the ‘values conveyor’ led to a shrinking in the number of Now People, the optimistic high energy Prospector ‘leaders’ and a ‘pile-up’ of Golden Dreamers (the entry mode Prospectors), and consequent increase in Settlers not transitioning to Prospector.  The Settler>Prospector transition appeared to have restarted in earnest by 2016 and is now continuing.  From a social point of view that is good news (net ‘improving’ conditions).

From a political point of view it places even more importance on not forgetting the needs, psychological as much as material, of the Settlers, as was explored in my earlier blogs on Brexit (in which Settlers were much more strongly pro-Brexit than Prospectors (split) and Pioneers (mainly against it except for some more libertarian types).   However in attending to these needs, UK politicians of parties trying to reach across values in a way that represents Britain as a whole, must recognise that the values centre-of-gravity in the UK lies more to the Pioneer end of the values spectrum than the Settler end, and that’s not just true amongst the young.

If ‘the prospects for success’ start to dim in the next months and years, the Prospectors, normally not very ‘political’, will start to kick up, and they are 39% of the population.  A battleground for Starmer and Johnson.    Starmer has to recover lost Prospector and Settler support but in terms of an energetic and forward-looking optimistic Britain, his most useful VM allies will be the Transcenders and Now People. An interesting problem.

If it turns out that Brexit does not deliver for Settlers and the Golden Dreamer Prospectors (the latter were split on it), things could get quite bitter and despondent.  Dominic Cummings and other Leave campaigners played the Settler values pitch very well but he may have fatally blotted his copy-book by ‘saying one thing and doing the opposite’ over lockdown.  Breaking the rules, especially when they themselves have dutifully upheld them, is not something Settlers will easily forgive – it’s not honourable.

Politics aside, these values proportions show, as mentioned in my previous blog on Covid and campaigns, that although we’ve all been prioritising safety and security in response to the epidemic threat (ie adopting some of the main priorities of Settlers), that does not change our underlying motivational values.  (And as a very domestic UK aside, ‘clapping for the NHS’ got cross-values participation, whereas the VE Day celebrations pitched in jingoistic terms by the Johnson government, were a much more Settler-Golden Dreamer affair).  Values powerfully influence behaviours but you can’t reliably read values from behaviours because people may do the same thing for different reasons.

Here are the UK Values Modes proportions for 2016 and 2020 showing an increase in four of the ‘outside edge’ Values Modes (the more ‘values bothered’ ones from the values map), Golden Dreamer and Now People Prospectors, and Concerned Ethical and Transcender Pioneers.  This suggests values-driven national debate is likely to get louder rather than quieter.  UK VMs 2016 and 2020:

Pat Dade writes:

The numbers look more like the pre-crash of 2008 figures than anything since then. It appears that the resilience of the British population is alive and well. Not only have the values of the British population absorbed the structural change to the economy and political changes that followed – they also are becoming more likely to optimistic and open to new experiences than they are to be traumatized and anxious about change.

At CDSM we’ve often been asked over the past few months,  “are the Settlers increasing during the pandemic?”.  Our standard answer is that values don’t change for any one reason and real values shifts take between two and five years from start to finish, and multiple factors have to line up to create a crisis that initiates the change process.

In fact the most common way for the crisis to occur is for existing values-needs to be satisfied.  You are happy but begin to question ‘why?”.  In other words people usually begin their changes from a position of strength, not from a position want and need.

The other less common way people make values changes is when they are consistently unable to meet their dominant needs.  In this case they are beginning a transition from a point of weakness and unmet needs.  In values terms this can even result in Prospectors reverting to being Settlers.

In a short-term situation like the last three to six months we wouldn’t expect change. But the cultural reaction to Covid-19 is having an impact on various aspects of society: lockdowns, no work, new ways of being paid, death, fear of others, uncertainty about the future in multiple ways, etc..  These could increase the likelihood of an unhealthy change.

Years of austerity, a summer of global climate change activism, the final death throes of anti-Brexit demonstrations and the continuing merry-go-around of British governments are also the types of conditions that could trigger an avalanche of negativity and retrogressive values change.

Diagrammatic version of the British Values map 2020:

Thanks to CDSM for sharing these data. Thanks for Mike for pointing out a couple of labelling errors in the original post, now corrected

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Are LCAs Greenwashing Plastic ?

image  Creative Commons 4.0

LCA, Life Cycle Analysis or Assessment, is supposed to be an objective way to compare the environmental footprint of products, and is a mainstay of corporate decision-making in sustainability.  But it’s blind to plastic pollution, leaving it available to be mis-used in comparisons of plastic with other materials.  LCA-based comparisons of plastic bags with other bags for example have been widely cited and give a misleading impression that plastic is ‘greener’, while not assessing plastic as a pollutant at all.

Characterisation of plastic pollution is complex and a relatively new topic but recent work from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute may enable development of a standard measure of plastic as a persistent and potentially bioaccumulative pollutant.  Meanwhile, campaigners, journalists and environmentalists, as well as scientists who may be commissioned to carry out LCA studies, should be alert to the risk of ‘greenwashing’ plastic through conventional LCAs.  The initial wave of concern heightened by Blue Planet II has subsided but the plastics industry’s fight to rehabilitate itself continues, and with essential uses for PPE at the forefront of covid responses and rock-bottom prices for oil, virgin plastic is cheap and the recycling market has collapsed in many places.  The flood of plastic pollution shows little sign of abating anytime soon.




You may have noticed that despite various ‘bans’ on plastic bags there are quite a lot of media and social media stories in which plastic is compared with alternative materials and plastic is found to be ‘greener’, for example plastic bags compared to cotton bags, or plastic compared to glass or steel bottles.

Track back to the sources of these stories and you usually find they result from a LCA or Life Cycle Analysis or Assessment (for example carrier bags / bottles).  The out-take from these stories generally gets condensed to ‘plastic not so bad after all’, or glass/ paper/ cotton/ aluminium (etc) is ‘actually worse for the environment than plastic – says study’.

BBC World video including a much repeated ‘fact’ that a cotton bag needs to be used 131 times “to have the same environmental impact” as a plastic bag.

Press coverage, even from the BBC’s ‘reality check’ unit, tends to convert assessments into a single dimension such as ‘greener’ or ‘the environmental impact’.  The original factors used for the assessment are often shorn away in the telling of the story, and as it moves along the media chain from the study to the out-take, and through social media. 

(This BBC report cites a LCA report by the Environment Agency for England and Wales on bags available in 2006, published in 2011.  The ‘answer comes down to’ because those were  criteria put into the analysis).

LCAs are widely used in industry and business to try and standardise environmental and sometimes social comparisons between material options, from ‘cradle to grave’.  Some LCAs are bespoke, invented for a particular purpose but many rely on using or adapting an off-the shelf methodology which of course helps with comparability.  LCAs (review article) are required to comply with ISO 14040 guidelines which specify four main stages.

On the face of it, a comparison based on a LCA, with its quantification and set methodology, seems more objective and authoritative than other ways of making a decision.  As they are detailed, and cumbersome and demanding to conduct, they come with an aura of expertise as well as dependability.

But at the moment there is a serious problem in trying to use them to compare plastic with other materials, which at its most basic, is that plastic pollution is invisible to most if not all standard LCAs.

Here for example are the categories used in the EN15804 (a standard for LCAs in the construction sector):

EN15804 – a European standard

If a whale dies from the mechanical obstruction of its organs by ingesting plastic for example, then no matter how many times that is reported in the scientific literature, there is no place for it in most of the impact inventories used to conduct ‘Impact Assessments’ in LCAs. The same would go for seabird or turtle entanglement, or starvation due to ingesting plastic due to mistaking it for food.  If they were poisoned by toxic chemicals released by the plastic that might count but there would need to have commissioned a specific study to produce input data, or that factor would need to appear in a standard reference database such as Ecoinvent.

The obvious large items ‘macro’ and the smaller flakes of ‘meso’ plastic whose impacts created public concern and a little political action through campaigns and programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, are simply dismissed as a ‘littering’ problem and not captured in most LCAs.  But there’s more to it than that because ‘microplastic’ is not included either.

In a 2017 blog I argued that policy-makers should treat plastic as a persistent organic pollutant, and regulate for a phase-out except for essential uses.  Several groups of scientists had already made similar calls, pointing to it’s effectively indefinite lifetime, its accumulation in the environment, its roles as a source and vector of toxic substances, and its un-nerving capacity to almost endlessly fragment in the environment.  Since then a growing number of studies have confirmed the omnipresent nature of plastic pollution and it’s ability to travel throughout human and animal bodies, and it’s as yet not-well-defined potential to cause disruption to important cellular mechanisms, suggesting that like forms of radiation, it may have no ‘safe level’ of exposure.

With the possible exception of measures of toxicity derived from substances directly leaching from plastic (freshwater, marine and human health toxicity do routinely feature in LCAs) most of the features of plastic pollution are not accounted for.  So because other factors are included, such as embedded energy costs and emissions like CO2, plastic often looks environmentally better than alternatives.  A glass bottle for example,  will usually have a bigger carbon footprint than a plastic one of the same volume.  Not the same plastic pollution footprint of course but LCAs don’t count the plastic footprint.

As Julien Boucher and colleagues put it in the 2020 IUCN report The Marine Plastic Footprint (p4): 

‘a challenge with LCA methodologies is that they do not account for plastic as a pollutant, but rather only for the indirect effects of plastic use, e.g. depletion of resources, energy consumption, or emission of chemical contaminants. LCA methodologies neither provide an inventory of the marine plastic leakage nor characterise factors to assess the impacts of plastics on ecosystems or human health. This lack of appropriate accounting of plastic leakage has encouraged companies to massively favour plastic packaging in many situations, due to its lightweight nature and low carbon requirements’

Slides from a 2018 presentation by Julien Boucher

The Environment Agency (EA) study cited by the BBC in 2019 for instance (report above) considered Global Warming Potential and ‘other impacts: resource depletion, acidification, eutrophication, human toxicity, fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity, marine aquatic ecotoxicity, terrestrial ecotoxicity and photochemical oxidation (smog formation)’ but not the creation, accumulation and effects of plastic as a pollutant.  ‘End of life’ waste management options such as recycling were included but not ‘the effects of littering’ and ‘discharges to water and soil’ were ‘outside the system boundary’. (Studies which identified littering effects were mentioned in an annexe but played no part in the assessment).

The highlighted finding of the study only focused on climate impact and was featured in the only graphic included in the executive summary:


Not surprisingly the point that registered with journalists was the idea that for re-usable cotton bags to have the same environmental impact as ‘disposable’ plastic carrier bags, they would need to be re-used 131 times. 

The study drew on 2006 data and was published in 2011 before the 2017 peak of public concern (see this previous blog) but factoids from such LCA studies are constantly recirculated and most if not all current LCA methodologies still fail to register plastic as a pollutant.

Last October the Dutch-based campaigning NGO Plastic Soup Foundation launched an attack on LCAs, declaring ‘The plastics industry abuses lifecycle analysis (LCA) in communication surrounding plastic pollution’.  It pointed out that LCAs often do not take the end-of-life consequences of a product into account and may make optimistic assumptions about recovery and recycling.  It criticised a recent Dutch industry campaign Plastic Truth versus Plastic Fable for using LCAs as the basis of a claim that plastic bags were more environmentally friendly.

The Foundation noted that on the one hand, LCAs regularly rate plastic as more environmentally friendly while on the other, 80% of plastic ends up as waste in the environment, causing immense harm to marine wildlife. It stated:

‘Industry must, therefore, stop using the current LCA method for promoting single-use packaging plastic in particular. In the meantime, a legitimate supplementary criterion that takes into account the impact plastic has once it inevitably reaches the environment should be agreed upon’.     

A Solution For Plastics in LCAs ?

No such measure has been agreed upon, although in 2019 researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the University of Leiden proposed an ‘entanglement factor’.

McHardy et al 2019 proposing a LCA entanglement factor

In 2019 one study took a Spanish LCA assessing different bags and showed that when a ‘pragmatic littering indicator’ was introduced, it produced ‘precisely the opposite’ ranking to when GWP (climate impact) was the main criterion.

From Civancik-Uslu et al 2019 – a littering indicator

More recently, Daniel Maga reported on the work he and colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute (the German institute for applied science) are undertaking to systematically characterise and quantify the risks attendant on plastic as a pollutant.  Speaking at a virtual conference of Setac in May 2020, Maga gave a presentation on a research methodology for plastic emissions available here in video form.

From Daniel Maga presentation (video) at Setac May 2020

Maga points out that current end of life modelling as used in LCAs does not consider littering or loss of plastics through abrasion or weathering.  He proposes a characterization factor combining fate, exposure, effect and severity and asks how the risks of plastic emissions can be captured in a LCA.  Maga cites the ECHA (European Chemicals Agency) which asserts that there is limited evidence of environmental risks from microplastics and no suggestion of bioaccumulation of hydrophobic organic compounds in organisms (eg many pesticides, PCBs) but also that conventional risk factors may not work with micro or nano plastic risks. He proposes that the ‘fate factor’ is sufficient to capture the main risk from plastics due to their extreme persistence, so they should be treated as a ‘non-threshold substance’ in a similar way to PBTs (persistent, bio accumulative and toxic substances) for which any release can be assumed to create a risk. This is a classic case in which the Precautionary Principle should be applied (there being a priori reason to act even without definitive evidence of the impact having already occurred).

Detailed characterisation of plastic pollution is a formidable task.   Maga goes on to itemise a mind-numbing welter of technical challenges.  To deal with these in a way that could be included in a LCA, he proposes calculation of plastic equivalents, homing in on a SDR or ‘Specific Surface Degradation Rate’ measure, published in February.   (How micro-plastics degrade is strongly dependent on shape – watch the presentation for details)

Where’s this going? If used, such an approach would enable decision-makers such as government agencies to compare and regulate plastics according to their risk as driven by fate-factors such as persistence.

Maga says “we imagine” it generating tables such as this one for macroplastic emissions (based on estimates from the plastikbudget project in Germany), showing rates of loss, where they are (environmental ‘compartments’ such as soil or water), type of plastic, degradation rates, SDR, length and shape:

And the same for microplastics

If a system like this were to be adopted by decision-makers, it could enable fairer and more realistic LCA comparisons, and help prioritise regulatory action as well as choices within companies.  In theory possible that a country like the UK or more realistically the US, could do this alone but both are seriously weakened in terms of capability by a decade or more of environmental back-pedalling and hollowing out of expertise in central government and agencies.   The EU, probably led by the economic and scientific powerhouse of Germany, is probably the main hope for scientific R & D in tacking the plastics crisis.

Beware The LCA

In the meantime, environmental correspondents, NGOs and campaigners need to be wary of LCAs.  They should check the methodologies behind any claims to compare the ‘green-ness’ or ‘environmental impact’ of plastics and alternative materials, particularly where data has been fed into the blender of a LCA to give a ‘simple’ result.

Although it may be a big ask for researchers hungry for money, scientists asked to conduct similar studies should also ask themselves why they are being commissioned, and whether the framing that a brief will create, is designed in advance to greenwash plastic by what is included or excluded.

Cognitive Biases

Researchers should also be careful about the way findings are converted into everyday  terms. One example of framing and possible inbuilt cognitive bias is use of the ‘number of times you’d have to use a bag’ metric.  This may seem innocuous but it positions a large number against a small number by taking as its ‘impact’ reference point the ‘footprint’ of a single plastic bag (excluding the plastic pollution impact), and comparing it to a different type of bag (eg cotton) and then working out how many times the for example cotton bag ‘would need to be used’ to ‘be as good as’ the plastic bag.  The UK EA 2006/2011 study mentioned earlier calculated 131 times and the 2018 Danish study found (p 80) ‘conventional cotton carrier bags should be reused at least 50 times before being disposed of; organic cotton carrier bags should be reused 150 times based on their environmental production cost’.

What this does is to frame the consumer choice in terms of effort required in order to get the reward of being environmentally friendly.  Either use a disposable plastic bag, or you have to go shopping with a cotton bag 130-150 times!  Can you imagine – (your brain does that instantly without you thinking it through) – it’s just not feasible is it?  This invokes the anchoring heuristic: the busy (time-pressed, time-is-a-scarce-commodity) shopper is given the first single-action choice as a reference point (the anchor) and the second (131x) action) to compare to it, just in order to get the same reward.  It’s a no-brainer that plastic is the more feasible choice.

The focal effect in this snap judgement also stops us asking awkward questions like “how many times can you actually re-use a cotton bag anyway ?”  I have no idea but some suggest durable bags can be re-used 500 times. Think of other items made out of cotton (requires a frame-change).  Would you be satisfied with a cotton shirt or pair of trousers than could not be worn for at least 131 days, and would it ‘make more sense’ to replace them with 131 pairs of disposable plastic trousers if they had a lower carbon footprint?

Even setting aside the omission of the very reason plastic needs to be assessed – plastic pollution – and any other doubts that might exist about the assumptions made about non-plastic choices in these studies, the cognitive behavioural bias of the framing is clear.  Try thinking about it the other way around.  “What’s better, to use just one cotton bag for your daily shopping over the next four months, or 131 plastic bags which you then throw away?”  ‘Obviously’ the re-usable bag is an environmentally better choice.  Now the effort implication of the cotton bag has disappeared and you are triggered to think about environmental responsibility by being reminded that these are ‘disposable’ short-lifetime plastic bags.  Picture that huge pile of waste plastic bags.

In a fleeting mental encounter with such a study factoid, as in watching a 30 second news clip, another mental bias is triggered, which is WYSIATI ‘what you see is all there is’.  The ‘issue’ captured is the story is the choice between two bags.

Other possible redesign options or behaviours, sometimes mentioned in the fine-print of LCA studies, are not shown and thus do not exist in the mental processing.  Using a wheeled shopping basket for example (no bags needed), or a rucksack you already own and also use for other purposes, or re-using a carboard box the store provides, or a host of other possible options that might resolve the ‘bag problem’.

The focus is kept restricted to the plastic bag v other bag, as in a ‘horse-race poll’ in politics where prospective voters are only asked about the ‘two main candidates’ and not the five others running, so they disappear from view in stories reporting the result of the poll, triggering voters to make an instant mental choice between the two candidates featured, not the total seven.

That device is popular with larger political parties. Restricting the focus and terms of a LCA-based study can enable those with a vested commercial interest in say, plastic, to generate seemingly scientific, impartial and ‘objective’ findings that happen to show their product in a good light.

‘Gold Standard’

No wonder perhaps that the plastics industry loves LCAs as they stand at the moment.    The British Plastics Federation website states: ‘They are as close to the gold standard of understanding the environmental consequences of a product as researchers can currently get’.

Imagine you are in the driving seat of the ‘public affairs’ strategy for the plastics industry, or its Siamese Twin the oil and gas industry.  How would your situation report go? Maybe something like this:


Covid has brought mixed blessings but generally things still look good. The vast majority is still made from oil or gas and despite the response to Blue Planet II, plastics use worldwide is still increasing and rapidly risingin Europe.  Pressure to cut carbon emissions is a problem but it can be turned to advantage if plastic can be positioned as greener than alternatives in energy terms. Unfortunately one side-effect of Blue Planet II and the associated wave of campaigning was the introduction of bans and restrictions on high profile ‘single use plastic’ such as bags, starting in Europe and spreading around the world.  

A 2019 European Environment Agency review of the measures taken by European countries to reduce the plastics problem found revealed that 37 of the 173 measures identified were market based and most ‘referred to fees for plastic carrier bags’.   We can live with those but the real risk is if the same political thinking behind them (respond to popular sentiment against plastic) spreads to the rest of the packaging market and other uses. We particularly need to keep politicians thinking bout plastic as an issue that can be solved by better waste management and more consumer commitment to recycling, and not ‘phase-outs’.  This is why it’s even now important to discredit the ‘bag bans’ as an irrational and regrettable reflex, not borne out by ‘the science’.

Some good news is that the more scientific end of the media covering environmental issues is particularly motivated to encourage ‘rational’ rather than ‘emotional’ environmentalism, which means they have an appetite for the quantified and factual.  Here LCAs are our friend as they generate factual proofs that plastic can be the better environmental choice. 

Take for example the British popular science publication New Scientist. In 2015 it carried an article ‘Plastic Bag Levy Is A Drop in the Ocean On Environmental Grounds’:

Its life cycle analysis of a number of different types of shopping bags found that a cotton bag would have to be used 131 times to be below the total global warming potential of an HDPE bag used only once. And once you factor in reuse of HDPE bags as bin liners, which is reasonably common, this reuse factor rises. The point made by the study is that the global warming impact of HDPE bags is negligible

It’s good to be able to report that New Scientist went on to cite that 131-times fact at least twice more in 2018,  in an article advising its readers (May 2018):

and in a Leader (June 2018):

The LCA 131-times example has been repeated many times, for example here in The Conversation, here in Stamford Magazine, here in Earth Times, and here in Business Insider, all channels likely to reach this ‘Rational-Environmental’ audience.  There is no way we can make plastic popular with all the public but we don’t need to – to paraphrase Frank Luntz on climate, we just need to maintain doubt about alternatives, while we keep on growing.


That’s enough of the imaginary report.  I freely admit that my view of the activities of the plastics industry is somewhat jaundiced as a result of seeing some of its lobbying activities and the way, for example, that it used the ‘litter’ frame from the 1970s onwards (see A Beautiful But Evil Strategy) to prevent people seeing plastic as a pollutant, and still uses today.  It’s in the industry’s interests to see these misleading ‘factoids’ derived from LCAs in wide circulation, spreading like memes.

Even better than having them repeated in a ‘straight’ science magazine like the New Scientist is if the pro-plastic LCA findings are endorsed by re-appearing in publications from environmental organisations themselves.   This can happen when ‘green’ groups are engaged in projects framed by environmental waste ‘management’ assumptions, and are trying to optimise choices from inside the status quo, rather than to change the strategic drivers.  The ‘circular economy’ community is particularly vulnerable.

For example in 2020 the UK group the Green Alliance published a report Plastic Promises: What The Grocery Sector Is Really Doing About Packaging for its Circular Economy Task Force  whose members are the corporates PwC, Kingfisher, Viridor, Walgreens Boots Alliance, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, and Veolia.   It noted:

Given the demand for change since the BBC’s Blue Planet II aired in 2017, and the promises that have been made since, one might have expected a considerable market shift away from plastic by now, at least for packaging in the grocery sector.  There have been some minor changes … but, overall, the proportion of plastic packaging seen on most supermarket shelves, and the amount collected as waste and reported to the Environment Agency, has not altered significantly.

Based on anonymous interviews within the sector, author Libby Peake reported that despite one of the supermarkets reporting a ‘ferocious’ anti-plastic response from consumers with an 800% increase in customer queries, actual behaviour change was limited. Professionals such as brand managers cited a host of frustrations, from dubious brand claims to unintended consequences of switches, inadequate recycling (Britain is a mess) and difficulties sourcing recycled material.

The Green Alliance study was no doubt conducted with the best of intentions but the conventional plastics-dominated packaging industry will have been delighted that it also  repeated as fact the LCA-based findings from ‘a 2011 study for the Northern Ireland Assembly … that paper bags generally require four times as much energy to manufacture as plastic bags’ and the Danish study which ‘concluded that … a paper bag would need to be reused 43 times to have a lower impact than the average plastic bag’.

The plastics industry PRs will also have appreciated the headline “we can’t just replace plastics” quoting Libby Peake in an interview about the study with the Packaging Europe (used in its weekly newsletter).


A Question of Strategy


The real issue for change groups in relation to LCAs is one of strategy: what are you trying to achieve and by what steps will that come about?   The above quote from the packaging industry magazine asserts that climate change is ‘an even more serious problem’ than ‘plastic’.   In what sense?  What does this mean?  From whose point of view?

As Green Alliance’s report records, most people (public in the UK) in fact reject the implied trade-off and think that climate and plastic are of equal importance. If you asked ‘experts’, then with all sorts of caveats, they would probably give you a similar answer.  But if you asked about a specific case, as in for example choices about bags or bottles, you might get a different answer depending on people’s understanding and how they assume change can happen on either ‘issue’.

In the end a LCA essentially constructs a two dimensional rating by adding up the results of a set of scores to enable rankings from best to worst.   In my view, change strategy has to be at least three dimensional.  One tool I developed for doing this in relation to potential campaign targets is the ‘ambition box’.  It has three axes, the hardness or difficulty of a change target,  the size of that target (how much of the problem it represents), and the significance of the target (the consequential effects or potentiation resulting from the achievement of the target).

Ambition Box from How To Win Campaigns edn 2

Problem management logic is mainly dictated by the first two axes.  For example it would make sense to start with the ‘lowest hanging fruit’, the biggest soft and easy target first.  Strategic change logic is mainly dictated by significance.  LCA is fundamentally a tool for problem management (eg making optimal choices at one level which are all sub-optimal options in the ‘bigger picture’), not strategic change.  An exception, as has been argued above, is that it can be mis-used to obstruct strategic change.

Put this another way: with a wicked global problem like climate change or plastic pollution, we need a strategy to ultimately eliminate the problem not just manage it.  This is why campaign groups and now most governments are trying to eliminate fossil fuels from the energy system, not just increase energy efficiency, and why human-made industrial greenhouse gases like HFCs need to be simply phased out completely and replaced with alternatives, not just reduced to a particular level or ‘so far as possible’.

Plastic made from oil or gas is important as a direct contributor to climate change (the carbon gets released adding to environmental CO2) but its not as important as getting to zero carbon energy across industry, transport or electricity generation, which would ‘deal with’ all the energy related ‘carbon problem’ behind production of all sorts of bags, bottles and so on.  So the carbon footprint of plastic is not necessarily an ‘even more important’ problem if looking at say packaging, than plastic pollution is.  On the other hand, packaging certainly is the major source of plastic pollution, along with tyre wear.  So for plastic pollution these are strategic targets, requiring substitution, or ‘replacing plastic’ within a regulated phase-out, excepting essential uses.

Naive Rationalists

LCAs are simply not set up to make (or even really facilitate) such judgements but this may not be widely understood by many of those who use them on a regular basis.  Others may be ‘naive rationalists’, naive about the way LCAs are easily mis-used to ‘game the system’ and attracted to what seems a ‘rational calculus’ defining ‘the right answer’.

This is what Michael Warhurst, a UK chemicals expert and Executive Director of ChemTrust told me about LCAs:

LCAs are a nightmare, as it is easy to get the answer you want & ultimately the data & assumptions that they are based on are very poor. On chemicals, for example, they use old databases and assumptions while REACH is constantly identifying new problems & also finding that know problem chemicals are active at lower levels.

I think for an effective assessment you have to disaggregate different elements & create a system that is as transparent as possible…

I don’t think LCAs will ever be satisfactory, but they are popular as an apparent ’simple’ solution – they are fine to use within an organisation if you know what you want and are comparing options, but they are terrible for policymaking in a wider sense”.

Of course there are many possible dimensions of significance.  One of the psychological-political ones is public resonance and iconography.  Plastic bags and bottles now fall into this category, which is one reason why politicians took some sort of action on those, and why old LCA-factoids on bags and bottles keep being put back into the public conversation.

Some of those involved with LCAs rightly point out that they were not supposed to be used to form policy but when their results derive from assessments which manifestly fail to capture key environmental impacts, and are designed in a way that gives a stamp of green approval to plastic, and these are put into the public domain, they can of course affect politics and policy.

Finally, a question for those pursuing the ‘Circular Economy’ is what are the steps by which it can actually be brought about, and are any of these strategic ?  If not, you may remain trapped inside a universe of many small sub-optimal choices which you are trying to use to change drivers that are being set by the strategies of others, such as the plastics and oil industries.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

10 Things About Covid And Campaigns

Here are a few thoughts about coronavirus and Covid-19. They are coloured by being written from a British perspective. I’ve tried to stick to things that may be generally applicable and haven’t written much about health and social care systems as they will doubtless be subject to evidence-based reviews, as well as campaigns and lobbying with a mixture of influences from national self-interest  to philanthropy.  I’ll try to write a more detailed post on one or two aspects soon.  I’ll start with the most obvious.

  1. It Is Significant

Be prepared to rewrite all your strategies in the coming year or so, and probably more than once. Former US Treasury Secretary Laurence Summers, has called coronavirus a ‘hinge in history’.  Writing in the FT he said:

‘The Covid-19 crisis is the third major shock to the global system in the 21st century, following the 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. I suspect it is by far the most significant’. 

‘9/11’ and the 2008 recession will, he argues, ‘fade over time from popular memory’ but coronavirus will not.  Like Munich in 1938, the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the 1929 crash of the stock market, it’s significance will lie in what happens next.

He’s probably right, and we don’t know what happens next but one might think about it in three big ‘buckets’: the impacts of the pandemic itself, in waves or as a chronic problem or both; the consequences of lockdown and other direct national government responses; and those of the recession, possibly depression, which is now unfolding.


  1. Values Differences Will Be In Play

A sign that appeared near the end of my road

The more severe and sustained the sense of threat the more we all embrace Settler-type priorities: safety, security, belonging.  As Guardian journalist Nick Cohen wrote in a critique of the Boris Johnson government’s response

‘the British were locking themselves down days before the government finally accepted the realities of the pandemic. We did so because one aspect of human behaviour remains predictable: we don’t want to die’.

So if you now have society-wide visions for ‘post-covid’ society, the broad order of priority to gain social and political space and traction is first Settler, second Prospector, third, Pioneer priorities: meaning the tests are (does it help?) lives and safety, then jobs, opportunities and prosperity, then the bigger picture and a better ‘new normal’.  I’ll unpack this in a longer post but the ‘values rules’ in the 2008 blog ‘Campaigning Your Way Out Of Recession’ broadly apply.

An interesting minor values tweak is that Britain’s Boris Johnson is now on the horns of a bit of a values dilemma, having successfully united libertarian Pioneers and security driven Settlers in opposition to the EU over Brexit, and is now experiencing their opposing reflexes over relaxation of the covid lockdown: much the same dynamic that Pat Dade wrote about dividing the US Tea Party.

  1. Political Lessons Will Be Drawn

National politicians will also be anxious about survival, prosperity and vision: especially their own.  The first round contest will be virus related: the excess deaths in national epidemics.  Some will be judged to have had a good outbreak – probably New Zealand, maybe South Africa, so far South Korea. Others, at present led by countries like the UK but maybe to be eclipsed by the US, a disastrous one.  The second round is underway and concerns lockdown and management measures and will be a blame-game war.  The third will be about political ideas and models (ie political fashion).

UK PM Boris Johnson is unlikely to become an international political role model on covid.  He has managed the unlikely feat of uniting right and left wing commentators (here Piers Morgan and John Sweeney, May 19) in criticism.  62,000 dead is closing on the 67,000 civilians who died in Britain WW2.

Will a green sustainable recovery be the new big default idea?  Will populist nationalist isolationism and exceptionalism (as per Johnson, Trump) be seen to have succeeded or failed?  Will we (politicians) “all be interventionists now”?  Or will neoliberalism survive in a form of New Interventionism?  Maybe none of these but a new default truism is very likely. It will be chosen by politicians based on what is seen to have worked in political terms.

  1. New Behaviours Will Outlast Interruption Better Than New Ideas

It’s well known that unavoidable interruption of an old behaviour is one of the most powerful factors facilitating the uptake of a new behaviour.  People then take on ‘new ideas’ which are rationalisations of their new behaviours.  They are much less likely to take a new idea, rationalise it and so adopt a new behaviour. So while ‘lockdown’ is a massive interruption of business as usual and one of its effects is to give people interested in issues a lot of time and space to come up with new ideas, few of them are likely to lead to sustained new behaviours if they have not become established by the time a ‘new normal’ sets in.

This is why it was a canny move for city mayors to quickly start narrowing streets for cars to give more space for social distancing among pedestrians and to allow more cycling.  Once locked in, such changes are unlikely to be reversed.  The message for campaigns is ‘act now’.

Many people in developed countries have experienced increased awareness of nature and a cleaner environment during lockdown but unless this new perspective is translated into behaviours that outlast relaxation of lockdown it may evaporate, leaving just a wistful memory.


  1. Some Things Will Die Or Never Recover

Not just people but businesses and whole economic sectors and while countries may not ‘die’ some may not recover at least for generations.  Custom and finance is the lifeblood of business and if the drought is too long, businesses die and if enough die, sectors vanish, other things attract the money, and grow in their place.  These ‘structural’ changes are mostly independent of individual behaviour change but will change ‘choice architecture’. Some will create windows of opportunity for change in the public interest, others may close off funding streams to NGOs.

When Zoom was reported to be worth more than seven of the world’s largest airlines combined, and Shell cut its dividend for the first time since WW2,  it made headlines around the world.  Set alongside widespread working from home and reports of companies seeing no fall in productivity, and struggling airlines, it’s easy to imagine that global tourism as well as business air travel and the market for conventional office space could be severely impacted.   On May 1 the FT reported that a PwC survey found 25% of CFOs were ‘already thinking of cutting back on real estate’ and half of US office searches were on hold.  Convert unwanted office space to renewably powered vertical farms? 

  1. A Green Recovery Is Not Inevitable

A chorus of calls from economists (eg Joseph Stiglitz and 200 others), often echoed by financial commentators, have endorsed the idea of a ‘green recovery’.  They want governments to take the dislocation effect of shut-down and the increased appetite for intervention as an opportunity to speed up a green transition and discourage fossil fuel use.  In April the EC’s Frans Timmermans pledged that all EU covid-recovery spend will be green, and the French government tied airline support to cutting carbon emissions.

From the FT

But quiet fossil fuel lobbying may be having a big effect behind the scenes.

The UK has just approved the largest new gas-power station in Europe and eight EU states have voiced support for the “role of natural gas in a climate-neutral Europe”.  As it stands, environmentalists will no doubt win the ‘air war’ on this but may lose the ground war inside governments.

Adding more fact-filled arguments from economists in favour of a green recovery may make no difference. Qualitative research to translate the very Track 2 analytical arguments of learned economists into Track 1 intuitively understandable public propositions would be a good and urgently-needed investment.  (And a lockdown is a very good time to do such research as respondents are more available online or by phone).

  1. There Will Be Idiosyncratic Winners

We may come to remember the pandemic by some singular but for now esoteric changes, such as emblematic technologies, like the ‘non-stick frying pans’ (not now seen as a great thing environmentally) cited as a ‘spin-off’ from the Space Race.  Copper is perhaps too obvious an example.  Whereas in one study Covid-19 survived for up to three days on plastic or stainless steel, it lasted only four hours on copper.  The metal (and to an extent alloys like brass) has been known as a cleaning agent for centuries and kills bacteria such as MRSA.  Expect to see a (return-to) trend for copper on high-touch surfaces like handrails in hospitals and mass transit.

ehealth.eletsonline.com ‘world’s first anti-microbial copper train’

HEPA filters and personalised air space in public auditoria, ships and aircraft might be another, and of course a whole string of redesigns in hospitals (a comeback for physical isolation hospitals?) and in health settings. But it will probably be something else that gets remembered as an ‘explainer’, probably something that becomes familiar and needs an orgin, or something that vanished ‘because of covid’. Some suggest it will be e-bikes.

  1. Knowledge Politics May Finally Be Plucked From Obscurity

Because the pandemic has dominated news coverage for such an extended period and the virus is an invisible foe understandable only through science, normally obscure areas of study such as epidemiology and the nature of scientific ‘uncertainty’ have been gradually exposed to wider audiences.

Covid has tested the relationship between science and politics. The UK and US have struggled because Johnson and Trump have cultivated a populist base fed on simple solutions to complex problems.  Covid trapped them both in an issue where evidence could not be gainsaid by using values dog-whistles, and unlike Germany’s Angela Merkel, both floundered.


Merkel covid lockdown strategy explainer  subtitled by The Guardian

Trump’s wildly erratic positions on covid have been partly driven by his frustration with unavoidable engagement with the alien rules of science.  Johnson’s slow response to covid which lost time and cost lives was underpinned by his conflicting commitment to the Brexit project, for which the chief risk was probably seen as a recession, and in which rejection of expert advice was a core selling point.

Michael Gove explains why we don’t want experts, during the Brexit campaign 

In the UK, ‘scientific expertise’ has had to be politically rehabilitated by Johnson at least for theatrical purposes, with government scientists pushed forwards in press briefings like the shield-wall of Roman testudo (tortoise), designed to deflect incoming fire.

David Frei, Wiki,  Creative Commons – Roman Testudo

Boris Johnson flanked by Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer (left) and Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser at a press briefing (photo news.sky.com)

Johnson’s pact with science may break down as details emerge in any forthcoming Public Inquiry but reliance on science is unavoidable in many other ‘issues’ where risks exist that are hard if not impossible to understand or even recognize without scientific knowledge. Modern politicians need the ability to interpret and evaluate that knowledge, it’s force and its limitations.  GM crops, nuclear waste and radiation, fine-particle air pollution, climate change and the emerging debates about the social risks and benefits of AI are all examples of such ‘risk politics’.  Ulrich Beck may finally be discovered by the Anglo political class.

  1. Zoonoses and Changing Perspectives

Ebola, bird flu, swine flu, rabies, HIV and covid-19 are all ‘zoonoses’ or animal diseases that jump species. It’s a moot point whether politicians will now come to terms with the reality that while these are inevitable (and the ultimate source of many human diseases), if we are to avoid a series of ‘disease-X’ pandemics like the current corona-virus, we need to stop the expansion of human settlement into what remains of natural ecosystems.   Over a million candidate viruses are out there in nature.

This is a messy, granular, diverse, difficult problem, multiplied by the fact that the first human hosts are usually the poor and dispossessed: all good reasons, in normal times, for most politicians to try and ignore it.  Are there political leaders who can change that? I hope so.  A lot has been written about this and more will follow.  This short piece is one of the best.


Note that it although not exactly a ‘popular’ piece, it follows the values priority sequence outlined in #2.

To enable politicians to get traction with this issue it seems to me that campaigners and popularising scientists need to find a frame which nails down a category of interactions in time and space as the definition of the problem.  As well as disruption of nature such as in encroachment on forests, this has to include intensive animal farming and wildlife trade, both human-made laboratories for uncontrolled transmission.  Simley Evans of the University of California calls them ‘spillover events’ – so we need action on Spillover Zones ?  See more at www.ecohealthalliance.org and this article.

In different dimensions, in some countries the impact of covid may provoke a re-evaluation of how we deal with age and the value of life.  Another effect has been to make many people in rich countries reassess what’s ‘essential’, particularly ‘essential work’.  Once the top priority is survival, food, health care, water, power and law and order suddenly seem much more important. Yet we discover that our ‘Essential Workers’ are all too often also classified as ‘unskilled’, are low paid, low status and insecure.

Could covid prove to be a social reformer, the twenty-first century equivalent of Charles Dickens?     Where Dickens exposed the inequities of industrialising C19th Britain, in some rich countries the impact of coronavirus is exposing the inequitable arrangements of post-industrial nations.  A great many of us have become used to high personal discretionary spending.  It has come at many costs including to our common environment and the working poor. If covid is to provoke social reform, it will need a story-teller on a par with Dickens.

From The Independent.  Picture of unsustainable prosperity quarantined by covid?

  1. Extinction of Rebellion ?

A curious side effect of ‘covid’ has been the effective silencing of protest by Extinction Rebellion, which last year seemed almost omnipresent.  As I explored in a previous blog – probably at too great a length – this may be no bad thing.  The original XR strategy, while brilliant in some ways, was also fatally flawed and ran a real risk of becoming counter productive.  The ‘movement’ needed time to rethink and was busy doing that when covid struck.  New social priorities and then social distancing put XR effectively on hold, and also removed Greta Thunberg from the headlines (perhaps a good thing for her too in the short term).

Of course climate change has not gone away and the spectacular fall in carbon emissions caused by lockdown has made no impact on rising carbon levels in the atmosphere – a salutary indication of the huge task we have yet to seriously start on if we are to tackle the climate threat.

Slide from a Carbon Brief webinar – the (top end estimate) 8% ‘covid windfall’ decline in 2020 emissions would need to be repeated every year for a decade in order to hit the ‘safe’ 1.5.C temperature-rise limit.  In an optimistic reading there is a good chance that emissions may have peaked in 2019.

What’s needed to make this happen?  Many things but one of them is concerted and direct engagement between civil society actors such as campaign groups, possibly also the ‘new climate movement’, and the carbon-cutting industries, and politicians.  That requires focused pressure to implement practical solutions, not just protest by disruption.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beyond Zero – No Heathrow #3 Plots New Course For Climate Policies

Today (27 Feb 2020) a decision by the UK’s ‘Court of Appeal’ found that the UK Government’s approval for expansion of flying capacity at Heathrow Airport through at third runway was illegal because of it’s failure to consider the meaning of the Paris agreement in climate change.

What  ?

Essentially this happened because more runway capacity would mean more flights and more flights means more climate-changing ‘carbon pollution’ when the UK and other countries are committed to much less.  In the case of the UK and others, net zero by 2050.  This comes at a moment when, as many have pointed out, the “net zero” horizon has galvanised thinking on the practical steps needed to address the Climate Emergency.

In this case the technical problem is that commercial aircraft rely on high-crabon kerosene and there is no ready alternative in mass production.  Opponents of a Third Runway at LHR were rightly jubilant – the decision followed decades of opposition from groups like HACANStop Heathrow Expansion, Plane Stupid, local authorities, local communities and London’s mayors, and no less than five judicial reviews (UK legal challenges), with a final challenge mounted by a group including Greenpeace, Friends Of The Earth, Plan B, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Why Is This Significant ?

There are three reasons why this is important.

First, it shows that the Paris Agreement had legal practical consequences in a democracy held to account by an independent judiciary.  Anyone who thinks that government commitments have no useful consequence should consider this.

Second, it demonstrates how long-running, hard-grind campaigns are necessary to produce practical results with ground-breaking implications.  The recent activities of Extinction Rebellion and others have played a part but the war of attrition led by groups like HACAN have kept the game in play.  Which is why, as argued in a previous blog, all these groups need to organise to focus on strategic targets rather than hope that a self-starting bottom-up movement of lots of small actions against a diverse smorgasboard of particular climate hates, can lead to a coherent shift in direction.

Third, because by 2050 it is very possible that net-zero aviation fuels and technologies will be available, for politicians it opens up a new policy framing, of “Beyond Zero” policies.

In this case, meaning that in so far as climate emissions are concerned (notwithstanding other legitimate objections to Heathrow expansion, of which there are many), the option of a Third LHR Runway should be put in a box labelled “Post Zero”: not-to-be-opened until aviation is net carbon zero (or preferably True Zero).  That might be pre-2050 but until that is achieved, and flying is no longer a climate-threat, airport expansion should not be allowed a hearing, end of story.

For more – see these stories:


 Standing outside the courthouse on Thursday in the rain, climate activist Zack Polanski said that those who had campaigned tirelessly for years to block expansion plans were jubilant but aware that there “is still much work to do.”

“The argument has to be loud and clear that we’re living in a climate emergency, and it must be no to all airport expansions,” Polanski said, adding that other governments around the world could learn from the ruling. “If you sign the Paris agreement, it has to mean something.”

Experts said the courts were effectively saying that, like it or not, domestic climate laws are real and need to be factored into policy decisions.

“The government lawyers said that they didn’t need to take into account the Paris agreement, and judges today said, ‘Oh, yes you do,’?” said Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK. He added that this “opens new legal territory” and that “future decisions will need to take into account the Paris agreement targets, or they will be potentially judicable.” …

Friends of the Earth, one of the claimants in the case, said the ruling was a “ground-breaking result for climate justice and for future generations.”


Heathrow airport expansion ruled illegal on climate change grounds

The UK government’s decision to allow a third runway to be built at London’s Heathrow airport has been found to be illegal because of its failure to consider the Paris climate deal. 


The court of appeal has ruled that the government’s plans for a third runway at Heathrow failed to consider the UK’s commitments to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris agreement. It’s the latest twist in a saga that has been rumbling on for well over 10 years. Every step of the way, Greenpeace and many other groups – including HACANStop Heathrow Expansion, local authorities, local communities and London’s mayors – have sought to block a new runway.

So what does this new ruling mean for the third runway and the climate crisis? 

What’s happened?

In 2018, the government released the Airports National Policy Statement which explicitly backed a third runway at Heathrow airport. This was despite previous commitments from David Cameron when he was prime minister that there would be no third runway.

Campaign groups opposed to airport expansion – including Greenpeace – responded with a series of judicial reviews, no less than five of them. These challenged the decision on various grounds, such as air pollution, noise pollution and traffic increases.

These cases were initially dismissed by the high court. But today’s ruling comes from the court of appeal, which found that the government didn’t take into account its commitments under the global Paris agreement to reduce emissions. Paris of course being the agreement, currently between every country on earth, to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in order to keep global temperature increases below 1.5ºC.

This decision is monumental.


The future of Heathrow’s new runway is now uncertain after judges at the Court of Appeal ruled that the government must reconsider its support for a third runway because of the environmental impact. The Court of Appeal concluded that the former Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling failed to take account of the government’s commitments to tackling climate change when setting out support for the project in a National Policy Statement (NPS). The appeal was brought by a group of councils in London affected by the expansion, environmental charities including Greenpeace, Friends Of The Earth and Plan B, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

 Lord Justice Lindblom told a packed court: “The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State in the preparation of the NPS and an explanation given as to how it was taken into account, but it was not.”

He said that, having seen the decision in advance, the Government did not oppose a declaration that the NPS was unlawful and has not sought permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The ruling means that current Transport Secretary Grant Shapps will have to review the NPS to ensure it accords with the Government’s commitments on climate change. 

Heathrow Airport has said it will appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court. 

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: “Boris Johnson should now put Heathrow out of its misery and cancel the third runway once and for all. No ifs, no buts, no lies, no U-turns.”

John Stewart, who chairs anti-expansion group Hacan, said: “This ruling has killed off the third runway for good.

“Although it invites the Government to review its policy, I suspect that the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, doesn’t want to review the policy and will use this as a way of killing off the third runway.”



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tragedy or Scandal ? Strategies Of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg

The ‘new climate movement’ including the Green New Deal, Greta Thunberg,  #fridaysforfuture and the ‘school strikes’ and Extinction Rebellion now dominate media conversations about climate change, the climate crisis and the climate emergency.  What may their future hold, what have they achieved and can their efforts now align with those of more established actors to maximum effect ?

I’ve explored these questions in a paper which I’m afraid is rather long but which campaign strategists, climate campaigners and others involved in actively trying to address the climate crisis may find interesting:  Tragedy Or Scandal? Strategies Of GT, XR and the New Climate Movement (pdf)

I’m one of millions, perhaps billions of people who admire what they have achieved and hope they will continue to find success, for it’s in all our interests that they do. But I also have questions and doubts about some of the strategies and tactics of Extinction Rebellion, and ‘XR UK’ in particular.  (For reasons of time and capacity and the fact that they are more straightforward, I’ve not focused on the Green New Deal initiatives, although they are extremely important.  My take on XR is also based on XR UK in 2018 and 2019, and may not apply to other parts of XR).

Some of the points I explore include:

Differences in the strategies and objectives between XR and ‘GT’ (including the school strikes).  Although many supporters may not realise it, XR has had revolutionary objectives (overthrow of government) and has adopted an ingenious but I think deeply flawed strategy of escalation of mass civil disobedience based on a probable mis-application of analysis of revolutionary movements in totalitarian regimes and dictatorships (the questionable ‘magical 3.5%’ participation), whereas it is actually operating in open democracies.  GT on the other hand has the more transparent objective of pressuring governments to adopt measures in line with achieving the Paris Agreement commitments to hold greenhouse gas emissions to levels consistent with 1.5 or 2C, by advocacy, school striking and protest.

The way both XR and GT have woven narratives that ‘nothing is being done’ and ‘nothing has worked’ whereas in fact there are many proven solutions to climate-changing pollution in the shape of technologies, policies and practices, it’s just that they have not been tried often enough and hard enough.  I argue that GT should retire these claims, and criticise XR in particular for systematic ‘solutions denial‘.

Denying solutions is not only not ‘telling the truth’ as XR urges on others but is ultimately counter-productive because it means GT and XR forgo the opportunity to force faster progress on governments and push out problems with solutions, by using the scandal dynamic.  If ‘nothing can be done’ then however awful the problem may be, it’s just a tragedy.  If it’s avoidable, it’s a scandal.  I argue that this is pivotal strategy issue and that working on such objectives from now on, could enable XR and GT to align their efforts with the larger established efforts of NGOs, greenish politicians, businesses and many others in civil society.

Bizarrely, solutions denial puts XR on the side of climate deniers who are also invariably active solutions-deniers.

XR has been systematic in misrepresenting what scientists are saying by editing out any hopeful parts of their papers in their presentations to potential recruits and to followers: it’s guilty of ‘gloom-picking‘ rather than ‘cherry-picking’ the science.  It has presented most science about right on the problem-driving side (and GT more so) although it has sometimes played fast and loose with attribution, for example not making clear the difference between speculation and science with a high degree of agreement, and has sometimes made things up.  These are un-necessary self-inflicted weaknesses which it should avoid.

Economic forms of rebellion and a focus on fossil fuel interests rather than just street-blocking actions could help XR in its revised strategy.  If it is to succeed it will need broad public support rather than just relying on a small vanguard of self-sacrificing activism.  Based on its trajectory in 2018 and 2019, XR UK runs the risk of dividing and polarising public opinion along values lines, re-opening the ‘Brexit’ values schism and potentially achieving stasis rather than rapid transitional change.

XR has deliberately encouraged and magnified gloom and climate-grief to up the emotional engagement of recruits and encourage them into committing arrestable actions.  In my view this approach is unethical as well as likely to fail but along the way it may also do real damage to people’s mental well-being, especially the young.

Because both XR and GT have reached and very successfully mobilised new audiences with little background in the climate issue, they are particularly vulnerable to the sort of cynical climate populism deployed by XR UK.  For example, it gives the impression that UK government policies have made no difference whereas carbon emissions have been falling since 1973, the UK’s carbon footprint is shrinking and electricity decarbonisation has been dramatic.  17 other industrial countries likewise have falling emissions.  In XR’s alternative reality this does not exist and this pretence will not help XR push governments into achieving more.  Blocking roads puts no direct pressure on inadequate climate policy.

In the UK XR has repeatedly dismissed the efforts of NGO campaigns and over-inflated its own achievements but in reality it is the direct beneficiary of 30 or more years of campaigning and change.  For example the university fossil fuel divestment campaigns and Friends of the Earth’s success in creating the UK Climate Change Act 2008.

The strange elements of XR’s strategy – encouraging grief, gloom-picking, solutions denial, not even encouraging its own followers to take any personal action to cut emissions, disruption apparently ‘for its’ own sake’, it’s cult-like branding, promotion of ‘sacrifice’, attempting to bully NGOs into promoting it’s objectives, and its opaque organising techniques – all make sense when they are designed to combine and cause revolution rather than just eliminate climate-changing emissions.  If it continues, XR runs the risk of ending up like the ill-fated UK ‘Committee of 100’ (opposed to nuclear weapons in the 1960s), which one insider said became “a public spectacle, a group isolated from the general body of public opinion and feeling”.

It seems to me that XR has effectively been sheltered from much scrutiny under the ’emotional nuclear umbrella’ provided by Greta Thunberg. It has just issued a new strategy but it is very general and silent on the key questions of what has changed and been dropped, and what it’s new ‘theory of change’ is, if there is one.   XR needs to clarify this.

Perhaps understandably (because the media also did this) XR has claimed to be the author of elevated public concern over the environment in the current ‘green wave’ but in reality that trend began before XR and GT’s campaign began in 2018 and is mainly a reaction to real world events, as was the previous 1988-91 green wave (which actually reached higher levels of concern).  All parts of the climate movement, old and new, need to ensure that they extract a better legacy from the current wave of opportunity than NGOs and others did in the previous green wave.

Finally, we need two things that XR ad GT cannot directly provide.  First, if the ‘climate culture change’ and mass engagement brought by the new climate movement is to bear fruit, the science community needs to give us a clearer vision of what can be achieved, after climate emissions are ended and drawdown from the atmosphere and biosphere begins.  We need to get at least of a vision of what light there may be ‘at the end of the tunnel‘.  Second, beyond protest type activism and focused campaigns, in countries like the UK, we need a complementary movement to optimise the potential of ‘household’ level expenditures. These include ‘big ticket’ consumer choices such as what type of house to build or buy, or cars and other transport choices, or heating systems, as well as day to day choices such as diet.  This is a largely untapped and undirected resource.


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

XR Meets Bryceson’s Political Checklist?

As Extinction Rebellion ponders its future and conducts a re-strategizing exercise, at least in the UK, it faces the prospect of perhaps having to gain the support of a broad based majority rather than a narrow segment engaged in sustained activism.

XR’s current theory hinges on overthrowing government in order to bring about wholesale change to resolve the climate emergency, on the assumption that a non-violent rebellion by 3.5% of a population is highly likely to succeed.  But that derives from Erica Chenoweth’s study of revolutions aimed at overthrow of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes actively oppressing a population.

In contrast ‘XR’ is most active in democracies used to a free press, politics and campaigns.  They might be grumbling and fed up and be worried about climate change but they don’t feel they’re actively oppressed and that revolution is their only way out.  So an increasing number of critics, external and internal, (eg here, here,here and here) have pointed out that the ‘magical’ 3.5% rule probably will not apply in democracies, even if XR could succeed in mobilising several million people rather than tens of thousands it has to date.

I’ve been looking at the very interesting strategies of XR(UK) and the associated activities of Greta Thunberg and the amazing school strikes and hope to post more on it shortly but if XR’s to continue and succeed in winning a broader social madate and, or, in working with the much wider army of NGOs, businesses and politicians also very active on climate change, it will need to start thinking more about practical politics.

Gail Bradbrook of RisingUp! and a leading founder of XR once said (video) “we don’t need to convert the Daily Mail readers thank goodness”.  True perhaps for a 3.5% vanguard but not true if you want to build a broad majority of support for a ‘rebellion’, or what you hope will follow (the conclusions of Citizens Assemblies on climate).  XR has also made almost a fetish of promoting a sense of doom, gloom and grieving, rejecting ‘positivity’ and denying that campaigns and government have had any useful effect – solutions denial.  This is not motivating to most people, and not politically attractive.  So a rethink might need to be quite radical.

That’s a long story but one small thing that might help is the ‘Political Checklist’ produced by public affairs exec Simon Bryceson.  I first shared this back in 2005 in Campaign Strategy Newsletter 13 but as it’s short, relevant and applies more widely (even though it refers to some UK political processes).  It shows things from a politician’s point of view. Here it is.

Bryceson’s Political Checklist



UNIQUENESS: The political process is crucially concerned with the new. If your proposal appears to be a way of doing more efficiently that which is already done, it will be an administrative rather than political issue. You may find sponsors, you won’t find champions.

INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS: The above not withstanding, politicians love to show that their radical idea works very effectively elsewhere.

COST: Is this proposal likely to be financially viable? A standard process of financial assessment, not to be confused with Treasury assessment. (See below).

TIMESCALE: Are the alleged advantages of this scheme likely to appear on a timescale relevant to other factors? A project that is likely to encounter electoral opposition but not come to fruition before the next election is unlikely to be thought ‘interesting’.

PERSONAL ADVANCEMENT: Will sponsoring this proposal benefit my personal reputation? Is it an issue I am historically, and positively associated with? Can I take ‘ownership’ of the issue and, if so, how bad might the downside be?

MEDIA FRIENDLY: Is this an issue that the popular press are going to like/take an interest in? No publicity is normally perceived in politics as no advantage.

ELECTORALLY ACUTE OR DIFFUSE:  “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, nor perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new” Niccolo Machiavelli. 1532.

Do those likely to lose under the new scheme know? Do those likely to gain care? A small group of electors who care a lot always outweigh a large group of electors who have other things to worry about.

WRONGFOOTING THE OPPOSITION: Politicians have an inordinate interest in their continued occupation of office or the rapid acquisition of it. This, of course, is entirely a matter of the public interest since the other lot are so awful one has a duty to prevent them holding office if at all possible. If your proposal embarrasses the opposition it will have interesting aspects.

TREASURY POLICY: In most modern countries there is Government policy and there is Treasury policy, the trick is to be in accord with both whilst noticing that they are rarely the same.

ELITE SUPPORT: Will a clever dick who knows something about the area catch me out? Have the proposers of this idea checked to see where informed opposition might come from and indicated how it might be minimised?

PARTY FUNDRAISING: Politics is a very expensive game; there is therefore a constant need to raise money. Can you show that your project has desirable implications for this process?

The Red Rebels on a visit to Wells Next the Sea on 24 December 2019 to “raise awareness about sea level rise”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Strategy To ‘Fly As Much As You Like’ ?

photo: Juhasz Imre, Creative Commons

Greta Thunberg and XR have re-energised the public fight against climate change and facilitated a new and additional protest movement.  The call to recognize a ‘climate emergency’ has resonated with many politicians, especially those ‘closer to the ground’  but for that energy to translate into faster, bigger, more profound change it needs to become instrumental, meaning that it needs to bear on dis-aggregated, less rhetorical, more granular targets.

Here’s a proposition for a campaign bearing on aviation – DAC-only flying – to effect rapid and significant change in response to the ‘climate emergency’.

In this project, governments should impose a legal obligation on commercial aviation to offset carbon emissions using DAC (Direct Air Capture of CO2) technology, either with certificated credits granted for carbon locked into rock such as basalt, or, by using liquid fuels created by drawing CO2 from the ambient air (or both together).  This would prevent commercial flying using fossil fuels free from offsets, or offsets which we cannot be certain will remain effective (eg tree planting).  Flying with commercial airlines would be DAC-only.

Within the same system, the aviation industry should be made to invest, to pay for DAC technologies, so incentivising airlines to scale up these technologies and reduce their cost.  The directed, focused development effort and attendant commercial risks would then be vertically integrated: airlines would in effect own their own fuel supply systems, although they would not need to become DAC technologists themselves.  By ramping the introduction and level of the requirement, the trend-breaking impact on aviation R&D and business models could be as severe or gentle as it needed to be. 

At present the aviation industry is nowhere near a path to sustainability.  This proposal would convert offsetting from a voluntary practice that mitgates the impact of individual decisions to travel by air, into an end-game mechanism bearing on corporates, to rapidly contain and shrink the carbon footprint of aviation.



Air travel has long been an effective no-go or slow-go area for policy-makers attempting to coax their colleagues, governments and voters into taking meaningful action to reduce climate-changing ‘carbon’ pollution.  Many governments – ours in the UK being only one good example – have long made top-line political commitments to significant de-carbonization while simultaneously planning to expand air travel as it was assumed to be essential for economic growth, and voter happiness.  Air travel is a famous example of a behaviour which shifted in the lifetimes of older people alive today, from an activity restricted to a tiny elite, to a larger ‘jet set’ elite, to become mainstream and problematically cheaper in cash terms than more sustainable alternatives such as the train.

For decades, even the most dogged campaigns to oppose airport expansion have struggled, especially on climate-grounds.  Back in 2006 I proposed that not-flying for the climate would become the ‘new save the whale’ as a socially testing issue, and it would become fashionable not to fly.  Well maybe it is, only 13 years later!  In reality, self-imposed restraint from flying has been confined to the most committed individuals and organizations, not even adopted as a norm by the majority of ‘ethical’ NGOs, and until recently, widely ignored as an option even among academics, and with breath-taking incongruence, even by many climate scientists.

An at least-vague-awareness of the climate impact of flying is however very widespread.  The  discomfort very many people feel when deciding to fly, is resolved by drawing on a wide spectrum of motivated reasoning, such as citing compensatory behaviours in the personal climate-guilt register such as “I do a lot to recycle”, “I’m now vegetarian”, “I buy renewable electricity”,  to specific balancing investments such as “we bought an offset” or even higher ethical purpose [ethical excusers or Ethcusers] “as a campaigner for [ A  ] I will make a greater difference for humanity by taking this flight than spending X time going by [sea/ rail/ bus/ camel/ bike]”.

This has attracted quite a bit of campaigner or advocate attention, aimed at finding ways to get people to voluntarily give up flying.  That is necessary and important but as a political catalyst not in itself a reliable and rapid delivery route to end the aviation problem.  To achieve that we must confine and bind the dynamic driving aviation expansion and drive out the emissions.  The problem is cheap fossil fueled flights unconstrained (indeed encouraged) by public policy.


Proxies and Decoys


The air industry has of course titrated its PR efforts and investments in alternative fuels and technologies to try and maintain the equilibrium and hold the spectre of trend-breaking regulatory action at bay for as long as possible.  Like other sectors before it, the industry has tried to maintain a focus on comparative metrics of efficiency, per passenger emissions etc, which allow it to continue business growth as usual, and draw attention away from ballooning emissions.  Like the tobacco industry it has promoted ‘choice’ framing and offered the somewhat-less damaging options while signing up to vague commitments to be responsible.   These proxies and decoys have enabled it to continue growing and polluting while industries such as power generation have been slowly ensnared in carbon reduction.


Now, with climate change indisuptably happening all around us, and Greta Thunberg and XR raising the level of social activity,  flying is being more seriously questioned.   Numerous reports attribute Thunberg’s influence to a rapid increase in demand for voluntary offsetting and governments are creeping towards more taxes.  Yet experience with many other sectors, such as the spread of organic food, ‘green investment’, and sustainability certification for fish and forests, is that elective action can build a vanguard, prove concepts and, if values dynamics are engaged, transition behaviours from innovative to mainstream to ‘normal’ but it can take a long time.  If regulators stand back, it will also leave an unengaged ‘tail’ of unsustainable practice which can be very large (eg the great majority) while generating ‘best practice’ examples that can be gamed by politicains who want to avoid taking regulatory action.


Contain and Shrink


I suggest that we need to convert offsetting from a voluntary practice that mitigates the impact of individual decisions to travel by air, into an end-game mechanism to rapidly contain and shrink the carbon footprint of aviation.

This is a vast subject but a handy reality-check on the sustainability trajectory of the aviation industry was provided by Evan Davis’s BBC programme The Bottom Line on the future of commercial aviation, broadcast in July 2019 [see excerpts below, at the end].  Talking to three experienced industry insiders, Davis  gradually drew out confirmation that the industry is not on any credible trajectory to coming good on even its own climate commitments.  I thought two telling points were the low volume of air travel that is for business, and the impact of the Swedish fylgskam or flight-shaming movement, which has ‘stagnated’ air travel growth in Sweden in around 18 months.  As on so many previous environmental, Sweden along with California, still often acts as a pathfinder.


Davis mentioned that only 26% of travel at Heathrow Airport is for business.  The vast bulk is recreational.  Viewed with one assumption this makes the present air-travel business look politically unassailable but if you see it otherwise, as a social behaviour on the move like the real and rapid shift to eating less meat in the UK,  it could indicate political vulnerability.  In addition, while policy wonks think about tech and statistical sectors, the public encounters this through airline brands that, like banks, are often resented.


However, unlike eating every day or doing food shopping every week, the personal social touchpoints of flying are, for most of us, few.  Most people in most countries don’t fly very often (Swedes fly a lot).  This makes campaigns which rely on social contagion rather harder to sustain.   On the other hand it also means that ‘doing the right thing’ can be relatively low cost in terms of personal investment, especially if some flying remains a possibility.


Re-Purposing Offset Technologies


It’s true that until recently, many long-term climate campaigners (me included) have resisted devoting much attention to carbon-capture proposals and the wide range of speculative ideas for planetary geo-engineering, and I think, for good reasons.   For example because many proposals were for devices attached to continued or new use of fossil fuels in electricity production (eg Carbon Capture and Storage).  In other cases they included vast and uncontrollable manipulation of ecosystems, such as ocean fertilisation.  And in nearly all cases they could divert public concern and attention, and thus political attention and action, away from regulation and investment change required to decarbonize economies in proven ways such as switching to renewable energy, raising efficiency and cutting waste.


Actual climate change is now happening as anticipated by models and other science but far faster than was widely expected.  What we feared to see in the second half of this century is already happening today.   Movements like XR and Rapid Transition are partly inspired by this realisation but to exert change-making pressure they need dis-aggregated targets, instrumental campaigns rather than just protest, and propositions more granular than ‘nobody is doing anything’, ‘the system needs to change’ and ‘we need deep adaptation’.  Aviation offers one such opportunity.


Air travel contributes a small part of the overall pollution causing climate change but it is growing rapidly and hugely important both politically and psychologically.  It’s been largely untouched by the mainstreaming of ‘mitigation’ carbon-reduction measures that have been transforming electricity generation and biting into vehicle emissions (electric cars etc) and other sectors.  Not only that but it’s been aspirational, emblematic of the ‘innocent’ pre-sustainability world in which air travel was associated with freedom and enjoyment, holidays and tourism, and business success, built on untramelled climate pollution.


Over-Ripe For Disruption


The aviation model is over-ripe for disruption, and in many ways could be far easier to deal with than other sectors such as land-use and farming or domestic energy use and terrestrial transport, for a number of reasons.


  • Decisions about aircraft design and manufacture are mainly taken by just two giant companies, Airbus and Boeing (although as with other sectors, radical disruptive innovation may well come from new market entrants)
  • At present the architecture of consumer choice is constrained: if we fly we have to buy the service from an airline. Almost none of us own our own aircraft (and regulators should act before many do).
  • Jet fuel is already heavily regulated and monitored and therefore totally responsive to action through existing regulatory machinery
  • Airlines are constrained by slots at a small number of airports, similar to rail services arriving and departing from railway termini. This also means that nation states or supra-national bodies like the EU potentially have leverage over the fleet mix – certain types of plane and fuels could be excluded or treated differently, as cities have done with ground transport.
  • Because of this the problem is simple: essentially, more is progressively worse, less is progressively better, and it is the same everywhere: at present the world has one dominant model for air travel, one source and type of emissions, one set of technologies and few players. It is not a very ‘wicked’ problem.


So there are few decision makers, and a handful of regulators and companies make critical decisions, not the millions of airline users (international shipping is similar in that the vast number of cargo shippers and product end users all buy essentially the same service, and it has also remained comparatively untouched by climate policy).  Thanks to technological domination and globalisation it is a far simpler problem than say, emissions from agriculture and other land uses which are hideously diverse and complex at multiple levels.


This makes aviation a straightforward way to deliver significant radical change, if one can convince regulators that it is urgent, and technically, economically and politically feasible.


Manifestation of public concern and attributable events are providing evidence of urgency.  Meanwhile the track record and plans of the aviation industry show that its incremental iterative approach to change is more a PR shield than a radical change programme, and will not do the job.  As Evan Davis concluded, “there is no plan” in the aviation industry which can reach sustainability.


Aside from the adoption issue (getting consumers to use it), a much-discussed problem with offsets is the lack of certainty in the fate of compensating carbon ostensibly captured and sequestered (stored) by NETs (Negative Emission Technologies).  Even if one can guarantee that initial funding has the intended effect such as installing more renewables, that only cancels out the flight emissions if it displaces carbon electricity generation, which in turn requires a bounded regulatory system and an enforced carbon-elimination policy.  Not many countries have that.  Even less certain is what happens to offsetting such as tree planting or forest conservation (essential though I agree those are).  It relies on having a guarantee that the initially captured carbon will remain in the soils or timber, and not be released, for instance, through burning or land clearance.




Of the many NETs under discussion, in development and in use, two seem to me to offer a potential route to divert the aviation industry from its current comfortable flightpath, which for the planet and humanity is disastrous.   Both involve DAC or Direct Air Capture of CO2, also known as DACC, Direct Air Carbon Capture.  A few years ago these were in the realm of ‘science fiction’ but no longer.


There are several main DAC technologies with different ways of locking carbon back into rocks, effectively mimicking the result of natural carbon storage as limestone and chalk were laid down with calcium carbonate derived from the bodies of small sea creatures, and coal, oil and gas were created from ancient plant material.   In theory at least, such geological fixing of carbon should be more dependable than for instance, injecting CO2 into solution in old oil reservoirs.  Geological fixing removes carbon from the biosphere and atmosphere whereas DAC used for instance to create a stream of CO2 gas taken from the exhaust of a gas fired power station will quickly release it again if that is used to make fizzy drinks.



The world’s first commercial DACC system is the Swiss-based Climeworks which describes itself as ‘a technology to reverse climate change’.    Climeworks say  (video) their vision is to capture 1% of global CO2 emissions in 2025, requiring 750,000 shipping containers of equipment, equivalent to the number passing through Shanghai in a fortnight.  Double that and you have emissions from commercial aviation. In Iceland (video) Climeworks is working with other companies in a demonstration Carbfix project which reacts and fixes captured CO2 in basalt rock (a very widespread family of igneous rocks formed in areas of volcanic activity).


A well known objection to anything relying on DAC is cost.  As Fuss et al note ‘Most of the discussion around DACCS potential has been dominated by cost considerations as the key parameter determining the viability of the technology’.   Much effort is going into reducing cost so that carbon captured this way comes within the ballpark of existing carbon reduction options.    Cheaper will indeed be better but rather than relying on limited government grant aid and venture capital raised by start-ups,  this proposal is to make the aviation industry reliant on DACs, and for them to be locked into funding it, so long as conventional fuel is used.


Another application of DAC is to take CO2 from the air and recycle it into jet fuel.  In 2018 National Geographic reported ‘Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, is already making a liquid fuel by sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere and combining it with hydrogen from water. This is an engineering breakthrough on two fronts: A potentially cost-effective way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere to fight climate change and a potentially cost-competitive way to make gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel that doesn’t add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere’.  It added ‘they hope the economics will be in their favor’.  A similar process was backed by Bill Gates in the US in 2018, and in 2019 Climeworks announced that with others (EDL Anlagenbau Gesellschaft GmbH), it is to produce carbon-from-air jet fuel with Rotterdam The Hague Airport in the Netherlands.

Both these systems could be made manadatory within a DAC-only flying regime.


In short, under the system proposed above, aviation as a sector and flying as a consumer choice would become by ‘guaranteed’ DAC-offset-only.  DAC-flying would be the only commercial option.  This would:


  • End reliance on individual consumer or individual corporate initaitives to buy offsets in order to mitigate and eliminate the impact of aviation on climate
  • End regulator blind-eye tolerance of the aviation industry’s “hot air” PR based on illusory promises about iterative efficiency gains from a business as usual system
  • Create a high-certainty stream of finance for mass development and deployment of DAC technologies with a powerful fast-track incentive, in a similar model to wartime technology-forcing policies
  • Provide a simple policy option in international government discussions to ‘resolve’ and take emergency action on a key part of the climate crisis which until now has been very much ignored
  • Give the aviation industry a bridging option as new technologies such as electric power are developed
  • Be consistent with established regulatory models already shown to be effective in other sectors, such as Non Fossil Fuel Obligation schemes
  • Enable governments to focus near-term climate-crisis public expenditure on more complicated and wicked problems such as those related to land-use, by chopping of a bit of the problem where the polluter can be made to pay


Of course this is not a fix to all the other problems associated with air travel.   It is also highly likely that any significant near-term ramping up of the requirement to use DAC would mean that air travel would become more expensive but it would not become impossible, and those who travel by air most are both the richest and would pay most.


* Elements of this have been discussed in many blogs, learned reports and articles on aviation offsetting and NET technologies eg Royal Society 2009,  Lomax et al 2015,  Choice 2017, Sabine Fuss et al 2018, Wired 2018, Aviation Environment Federation 2019,  I’m not aware of this particular proposal being made before but do let me know if it has been.




BBC ‘The Bottom Line’ programme Radio 4, 27 July 2019, presented by Evan Davis: ‘The Future of Commercial Aviationhttps://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000713p – segment on emissions (second part of programme).  Below is my rough transcript of excerpts.


Interviewees: (three trade insiders) Paul Kahn, president, Connectivity, Cobham Plc; Volodymyr Bilotkach, economist, author of The Economics of Airlines; Rob Morris, head of Global Consultancy, Ascend by Cirium.  Interviewer: Evan Davis


* * *


Those of you in the UK can listen to the programme here.  Those outside the UK may struggle if you do not have a VPN.  So here are my approximate transcript extracts (I found it hard to distinguish Paul Kahn and Rob Morris so I’ve notated them as C for contributor and V for Volodymyr and ED for Evan Davis – sadly there is no BBC transcript at the website)


* * *


C: growth is 5% per annum … there are about 25,000 passenger aircraft in service … it’s cost driven [by cheapness] we fly more for business and leisure


V: growth is about 10% per annum in Asia


ED: if we do nothing we expect it to continue to grow


C: expect 5% compound … 20% savings on emissions from new plane designs … 15% for a specific model, completely new aircraft


ED: is efficiency gain keeping up with passenger growth ?


C: it will take until 2026 before the new-engined [more efficient] fleet is bigger than than the existing fleet of aircraft


V: load factor has increased from 75% to 85% in 20 years, [airlines like] RyanAir achieve 95%, the fleet is growing overall 3.5% and [business] 5% due to productivity


[airlines and manufacturers are] reducing size, weight, power [per passenger per aircraft]


ED: Growth is exceeding capability of the industry to reduce its emissions – what are you guys going to do ? I mean come on – 2050 we are meant to be on net zero carbon. What is the aviation industry expecting to deliver by 2050?


C: IATA … ten years ago pledged to grow neutrally with respect to carbon by 2020. Its 2019 … haven’t been able to


V: [it was/meant to be] a 50% cut by 2050


ED: assume Paris Compatible by 2050 – how ?


C: must see some sort of break with technology – most significantly hybrid electric


ED: how?


C: transform design of the plane [no longer need engines under wings etc] – debate [will be] hybrid versus electric … batteries too heavy for long distance [or heavy load]


ED: so why is half a battery better?


C: for an air taxi it’s ok [but not larger longer flight aircraft]


V: once cars became more efficient people drove more – the rebound effect [I wonder if the same is happening in air travel] – airlines may think it’s [a] more efficient [aircraft] I can fly it more – what effect on emissions ?


C: some are growing at 6% – price stimulation of demand … [we] get to shaming of flying – whether [it’s right to] just have three or four long weekends in Eastern Europe from London, just because you can ?


ED: what you are saying is that you don’t have an answer.  Hybrid plane – how far away ?


C: long haul ? 10 years at least


ED: [this is] not even remotely close


C: Airbus is flying a four engined jet [in Europe with one electric engine] hybrid [test] just starting


ED: so 2035 for big hybrid planes?


C: right order of magnitude … 14 new types of aircraft in next … years … more iterative than disruptive … [it’s a] challenge the industry is investing in


ED: this is the hot air we’re used to from the aviation industry [paraphrasing] “we’re taking this very seriosuly, we’re signing up to these targets, [and] by the way we missed it the last time we did it … but we are ever more ambitious in the targets were going to sign up to …” – there’s no plan


C: I agree but you still want to fly and so do I … [there is a] clear alignment between environmental impact and the operating costs for an airiline …


ED: Except, except, except I would rather be a big airline growing with more passengers …do we think that for the climate-conscious flyer, does it become a little more taboo ?


C: [it’s] beginning to happen – in Sweden growth in the industry has slowed or in fact stagnated very recently – so it will happen but the cat’s out of the bag and we travel for leisure and we travel for businesss …


ED: Well I just want to say, we don’t travel that much for business, I was shocked researching this to find that Heathrow is 26% of flights are for business – most are holiday or visiting friends or relatives


V: because the price is right so people fly, if you want people to stop flying just introduce a tax on them


ED: so … we are going to make a choice – you’re going to do your best to keep emissions per passenger very low, it’s not going to be enough with unconstrained growth and isn’t constrained  non-growth the only way that the world will reconcile it’s stated targets on emissions and the aviation industry ?


C: technological progress can make a massive difference


ED: you haven’t managed to convince me you have any route to achieving sustainability [although note that] only 2% of emissions [CO2] are from aviation


C: fuel is 25% of airline’s overall costs and it’s now $US/gallon, when in 2011/12 it was $US3/gallon still aviation grew … made efficiencies


V: [the] CORSIA cap and trade offsetting ICAO initiative, interntional flights only, [in] 2030 pretty much manadatory except very poorest countries – it’s a start [see CORSIA wikipedia]


ED: what about carbon capture – does that remotely work as an option? Planting forests … ?


C: as V explained carbon pricing [has to be] applied to aviation, it’s all about introducing those sort of complex models to incentivise the right behaviour [and] the right investment choices for a more sustainable future.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment