South Gloucestershire Council: Co-developing a Carbon Communication Toolkit

This project aimed to provide scientific advice and support as well as building capability within South Gloucestershire Council to identify pathways to local climate targets and support the delivery of the South Gloucestershire local Climate Action Plan, which is now at its second year of delivery.

The challenge

The three challenges for the project were:

  • Overcoming resistance to active travel measures in the Climate Action Plan, including the impact of Covid-19
  • Overcoming barriers to the current update of low carbon home retrofitting initiatives (beyond cost-related barriers)
  • Raising the profile of the climate emergency within the Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) to encourage ownership of the Local Climate Action Plan and ensure its long-term delivery.

Reduction of emissions from transport and from domestic energy use represent a key challenge to achieving local climate goals. Encouraging active travel (challenge 1) and green home retrofitting investments (challenge 2) would tackle two key carbon emission sources as well as delivering important co-benefits in terms of air quality and public health.

The role of the Local Strategic Partnership is particularly crucial for the long-term delivery of the local climate strategy, and this constituted the focus of our third challenge. For instance, the presence of major employers and stakeholders in a context characterised by a diverse geography, market towns, rural villages and new developments heavily influences commuting patterns and development opportunities within the local authority.

The three identified challenges all had a strong behavioural change element. The first and second challenge address diffuse sources of carbon which are more challenging to address. The third challenge requires an organisational and cultural change and an identification of the ways in which the Local Strategic Partnership can more directly support the delivery of the climate change plan.

The solution

We worked on identifying key steps and principles to strengthen the Council’s Climate Emergency Communication strategy and to strengthen its role within a broader pro-environmental behavioural change initiative. Within this we identified through an exploratory survey (1000+ responses) the key barriers, enablers and motivations behind pro-environmental behaviours and explored these more in-depth in two focus groups which uncovered views and perspectives on home retrofitting investments and active travel, and citizens’ expectations about the information and guidance provided by the Council, and other key advice from providers such as the local energy advice agency.

We conducted three semi-structured interviews with stakeholders within the Local Strategic Partnership to identify expectations and possible solutions to enhance the role of the LSP within the broader local climate emergency strategy. The interviews pointed to the importance to create common platforms for shared action and for the Council to provide leadership and a brokerage role between stakeholders to tackle specific issues.

What are your top three lessons learned?

Data gathering

The engagement and recruitment of participants faced added challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis. Lockdown restrictions meant that we could not reach out to participants within their usual settings (local events, local clubs, etc). We identified the risk of Zoom fatigue from protracted and many online events, which meant that potential participants were more reluctant to spend an extra hour or so online outside of working hours. On the other hand, online engagement brought about benefits in terms of flexibility and cost. Looking forward, a mixture of online and face-to-face engagement seems to be the best approach to engage with a wider and harder-to reach audience. We appreciated the importance of relying on existing platforms and resources for data gathering. We delivered the survey using an existing public consultation service within the Council and we talked to Community Engagement Officers to identify potential focus group participants in different areas of the local authority, which proved to be invaluable. To maximise these opportunities, it is useful to discuss in advance deadlines and possible facilitating mechanisms, particularly in light of ethics approval processes for data gathering that can take a few weeks to complete.


It is important to create the link between policy goals and individual actions to establish the relevance of the issues for people and stakeholders and get them engaged in the process. A focus on actions and what people can do to change is more likely to create agency and empowerment than more general messaging on the risks of climate change.  While cost was not the only concern, participants highlighted this as a significant consideration for home retrofitting investments. Furthermore, a clear identification of the benefits and easy access to information on home retrofitting measures as well as trusted and skilled installers was considered key by participants. Access to this information should be quick and easy and be adapted to work in different formats (infographic, 1-2-1 support, PDFs with more detailed information, etc). Interestingly the existing information which was presented to the participants was not viewed as persuasive, participants indicated they desired clear guidance on costs and a cost benefit analysis to the householder.

Also, our findings point to the importance of social and cultural expectations (especially with regards to active travel) and the importance of addressing and incorporating these into communication campaigns. The focus group talked about cycling in different social contexts and how the participants considered it to be not the ‘done thing’ in certain circumstances such as for social engagements. This was a fascinating and surprising insight in the discussion because whilst the group did refer to the commonly cited reasons for not using active travel, poor infrastructure, time consuming, etc. The predominant focus was on whether they felt the journey would fall within the bounds of social norms. This was illuminating and suggests that communications campaigns need to more around communicating a cultural shift. One of the key learning points was that visually illustrating cultural changes rather than being seen to be telling people what they should be doing is a much more effective approach to behaviour change.  

It is important to break down the challenges into their individual, social and material components (in this regard we used the Institutional- Social- Material, or ISM model) to design more effective strategies.

Working method and partnership

it is important to keep collaboration at the core of the project and at each stage, including keeping an open mind when identifying  priorities, and accounting for organisational mechanisms and pressures. It is important to develop an ongoing evaluation plan to check that the policy partner can fully benefit from the process and the researchers can enhance the reflective elements and learning process. It is useful to have an open discussion about the format of the outputs to prioritise. Academics tend to prioritise peer-reviewed journal articles, whilst policymakers tend to find more useful shorter policy briefs.

Project impact

What have the outcomes of the project been so far?

We have developed a deeper understanding of effective techniques to inform communication campaigns based on action-based narrative arcs. We have derived a set of recommendations that will be formalised in communication toolkit format and we are exploring the possibility to publish the results of the project in an academic paper.

How will these outcomes be sustained?

The findings of the report will be integrated into the end of year review of the Council’s work on Climate Emergency and will be used to develop communications-based projects that will form part of the Year 3 Climate Emergency Action Plan. Therefore, the findings will be directly incorporated into the ongoing process of work by the council to further the aims of the area wide Climate Emergency declaration.

What is the anticipated longer-term impact on progress towards net zero?

The findings of the report will inform both ongoing communications as part of specific projects and for engagement with the local strategic partnership. The anticipated longer terms impact will be increased take up of household retrofit and active travel across the area and increased engagement and activity by local strategic partnership members. In terms of quantifying the impact, the area wide transport emissions are monitored on a yearly basis as part of the Council’s work on Climate Emergency but due to the complexity of the data that comes from central government and the current methodology, it means that the data is provided two years in arears.

Where this communications toolkit work feeds into the development of specific projects to address home energy retrofit and active travel it may be possible to quantify carbon emissions avoided or reduced through the number/type of household installations and numbers of fossil fuel powered car-based journeys converted to walking or cycling. The impact of the project on the effectiveness of work through the local strategic partnership will be harder to quantify but may be evident through increased engagement and the further development of shared tools that can be used across the partnership.

How has this project evolved your approach to net zero?

From a research perspective, this project gave us the opportunity to apply the ISM model, which we found really useful to breakdown action-gaps that could undermine Net Zero pathways into individual, social and material constituent parts. Furthermore, our focus groups methodology gave us the opportunity to test the application of story-telling techniques to generate new insights into drivers and barriers and gain an understanding of approaches to developing pro-environmental agency that are alternative to the more traditional action-drives-behaviour model and the information deficit model. We will be looking to extend the application of this approach further.

From a policy practice perspective, it was clear that there are local nuances to issues that relate to population make up, social norms and culture that need to be factored in alongside the well understood practical policy issues that constitute barriers to action on climate.

Who will benefit from your project?

Partnerships between academic researchers and policymakers offer an important platform for the deployment of academic research into policymaking in a mutually beneficial way.

The relationship between UWE researchers and the Council has deepened as a result of the project, with an understanding of common working techniques, challenges and mutual contribution to understanding the local climate change issues. The project has meant that UWE researchers have now a better understanding of how to deploy academic research into policymaking and deeper insight into the priority challenges faced by the partner organisation.

South Gloucestershire council has developed capability in how to use academic research theoretical frameworks and tools to gather and use data to inform communication strategies and policymaking.

Other departments in South Gloucestershire Council will benefit from the project including the Transport and Strategic Projects Team, Private Sector Housing and Community Partnerships Teams because the findings relate to how the schemes they are delivering are presented to the public to providing that greater insight into the cultural and values dimension of decision making by individuals which isn’t always reflected in the matter of fact approach to delivering some projects.

Members of the Local Strategic Partnership will benefit from the project and in particular from working methods within the LSP more focussed on collaboration between stakeholders, outputs and outcomes. This will reduce duplications of efforts and can enhance the contribution of each organisation towards carbon neutrality.

Members of the local communities will benefit from the project because they will have easier access to specific information about home retrofitting measures that responds to the needs identified in our findings; moreover, active travel campaigns will make greater use of visual signalling to support take up of active travel.

Partnership cevelopment

Describe how your partnership developed over the course of the project

There was already a collaboration in place between senior members of the UWE team and the South Gloucestershire team but thanks to this collaborative project, collaboration was extended to include a researcher who complemented existing carbon management skills and expertise with specific social sciences research skills, which were relevant for the project. We discussed deadlines and priorities in advance and because of this we identified the opportunities to use existing platforms within the council to run our exploratory service. We also reflected on the challenges of recruiting participants against the backdrop of lockdown restrictions. We developed internal communication ways of working based on knowledge exchange that allowed us to generate deeper understanding of how the identified issues manifested locally and how social science research could contribute to tackling complex and complicated societal issues.

How will the partnership be sustained in the medium and longer term?

The relationship between the UWE project team and the South Gloucestershire project team has deepened as a result of the project and new members of the UWE project team have developed a clear understanding of how partnerships could be developed, ways to structure the development of collaboration and the foundation of the relationship. Members of the South Gloucestershire team have developed a clearer understanding of how academic research could be applied to design data gathering activities and how to generate meaningful insights from the data.

Further information