Six House of Commons select committees announce plans for climate-focused Citizens Assembly, as Nicola Sturgeon reveals Scotland will host a 'Big Climate Conversation'
Following two general elections, two Conservative leadership contests and one referendum, all in the space of three years, you might think the British public would be fed up with telling UK politicians what they think.
But when it comes to climate change, the evidence suggests the opposite. The last 12 months has seen a huge upsurge in public concern - and activism - over the climate crisis, with thousands of people striking from school, marching on Parliament, and blockading roads and bridges in cities across the country in a bid to get politicians listening to their worries over the climate crisis. Next week is set to see yet another major rally, with thousands of campaigners convening on Parliament for a 'mass lobby' of MPs.
And it seems many politicians are ready to listen. Just days after the government moved to embed a net zero by 2050 goal into UK law, six Parliamentary select committees have today announced plans to jointly hold a Citizens' Assembly on how to hit the new target.
According to the Committees involved - Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS); Environmental Audit (EAC); Housing, Communities and Local Government (CLG); Science and Technology; Transport; and Treasury - the Assembly will "explore views" on how the costs of investing in the net zero transition should be shared.
Recent polling data suggests climate change is a major concern for many people in the UK, ranking above the economy, crime or immigration. But little is known about what the UK public think when it comes to managing the hugely complex task of managing a net zero transition. How should costs be borne? How much disruption is the public prepared to face? How can the benefits be shared and maximised? How can opponents of the transition be engaged? These are questions that are rarely asked outside corporate and NGO strategy sessions or academic lecture theatres.
With a Citizens' Assembly, the aim is to go beyond the kneejerk reaction of a poll, to gain a deeper understanding of public attitudes to a particular social issue, and what policies they would agree with to address it. Members of the public are selected at random to represent the UK population by gender, age, ethnicity, education level, and geography. Participants deliberate and make recommendations on the issue in question, after hearing expert evidence from a range of sources.
"You skill up citizens to make an informed decision of the type that you don't get when you ring someone up to ask for a response to a polling question," explained Rebecca Willis, a climate and energy professor at Lancaster University who has researched Citizens Assemblies. "What a Citizens' Assembly can do, if done well, is to explore what the public mandate is for action on climate."
A report earlier this week from the UK Energy Research Centre stressed that while huge benefits are likely to flow from the net zero transition, meeting the target will require significant disruption across multiple sectors. Moreover, ahead of the net zero target being confirmed it emerged that Ministers were divided over the likely cost of the transition, with the Treasury warning it was unclear how and where the costs would fall. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) calculated the transition would only cost around one per cent of GDP in 2050, while some economists have predicted that it will result in significant net benefits as clean technologies enter the mainstream. But concerns remain that the public is not fully aware of the scale of change and potential disruption that will result from the net zero transition.
It is hoped the findings from the upcoming climate assembly will help policymakers assess the public's willingness to engage with more radical policies, such as tax hikes on flights or meat, and explore the level of disruption people may be willing to accept as key infrastructure such as energy and transport shifts to a zero carbon footing.
Although not a direct government initiative, views gathered from the UK Assembly will "inform political debate and government policy making", MPs today promised.
Rachel Reeves, chair of the BEIS Committee, said government must work to build "cross-party and cross-generational support" for the short, medium, and long term policies needed to deliver a net zero target. "It's clear that meeting the net-zero target will involve all parts of our economy, from, for example, heating our homes, electric vehicles and decarbonising transport, to energy infrastructure, green finance, and low-carbon goods and services," she said. "I hope the Citizens Assembly will demonstrate that, when all is considered, there is strong public support - even demand - for the government to take the action necessary to deliver the benefits of net zero by 2050."
The Assembly will be held over a number of weekends during the Autumn and Winter of 2019, with a report for government published after all the sessions close. Citizens will also be encouraged to submit their views online.
The announcement represents a major victory for climate protest group Extinction Rebellion, which named the creation of a Citizens Assembly as one of its three key demands for the government - the others being for the government to "tell the truth" about climate change and set a net zero target for 2025. The group argues a Citizens Assembly will be crucial in helping politicians to "justify" such transformative climate policy.
While Ministers, businesses, and independent experts are still far from agreeing a 2025 target is either necessary or feasible, support for a Citizens Assembly has built rapidly in Whitehall and beyond. Business Secretary Greg Clark backed today's move from Parliament, admitting that achieving the new net zero target would be the "work of a generation" and will require the input of the public "young and old", as well as the business community and wider society. "I welcome the Citizens Assembly launched by six Select Committees today; initiatives to engage the public will be vitally important to appreciating the challenges of getting to net zero and giving people a say in shaping the future policies to achieve the target," he said.
The news was also welcomed by the CEO of the CCC Chris Stark, who said it was a "very interesting" move that could help policymakers understand how to deliver net zero in line with the public consensus. The CCC's report last month on how the UK could achieve net zero emissions will likely form the basis of policy discussions during the Assembly.
This is a very interesting step - especially if it helps us to understand the big question of where the public consensus lies on the various steps to achieve #netzero. @theCCCuk will support where we can. https://t.co/DWP5OFg8PC— Chris Stark (@ChiefExecCCC) 20 June 2019
The announcement also coincided with news from the Scottish Government today that it plans to hold a "Big Climate Conversation" this summer to gather public views on the climate emergency. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Conversation will be a chance for communities, business, and the public sector to debate the best way for Scotland to reach net zero emissions.
"Becoming a net-zero emissions nation will require changes to virtually every aspect of everyday life," she said. "We will need to change how we travel, how we keep homes and workplaces warm, and how we design cities and towns. We will have to move rapidly from a throwaway culture to a circular economy, and will need to develop and apply new technologies, while also planting millions of trees and restoring peatlands. All of this has to be a truly national endeavour. And it has to be done in a way that is fair. That's why the Scottish government is launching The Big Climate Conversation to encourage communities, businesses and the public sector to talk about what action we can all take."
As more nations adopt net zero targets, the question of how best to deliver a low-carbon transition is set to become a pressing issue for politicians. The rise of the gilet jaunes in France, the protest movement sparked by a proposed rise in fuel tax that formed part of President Macron's climate agenda, demonstrates the risks of not achieving public buy-in for climate policies, Willis warned.
"The climate policy community loves nothing more than a debate about the technologically optimal solution," she said. "And, you know, they don't really spend the time thinking about optimal for whom? It's always a second order concern to think about whether people will like, support, and vote for this stuff. What France tells us is what happens if you don't take that seriously."
Indeed, since the rise of the gilet jaunes Macron has been forced into listening mode, embarking on a full scale "grand debate" across France. The mass consultation will shape the President's priorities for his remaining time in office, his team have promised.
For something like the net zero goal, which will require a rolling series of tough decisions between now and 2050, Parliament should consider making the Assembly a permanent fixture, Willis suggested. "At this stage a Citizens' Assembly can really help to orientate politicians to answer the question of what is the public mandate, the political mandate for change," she said. "A general Citizens Assembly on climate change will get you a very informative but still quite high level answer to that question. It's not going to answer whether we should have heat pumps or hydrogen."
To address those more technical debates a longer-running form of deliberative democracy may be required, Willis argued. "In my dream scenario… you would do Citizens' Assemblies over time to make sure that you are building the kind of low carbon transition that people can support," she added.
Past experience suggests politicians can have some confidence the public will back bold measures. In Ireland, a Citizens' Assembly was held recently to discuss, among other issues, the country's approach to the climate crisis. Given the space to reflect on the scale of the challenge, citizens arrived at some surprisingly radical conclusions, the think tank Green Alliance noted in research earlier this year. Eighty per cent of them, for example, said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities. Just last week, the fruit of those efforts was revealed - the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, unveiled an ambitious plan outlining more than 180 measures to curb the country's greenhouse gas emissions and set a path for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
"If you give people enough time and access to evidence and time to think it through, they come up with really sensible answers," Willis said. "I've never seen a deliberative process, whether that is a Citizens' Assembly or Citizens' Jury, that doesn't come up with a sensible answer."
The question then is, will the government listen?
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