Neil Jennings 

6 May 2021

Optimising the co-benefits of climate action – a key theme to emerge from the UK Climate Assembly – can play an important role in engaging the public on the path to net-zero, especially when these benefits are experienced at the local level. The declaration of climate emergencies by local authorities (almost 75% of UK councils at time of writing) and the setting of ambitious carbon reduction targets means that city- and regional-level governments are in a good position to act on the opportunities provided by the co-benefits of climate action.

Co-benefits relate to “the positive effects that a policy or measure aimed at one objective might have on other objectives”. So, for example, how a policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector can simultaneously help to improve public health and increase life expectancy, or how improving the energy efficiency of domestic properties can help to reduce fuel poverty and cold-related illness by making it easier for people to heat their homes.

Such co-benefits are important because they can help to connect climate action to the other issues that are of more immediate concern to the public. Ipsos MORI provide useful data in this respect via their Issues Index, a monthly survey with a representative sample of the UK public that asks what people think are the important issues facing Britain today. Concern with pollution and the environment has figured relatively low down the list of priorities for most of the last 14 years, though it was the third highest issue of concern in the January and February 2020 polls.

From the perspective of encouraging more action on climate change, this data indicates that communicating climate action in the context of the other benefits it brings to health, the economy, poverty alleviation or job creation may help to maintain and enhance public support. Fortunately, there are a considerable range of such co-benefits of climate action particularly those that relate to improving our health, from moving towards a more plant-based diet that can improve our cardiovascular health and reduce our risk of certain types of cancer, to improving air quality by shifting to active travel (walking and cycling), public transport and away from petrol and diesel vehicles. The tragic case of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, whose death was partly caused by air pollution, serves as a timely reminder of just how much things such as clean air matters to our health and wellbeing.

The animation below provides a summary of many of the other co-benefits of climate action, including the benefits that renewable energy provides in improving the energy security of the UK and the way that improving the energy efficiency of our properties can help to reduce poverty and inequality by giving people a home they can afford to heat. For many people, these are things that resonate much more than climate change action per se.

Video: How can taking action on climate change make all our lives better? (Grantham Institute)

Aligning costs and benefits

It is at the local and regional scale that co-benefits are most clearly manifest and where council officials are well placed to understand the synergies and trade-offs between local priorities and climate interventions in order to have the most immediate impact. However, while this sounds positive in principle, a key challenge remains regarding how such co-benefits of climate action are acted upon in practice by governments across all scales.

This is a particular challenge because those that pay for climate-related interventions are often not those that accrue the associated co-benefits. The transport department of a local authority, for example, hold the budget for installing cycle lanes but the health benefits (including the financial benefits) of more active travel and cleaner air (e.g. reduced rates of respiratory illnesses) are typically accrued by the local NHS Trust.

Such split-incentives point towards the need for greater collaboration between organisations at the local level. A nice recent example of such collaboration comes from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust in London, which contributed £250,000 to Southwark Council to fund the installation of a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN). The LTN is planned for an area with high levels of air pollution and child obesity as a way to encourage people to walk and cycle more, to improve people’s health and to reduce NHS costs associated with respiratory related illnesses and physical inactivity. Such collaboration and cost sharing between a health trust and their local authority could provide a template for replication elsewhere, by bridging the gap between who pays and who benefits, and by focusing climate action in a way that tackles other local issues that are of direct concern to citizens.

The devolution of more powers (e.g. health and social care, transport, housing) to local and combined authorities can also play a role in overcoming the challenge of who pays/who benefits from climate action. The Mayor of Greater Manchester now oversees a £6bn health and social care budget, so should be able to see a saving in health expenditure from investing in a transport infrastructure that improves air quality.

The devolution of such powers is called for in ‘A blueprint for accelerating climate action and a green recovery at the local level’, led by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Transport and Planning (ADEPT) and co-signed by PCAN and the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. Such devolution can enable local and regional authorities to take a long-term view over various policy areas and budgets, and to harness the financial reward and benefit to citizens of adequately considering co-benefits.

Taking the public with us

To maintain public support for climate action it is essential that we keep two key questions at the front of our minds: what keeps people awake at night, and what gets them out of bed in the morning? The co-benefits of climate action have a role to play in answering both these questions by linking climate action in with the day-to-day concerns of the public while helping to provide a positive vision of the future that goes well beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change.

Dr Neil Jennings is a PCAN Associate and Partnership Development Manager at the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London

Image: Low Traffic Neighbourhood trial, Kingston-on-Thames (Jack Fifield - CC BY 2.0)