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Sun 20 September 2020
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Stephen Colegrave considers the importance and potential outcome of the Climate Assembly UK report published today

Today sees the launch of ‘The Path to Net Zero’, a report by Climate Assembly UK – a group focused on discussing how the UK can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 – commissioned by six parliamentary committees.

The organisation uses a citizens’ assembly format, whereby members of the public take time to learn about a topic before having an informed discussion about possible solutions. It is interesting that this process is now becoming associated with Parliament, with Business Secretary Alok Sharma and all six committee chairs attending the report’s official launch this morning.

Citizens’ assemblies are a form of ‘sortition’, which Wikipedia defines “in governance, as the random selection of political officials as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates”. This might sound very out there, but a form of it is used every day – in how members of the public are selected to sit on juries, for instance.

So are citizens’ assemblies just a new plaything for parliamentarians or are they a powerful form of representative decision-making along the lines that Extinction Rebellion has been demanding?

The fact that Climate Assembly UK was asked to produce today’s report is a hopeful sign, but recommendations resulting previously from similar citizens’ assembly organisations around social care, which fed into Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, have not produced tangible results three years on.


Flawed But With Potential

From the beginning, Climate Assembly UK was shackled with the path to net zero being for 2050 and not 2030, with many environmental activists believing the latter is the more important date. The Assembly appeared to be denied the opportunity to seek expert opinion about whether 2050 is the correct timescale.

But the process by which its report was compiled was promising, with the organisation bringing together 108 people with different backgrounds and experience, as well as those with expertise, resulting in sensible, strategic and practical ideas – on how to neutralise carbon by 2050 for transport and in the home, consumption, land use, food, utilities, and how to inform and communicate such recommendations to the public.

The 108 assembly members were carefully selected by the Sortition Foundation to be representative of the UK population by age, gender, ethnicity, educational level, where they live and their level of concern about climate change.

While their identities were kept confidential, speakers were live-streamed and a wide range of journalists, interest groups, officials and politicians attended the sessions that took place over six weekends since mid-January 2020.


Warning Signs

In its opening statement, the report emphasises the need for “fairness” and “freedom of choice” as guiding principles, as well as information and education, co-benefits for local communities and others and the importance of protecting nature.

Fairness for all sections of society is a tricky aim in carbon neutrality. Wealthy people emit much more carbon than the poor, and the poor often find it difficult to afford to make green choices – electric cars are a good example. “Freedom of choice” is a tough one too as regulation and tax have proven to be strong levers often conflicting with this aim.

More worrying is that one of the strongest recommendations from the Assembly: “It is imperative that there is strong and clear leadership from Government”. This seems problematical with the Boris Johnson administration and shows the limitations of this process if the political will at the highest level does not exist.

While this initiative has never been more necessary and has enabled many to see how the process can work and its potential, it is a shame that it was commissioned under flawed terms, such as the 2050 timeline, and that it lacks ‘teeth’ in ensuring that its recommendations are implemented.

So, on this occasion, it is unlikely that just 108 people can change the world. But, if properly commissioned and enabled, citizens’ assemblies could definitely help to save it.


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