How the language of debate can be harmful – from the perspective of a copywriting agency in Bristol

by Darren Clare

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As a copywriting agency in Bristol that regularly works on sustainability communications, we know the statistics surrounding environmental issues. For example, every year, more than 330 people in Bristol die prematurely from respiratory illnesses as a result of air pollution. When you increase the radius to the whole of the UK, this figure rises to 64,000.

Last year, diesel vehicles made up 31.7% of all new cars sold in the UK. The data seems to be going in the right direction, as petrol and diesel cars held a near-50/50 split from 2013 to 2016.

In fact, in a recent whitepaper for commercial law firm TLT, we reported that the number of electric vehicles on UK roads may rise to 11 million by 2030 – and to 36 million by 2040. This is a huge step forward in our collective undertaking to reduce carbon emissions.

We also know that issues as big as these often spark the most passionate reactions, and we’re fascinated by the communications that arise from them.

Introducing a diesel car ban in Bristol

Under a new scheme revealed by Bristol council, diesel vehicles will not be allowed to enter a ‘Clean Air Zone’ between the hours of 7am and 3pm. Commercial vehicles will be affected by a larger region, reaching further out towards the suburbs. Taxis and LGVs will be able to travel through the area at a cost of £9 per day, while buses, coaches and HGVs are liable to pay £100 per day.

The media is generating polarised views of the ban

It’s safe to say that the creation of a clean air zone has been something of a controversial topic. While sustainability is known to be high on the city’s agenda, the council has missed two deadlines for submitting air quality plans to the government. So, many major broadcasters have scrutinised this latest one.

News reports praising the move have referenced the ‘illegal’ levels of air pollution and ‘toxic’ emissions currently found in the city. Meanwhile, those in opposition are using equally severe language.

Leo Murray, Director of Innovation at climate charity Possible, was quoted in The Guardian condemning “blinkered and cowardly” politicians, who have got away with “years of foot-dragging and buck-passing”. He labels the current plan a “collective failure of imagination” and a “microcosm of national policy paralysis”. And this is just one example of public response to sustainability measures.

The use of language that we are seeing is typical of the extremes of position that are becoming the norm in news coverage and society at large.

As a copywriting agency in Bristol, we know that words matter

Our copy often covers environmental, sustainability and policy communications, and there are lessons to be learnt about how language influences public opinion. Just take the recent uproar about PM Boris Johnson’s use of ‘unparliamentary language’, which only served to exacerbate already tense communications. Using the right words is vital if we’re to make positive steps towards protecting our planet – particularly in an age of misinformation. This can be tricky, but we believe it’s fundamental to building constructive content that is able to stimulate real change.

It’s clear there are a lot of ideas in the pot when it comes to living more sustainably – in Bristol or any other UK city. As a Bristol-based business, we’re proud of our city’s status as the UK’s first European Green Capital and the top core city in England for recycling. But, when it comes to air quality – and the language we use in response to sustainability measures – there’s no doubt we’ve all still got a long way to go.

A note about the author

This piece was written by Alice, who is one of our team of talented (and often opinionated) writers. To meet some of our writers, take a look at our team page.

About us

As a copywriting company, we know how to give your content writing an engaging boost. Speak to us about our range of copywriting services. Whether you’re a global brand or a start-up, we can help.

Photo credit: By Mario Klassen on Unsplash

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