Interview: Nick Ruxton-Boyle on the importance of messaging to tackle air pollution

Nick Ruxton-Boyle, Director of Environment at Marston Holdings, tells Air Quality News why we need public messaging to tackle air pollution, and explains what an effective messaging campaign looks like.

Why do we need messaging to tackle air pollution?

‘We have been told or asked not to do things for years that are bad for us or bad for the planet – I’m thinking things like seatbelts, smoking, drink driving, and aerosols,’ says Nick. ‘The messaging for these has changed over the years from subtle nudge theory to quite shock tactics, and each different approach has had a different response from the public or different sectors of the public, and air pollution and climate change are no different at all.’

‘We cannot rely on fiscal policy and regulatory change to affect the meaningful change we need; we need behaviour change as well – we need the public to make those changes. Ultimately, that is why messaging is key.’

In the wake of the cost-of-living crisis, we are also presented with an opportunity to help people switch to more environmentally friendly behaviours, argues Nick.

‘Reducing our reliance on energy is inbuilt in a lot of the work that we have been doing in the transport sector to get people to leave their cars at home and walk, cycle or get the bus. I suppose it is just another angle – another co-benefit – of all of that work to reduce traffic and the reliance on cars. It achieves so much more than reducing our reliance on imported energy – it improves the air, it reduces carbon, it makes us all healthier, it reduces noise – so there is no end to the benefits from a low traffic lifestyle, a low car lifestyle, and it can really achieve a lot.

‘Another string to that is now reliance on energy and energy costs are a key focus. A lot of us are looking at how we can reduce our energy costs, and one of the ways is to look at how we use energy, and in our lifestyles, how we heat our homes, how we travel, what we burn, and our shopping – it helps that it is another benefit of that messaging.’

What makes effective public messaging?

Nick explains that data is crucial to delivering successful behavioural change campaigns. ‘Data is super important. First and foremost, we need to collect this data and collect the right data. By right data, I mean it needs to be local, it needs to be real data rather than a computer algorithm, and it needs to be meaningful. Technology has come on a lot recently, and products like our Vortex monitoring units make it really easy and cost-effective for councils to collect this meaningful data.

‘Greta Thurnberg is famously quoted as saying, “Don’t listen to me, listen to the science,” and she is absolutely right. Air pollution and climate change are really complex scientific topics, and we need to make this data usable. It needs to be understandable to the wider public – we need to clean this data, we need to simplify it, and we need to share it widely and explain the data, rather than preach the data.’

Much of the currently available air quality data is quite broad and high level, says Nick, while the public wants to see local data that can help them make decisions in their day-to-day lives.

Sources of air pollution data, like the Defra Air Quality Index, are also complex, so they need translating into language that the public can understand.

To develop a successful behavioural intervention, we first need to ask the public what data they need in order to make informed choices, then work out whether that data already exists or needs collecting, and finally work out how the public want to receive it, explains Nick.

person using smartphone

He sets out several key qualities of an effective messaging campaign:

  • It needs to be clear, simple, and targeted to a particular issue
  • It should get input from the end user and incorporate their language
  • It needs to be cheap to deliver, and easy to replicate and scale
  • It should be accessible to the desired audience

Nick also explains that effective messaging is tailored to specific groups of people: ‘It’s not going to be one message for everyone, there are lots of different groups of people out there, and all these different groups have different values and different engagement with society, and we need tools to be able to reach them all separately and individually.’

Vortex has deployed 500 air quality monitors in Hammersmith & Fulham to understand local air quality data minute by minute, which is then shared with the public to help them make their own decisions.

‘It is a really amazing deployment, and it has created a huge amount of public support for the solutions that the council is putting in, and these are quite difficult solutions to gain public support for.’

Nick also believes that awareness days, such as Clean Air Day, can be very valuable tools to help engage with the public.

‘Clean Air Day is great – it provides us as practitioners with a wide range of messages and tools to be able to engage with the public.

‘We celebrate Clean Air Day at Marston Holdings every year, and this year we are offering free consultations to our local authority clients to help them utilize some of the existing tools, techniques and technology that are out there and available for them.’

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez


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2 years ago

This really stands out ‘Vortex has deployed 500 air quality monitors in Hammersmith & Fulham to understand local air quality data minute by minute, which is then shared with the public to help them make their own decisions’. Why can’t DEFRA do the same? If DEFRA had many more air quality measuring sites UK-wide they could add more data into their system so that daily forecasts could be more accurate and tell us about the air we are breathing at the very local level. And why should it be left to the public to ‘make their own decisions”? About what? Whether to go outside? Whether to have a bonfire? Whether to use their asthma inhalers more? Whether to keep their kids at home? Shouldn’t this extra information help local councils and the NHS make decisions? Such as putting a temporary ban on wood burning, for example, or advising drivers to go more slowly (as is done in some countries abroad when air pollutiion is heavy). Are these Vortex results reported on the radio or local news? It’s the first I’ve heard of it, even if there has been a ‘huge amount of public support’. What changes has it led to exactly? Will other local authorities join in? I think this has enormous potential, I’d like to know more and DEFRA ought to be involved. Is it?

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