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what we’ve learned about the kind of climate action the public wants to see

Written by Graham Smith, Professor of Politics, University of Westminster


The climate crisis is a place where politicians fear to tread. Many of them worry that introducing measures that will affect our daily lives will invite electoral retribution. Most find themselves buffeted by special interests defending their privileged positions.

While the UK government has established a legal requirement to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change has questioned its capacity to achieve this goal. So, what is to be done?

Step forward the UK Climate Assembly. Set up in June 2019 by six parliamentary select committees, the UKCA is a citizens’ assembly that brought together 108 people to learn about the climate crisis, deliberate and make recommendations for how the UK can reach its net zero target by 2050.

Participants were recruited to reflect the broader population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, education, geography and attitude to climate change. Far from being stuffed with activists, the assembly included people who were not at all concerned about climate change.

Climate assemblies – and citizens’ assemblies more broadly – are on the rise. The French Citizens’ Convention on Climate recently handed its recommendations to President Emmanuel Macron. Scotland’s Climate Assembly will begin its work later in 2020 and a wave of smaller climate assemblies have been commissioned by local authorities in the UK. Extinction Rebellion has taken to the streets to demand a national citizens’ assembly with powers to legislate a faster transition to net zero emissions.

The UKCA delivered its report on September 10 2020. So, what has this cross section of the British public recommended the country do to go carbon neutral? Press coverage in the wake of the report’s release ran with headlines highlighting potentially controversial proposals: a frequent flyer tax, reduction in meat consumption, a ban on the sale of the most polluting cars.

But particular measures don’t tell the whole story. This is our first insight into the kind of climate action the general public are willing to accept when they have the opportunity to learn and deliberate together.

Citizens plot a path to net zero

It’s impossible to do justice to a 550 page report in a short article. Perhaps the most interesting thing it has revealed is how citizens’ assemblies help us think differently about responding to the climate crisis. Amid often polarised political debate, ordinary people were able to judge evidence and ideas against their own experiences. They arrived at judgements that balanced competing values, such as freedom of choice and fairness to different social groups.

The assembly had a strong preference for information and education to help the public make informed choices. They were also adamant that greener products and services should be affordable and accessible to all.

Members were willing to countenance reducing car use by up to 5% each decade and lowering meat and dairy consumption by 20%-40% by 2050. They seemed reluctant to propose extensive legal restrictions, but did support a rapid ban on the sale of the most polluting vehicles. They also favoured legislating a faster move to electric vehicles than current government plans.

Members were not shy to support state intervention in public transport and direct investment into making services greener, reliable and affordable. They looked to government to regulate developments to ensure good public transport links and local services, reducing the need for car travel. They weren’t afraid to propose new taxes for frequent and long distance flyers and to reduce the carbon intensity of industries.

Where significant disruption to everyday life is expected, such as the need to retrofit housing, assembly members were keen for local enterprises to lead the effort. They were also sceptical of technical solutions, such as carbon capture and storage. A majority preferred “natural” carbon removal efforts instead, such as restoring forests, peatlands and other natural habitats, not least because they also encourage biodiversity.

The UKCA has delivered the informed judgements of ordinary people who are embedded in the communities where climate action will need to be rooted. Their report doesn’t contain a systematic philosophy or ideology, but it does demonstrate a sensitivity to how particular actions are likely to impact everyday lives. In this way, citizens’ assemblies could help develop climate policy that feels legitimate to the people it directly affects.

Will it make a difference?

The report shatters the illusion that ordinary people will not accept stronger climate policies and are incapable of making difficult decisions about our collective future. But will it have any impact? The UKCA wasn’t established by the government but it provides cover for ministers to act. Energy secretary Alok Sharma made positive noises at the report’s launch, but the danger is that government simply cherry picks measures that fit its existing position while ignoring more challenging proposals.

Encouragingly, Darren Jones, chair of parliament’s business select committee, has promised to regularly review government progress in implementing the assembly’s recommendations. Chris Stark, chief executive of the government advisory body the Committee on Climate Change, called the report “a real first”, committing to integrate its findings into its next carbon budget and to use similar deliberative processes in the future.

Ordinary people from across the UK have shown themselves willing and able to make a range of tough decisions on the climate crisis that politicians have avoided. Will their wisdom be enough to persuade the government to act accordingly?

What do you think?

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