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INTERVIEW: The evolution of Clean Air Day

On 20th June, Global Action Plan will once again invite the country to join together on Clean Air Day, a focal point in the fight against air pollution since it was launched in 2017.

Today, they launch all the relevant promotional material that will be used by hundreds of organisations to get across the clean air message in their own way.

In the build up to this, we spoke to Tessa Bartholomew-Good, Head of Campaigns for Clean Air Programmes at Global Action Plan, about what this year holds in store.

It’s eight years since the first Clean Air Day and while there’s been a different theme each year, the format has always been familiar. But you’re shaking things up a bit this year, can you give us an insight into what’s happening and the thinking behind it?

Yes. So, as you said, our campaign’s been running for eight years, focused around behaviour change, having people trial different types of clean air behaviours around a theme, so they can imagine what a clean air community could look like. School streets or walking or cycling to work…

But we know that it isn’t on the shoulders of individuals to make the kinds of changes we need to see, so we’ve been talking about how to shift from this individual behaviour change to more of a systems change approach.

How can we empower people to use their voice and demand the wider changes that we need to see from the government.

And this year, we had the opportunity to work with Health Equals as a funder. They are a coalition of 27 member organisations that are focused on health inequalities. They were always planning to do a campaign on air pollution, so they decided to fund Clean Air Day. And having their funding really allowed us to push this policy-advocacy-systems change frame, which we’ve been wanting to do for a few years now.

So, as you said, Clean Air Day is going to look quite different, both in terms of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. So, there’s not a theme, there’s a petition, and it’s down to different organisations to frame that petition in a way that works for them.

The petition is the thing that we’re really trying to get people behind. It is calling for safer walking, wheeling, and cycling, as well as more reliable and affordable public transportation. So without saying it, it’s all about getting people to drive less.

Will Clean Air Night head in this direction too?

I think we have ambitions to do a systems change with Clean Air Night as well, but it comes down to who can fund us. Clean Air Day and Clean Air Night have historically been funded by government bodies and obviously, they’re not going to fund to lobby themselves. But yes, I think the goal is to continue a more systems change model for the future.

And just to say, we are still very much encouraging the 300+ organisations – including local authorities that maybe wouldn’t be able to share a petition – to get involved in Clean Air Day again this year.

There’s a whole range of different ways they can participate. The main one is to share the petition, but there are other ways like hosting an event or by encouraging people within their organisation to travel to work sustainably.

Our Communications Toolkit, has gone live today (6th June) and that will have information on how organisations can share the petition if they feel comfortable doing so – or share the facts and solutions on air pollution. There’s lots of key facts that showcase the harms of air pollution, as well as the solutions, driving people to the Clean Air Hub to find out more.

So the petition aside, you’re still encouraging schools and other participants to carry on holding the sorts of events they have in the past?

Absolutely. And to be honest, Clean Air Day has a life of its own now. A lot of organisations use the day to launch a report or to get a new network up and running… so we want the movement to use it in a way that allows them to call attention to air pollution – whatever way that is.

So there will still be events, and a QR code can be printed out to allow people to sign the petition on the day, 

Obviously signing a petition is not something schools can get involved with, no matter how emotive the signatures of 200,000 children might be…

No, they have to be over 18 but we do have some schools communication that’s going out, framed around teachers sharing it with parents. And parents are really passionate about it, as we see through organisations like Mums For Lungs.

And schools always get involved. Almost every year, the school resources are the most downloaded so there’s clearly a desire from teachers to use that day to teach about the harms of air pollution as well as the solutions.

It is also really compelling angle in our focus groups too. We found that even if people didn’t want to cycle themselves or didn’t want to see some of the changes we are calling for, a huge motivator was the future for their children.

Has the announcement of an election changed anything?

There was definitely a need to look at our messaging and our timeline. The main thing that’s changed is how we are taking the petition to decision makers. The original plan was to host a parliamentary event and deliver the petition and say: ‘Look, this is what people want. There’s a there’s a real desire for action on air pollution, here is a specific thing that you can do.’

And we’ve worked with Sustrans and Better Transport to make sure that the evidence that sits behind those policy asks is really sound, because Global Action Plan is an environmental charity, we’re not a transport specific charity. So this really feels like a collaborative moment for the sector to be able to pull together on an evidence based petition.

So originally we were going to have a parliamentary event. Now, with a general election coming, that’s not able to happen. Instead, we are going to pivot a little and the plan is now to deliver the petition to Downing Street in the first week of the new government.

It might be a bit crowded…

Yes, I think it might, but we’re hoping that we might be one of the first to get there. We definitely feel like with Clean Air Day being in the weeks leading up to the general election, it’s never been a better time to demonstrate that the public supports measures for clean air. And we know, from qualitative research that we’ve done recently, that people want to see these changes, they want greener transport options. But the burden can’t be on individuals to pay more to be more inconvenienced, the government really needs to invest in these solutions.

Is there a target you’re aiming for in terms of a number of signatures?

It’s hard to set a target because we’re relying so much on partner organisations to get it out. But yes, we have internal hopes and ambitions for it.

We have tried to make sure that what the petition is calling for is as motivating as possible to the public. So we’re confident that if we can get this to people, they will want to sign it.

The insights from our focus group showed that whilst people want greener options to travel, and they want to have their voices heard, they are a bit sceptical of petitions. There’s a lot of petitions out there and people wonder if the government really listens to them. Does it change anything?

One of the kind of key insights we found was that following up on what you do with the petition is really important. People feel confident that something’s being done with it

But interestingly, even if people were sceptical, which the majority were, most of them still sign petitions because it feels like the only mass engagement tool that exists, that allows them to have a voice.

Did you come across any people in those groups who believe there is a war on motorists?

Our sample was not was not vetted to get them out, but we didn’t want people who were complete conspiracy theorists. So they had to have some sort of acceptance that environmental issues are important.

But what did come out that there is confusion around the causes of air pollution from cars. We took learnings from the ULEZ expansion and other campaigns, that there’s a really strong loss aversion when you mentioned cars.

So all the messaging is about giving people more options, not taking anything away. We’re specifically trying to avoid talking about driving less and more about giving people more options to make sustainable choices.

But obviously, cars came up in the discussion, because it’s impossible for them not to, and the main point of confusion is that they believe things such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and other traffic measures creates more pollution. Which we know from evidence is false.

So there weren’t overt conspiracy theory ideas in our groups but there was definitely some misinformation that’s clearly infiltrated through different sources of media and different kinds of narratives that have been around, especially in the lead up to the London mayoral election.

What will you personally be doing on 20th June?

Good question. There’s a lot of really great events happening, especially all from some of our key support organisations, but we have to check back in with some of them because they were Parliamentary events, which obviously can’t happen.

Great Ormond Street Hospital’s hosting a big event and I’m pretty sure Camden Council’s involved in that. They’ve done lots of play streets in the past, but this is more of a healthcare focused event.

Black Maternal Health are doing another event, I think that they’re looking at it from a mental health angle.

Better Bankside are promoting a lot of the improvements that they’ve done in the area to make cycling and walking safer and will have their different partners from around the area supporting them.

What’s the best way for people to share the petition?

It is hosted on the Clean Air Hub and it has content explaining the ‘why’ – that cars and vans are the biggest source of toxic chemicals in our air and the solutions that exist to clean this up. We explain we need to call on our government to make walking, cycling, wheeling safer and make public transportation more reliable and affordable. That’s the public facing message.

Behind that will sit the policy language that will actually be going to the new government when we deliver the petition.

Is anything else you want to add?

I guess just a big thank you to the whole sector for making Clean Air Day what it is. It really wouldn’t be the campaign that it is without everyone getting involved. And we really hope that people feel empowered to share this petition and feel a joint ownership of it.

Clean Air Day social media assets

The Petition

Paul Day
Paul is the editor of Public Sector News.


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