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Climate Assembly UK: Talking about the whether...

The UK is legally committed to net zero emissions by 2050. This target was put forward by the Government’s statutory advisor, the Committee on Climate Change, for delivering on the UK’s commitments to the Paris Agreement.

The measures are a continued response to the extensive reports, evidence and lived realities which attest to current, worsening trajectories away from a sustainable, equitable and thriving world.

If taken seriously – and it must be – ‘Net-Zero by 2050’ has huge impacts on government discourse and policymaking; industry regulations; energy provision; transport systems; the clothes we wear; the food we buy; the physical ‘lay of the land’ around us; and more.

Let us make no mistakes here: we must progress beyond any lingering notions that these targets can be hit without real effort or resolved by ‘someone else’. To change our national emissions for the better is to change the air we breathe. It requires redefinitions of our ways of living, thinking, acting and relating with the world.

We should probably talk about this...

Citizen’s Assemblies – a new conversation?

Towards inclusive, open and well-informed conversation – particularly wherever an issue has complex, ambiguous and context-specific aspects (i.e. no ‘black & white’ answers) – citizen’s assemblies are opening new spaces for progressive inquiry and robust decision-making.

Typically, a citizen’s assembly consists of a randomly selected panel of jurors, collectively representing the diverse make-up of the locality (whether an organisation, town or city, county/state, or nation). Expert panellists are invited to present information regarding the focal theme, and jurors have opportunities to ask questions and expand the discussion. Facilitators manage and guide the process and serve to maintain optimal conditions for the collective enquiry.

As is the goal, the jury work towards an agreed set of recommendations in response to an initial question or intention, often with private ballot voting aiding the process. Recommendations are fed back to targeted decision-making bodies to inform and leverage policy [for the common good].

Climate Assembly UK

Commissioned by six select committees of the House of Commons[1], Climate Assembly UK recently sought public insight on how to realise net zero by 2050. The question posed to the Assembly was:

"How should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?"

Randomly selected through a ‘civic lottery’, 108 assembly members gathered over six weekends to deliberate climate change and the importance of reducing emissions to net zero. A total of 47 experts – from academia, industry and policy – delivered information on a range of relevant aspects. Facilitated by Involve (a public participation charity), over 6000 cumulative hours of presentations, conversations, questions and reflections concluded with the Climate Assembly’s recommendations – forming the core content of the 500+ page ‘Path to Net Zero’ report, published on 10th September 2020. The executive summary can be found here.

Key insights

Importantly, the Climate Assembly, as with other citizen’s juries and participatory decision-making methods, comprised a representative sample of the UK population. This inevitably included people with varying degrees of concern about addressing climate change [or not].

In covering issues spanning home heating and travel, carbon-capture technology, consumer/producer supply chains and energy usage, we can assume that the 108 jurors held different viewpoints. And we may reasonably suppose many of them persist. A well-facilitated assembly expects this and positively works with these rich disparities. The focus is on clear presentation of pertinent information and affording all participants fair voice and representation.

Participants speak of their learning, how they clarified their views and their respect for each other’s perspectives, even when they didn’t agree

The Climate Assembly UK collaboratively created over 50 recommendations designed to inform the policies to enable net zero by 2050.

Many of the recommendations align with the advice provided to the government by the Committee on Climate Change. A notable divergence is the Assembly’s clear vote away from fossil fuel and carbon capture ‘solutions’.[2]

Some of the Assembly’s more specific recommendations include:

· Urgently banning heavily polluting vehicles, e.g. SUVs

· Taxing frequent flyers

· Increasing Government investment in low-carbon trains and buses

· Expediting the transition to electric vehicles and providing grants for buying low-carbon cars

· Reducing overall car use by 2–5% per decade

· Prioritising wind and solar energy in achieving net zero

· Supporting and strengthening local produce and food production

· Reducing individual consumption of meat and dairy by 20%-to-40%.

The Assembly identified the nation’s recovery from Covid-19 as an important opportunity for stimulating lifestyle changes which can enable net zero. A 79% majority either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that the economic recovery from the pandemic must be designed in line with the 2050 target.

The practical recommendations are buttressed by broader themes. The assembly members identified the need for:

· Improved information and education on climate change, nationwide;

· Fairness – irrespective of sector, location, income and health;

· Freedom and choice, for individuals and local areas;

· Strong, cross-party leadership from government (which transcends ‘political point-scoring’);

· Valuing the co-benefits in addressing climate change – e.g. collective wellbeing;

· Restoring and enhancing the natural world.

Rather than seeking hard rules to be followed, these themes are concerned with the guiding principles which underpin good actions. They prioritise a systemic competence (instead of limited linear approaches) – i.e. they offer foundational resources for navigating highly complex topics (thus avoiding mishandling issues by trying to isolate them from the interdependent whole). The report calls on policymakers to use the Assembly’s cumulative insights as an invaluable decision-making resource.

The UK path to net zero must be underpinned by education, choice, fairness and political consensus...

The Assembly concluded that effectively responding to climate change demands that those in governance lay down their personal ambitions for power and short-term popularity. The jurors’ reflections on expert information affirms that the challenges-in-hand extend far beyond [party] politics, and that politicians, alongside each of us, have a duty to act accordingly.

Summary

The Climate Assembly UK exemplifies the worth in developing skills for exploring complex issues. We see the benefits of inclusive, respectful inquiry and how, given the supportive space and a unifying purpose, diverse opinions can advance forwards together.

A sample of the nation’s genders, ethnicities and age groups, from different areas with varying levels of education and prior climate-change knowledge, converged to have a serious chat about a very serious issue. They committed to hearing the hard facts, learning of the nation’s social-ecological challenges and failings, and stepped up to contribute to creating a new, positive path to sustainable futures.

This Assembly, and other participatory assemblies and processes like it, speak for our abilities to respond to profound challenges: to not sidestep seemingly irresolvable issues and hide behind short-term pursuits, but to gather as one Jury and take actions for a sustainable, flourishing future.

[1] The six select committees are: Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Environmental Audit; Housing, Communities and Local Government; Science and Technology; Transport; and Treasury. [2] One of the six members in the CCC’s ‘Costs and Benefits Advisory Group’ is a representative from Shell, which perhaps usefully reminds us that ‘impartial’, ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ information is impossible, and no issue can be separated from wider social contexts. Cover Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

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