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Zero carbon Manchester

In our webinar ‘Climate change: what next for local authorities?’, Manchester City Council set out the communications work it is undertaking to help make Manchester a zero carbon city by 2038.

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The challenge of city-wide change

The council launched Manchester City’s first plan for collective climate action in 2009. Since then, it has led by example and between 2010 and 2020 the council reduced its direct carbon emissions by 54.7%, exceeding the target of 41% that it had set for itself. Following this success, there was an acceptance that, even if the council reached carbon zero, the city would still be far from the target. The focus for campaigns has become city-wide with the council seeing its responsibility as leading and encouraging residents, businesses and organisations to make changes by working together.

Research findings

Like all good campaigns, this one started with research. In October 2019, the year Manchester City declared a climate change emergency, like many other councils across the UK, the council commissioned research involving 1,100 residents. The aim of the research was to understand current behaviour in respect of climate change, find out what people could do to change their behaviour and what people thought the council should be doing to make a difference. Here are some of the findings:

  • 36% scored their climate change worries highly – 9% were not worried at all
  • female respondents were likely to score more highly than male
  • generally older people were less worried about climate change issues
  • 73% would use renewable or green energy at home and 72% would retrofit boiler / insulation / windows
  • 73% were avoiding the use of, or using fewer plastic carrier bags
  • 34% were avoiding or eating less red meat
  • Manchester residents were least likely to grow their own food or drive an electric / hybrid car
  • focus groups demonstrated that behaviour is as much about money and poverty as climate change – there were discrepancies between homeowners and those who rent.

The communications team found indications about what residents in Manchester would not be prepared to do and the limits and barriers to behavioural change. They also gathered data about what would incentivise people in the city to change their behaviour.

The research showed that most residents were not prepared to:

  • grow food at home
  • campaign against climate change
  • Avoid or eat less dairy/animal products
  • drive an electric car
  • minimise travel by aeroplane – the annual holiday was prized
  • avoid fast fashion or opt for more sustainable fashion.

The reasons given were as follows: people needed more information; they already felt they did enough; changes were expensive, time consuming or inconvenient; some people believed that changing their behaviour wouldn’t make a difference.

Incentives for change

Incentives for change and measures that the council could take to encourage people to act differently, included:

  • improving public transport: 6% said public transport is poor; 27% said if it was cheaper they could use it; 47% said supporting better public transport should be a Manchester City Council priority
  • improving safety: a focus group linked sustainable transport to the need to feel safe when using public transport, as well walking and cycling (using cycle lanes, for example)
  • clean air initiatives: an increase in the number of green spaces was deemed to be important
  • increasing awareness and providing information and advice about climate change initiatives
  • providing financial incentives to make changes - 26% said money off council tax would change behaviour. However, people did not want to introduce fines for poor behaviour. Others suggested better recycling, encouraging businesses to be carbon neutral and reducing food waste (by work with caterers for example)
  • based on research findings, the council decided to concentrate its information drive and behaviour change communications efforts on a middle group of residents (the largest group of people) who were neither actively in support of environmental initiatives, nor strongly opposed to them.

Successful initiatives have included:

  • nature-based solutions with community involvement at their core, for example the West Gorton sponge park
  • £1 million tree action Manchester – a multi-year plan to plant trees and hedgerows
  • ward plans – in which neighbourhood teams have co-produced local and hyperlocal plans in all 32 wards to support positive action including planting and walking routes
  • young people’s events and a conference which led to the creation of a climate charter and climate wheel
  • new electric refuse collection lorries given memorable names.

A dedicated website and other communication channels

Communicating plans and successes has been done through a variety of channels. The creation of a Manchester Climate Change website with the partnership group has been an important platform that has allowed the council to move away from the transactional council website, create more engaging content and work collaboratively with Manchester Climate Change partner organisations. As Alun Ireland, Head of Strategic Communications at Manchester City Council, explained: “Sometimes we lose the [council] logo but we’ll take the outcome.”

The council is building zero carbon into its brand across all of its channels and low carbon messaging appears across all forms of content.

This includes social media where bespoke messaging is created for each platform to ensure high-quality content engages residents for maximum impact. For example, in October 2021, the council published 33 posts directly addressing zero carbon on Twitter and Facebook. These posts were engaged with 771 times.


The Zero Carbon Manchester brand and graphics are colourful and clear and were chosen by the partnership group over starker designs, originally proposed, which included elements of dark humour. The proposed branding, which had been favoured by the communications team (to cut through with images that were designed to provoke questions and raise a smile), were rejected by environmental partners as being inaccurate and a compromise was struck.

These decisions over branding in Manchester are a small reminder of the challenges of working in partnership and the impossibility of pleasing everyone in the climate change debate. The council remains positive and focuses on the fact that everyone who is working to reduce carbon emissions and improve their local areas wants the same outcomes, even if there are different routes to take along the way.

Education and training

Education is key and the council, once again, is leading by example having introduced carbon literacy training for its staff. Alun Ireland said: “A corporate decision was taken across the council that every employee should go through this training. Firstly, staff watch a specially created video about climate change and then they spend a morning with trainers from Manchester University. The training generates discussion and helps everyone working for the council to understand why decisions are made. The training shows that we are serious about our role in reducing carbon emissions. We want our staff to be well-informed, ambassadors for this important campaign as well as the practical work that must be done to achieve our goals.”

Useful links

Find out more about Manchester City Council's zero carbon strategy