Climate change, net zero and the many assemblies of citizens

23 Sep 2020

The eagerly awaited report from the UK’s first-ever nationwide citizens’ assembly on climate change launched earlier this month. Climate Assembly UK was commissioned by six select committees of the House of Commons. It bought together 108 UK citizens over 6 weekends to provide recommendations on the question: “How should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?”. I was lucky enough to gain an insight into proceedings as a member of the Academic Panel advising the process.

Citizens’ assemblies are the latest in a long line of research and advocacy on deliberative forms of democracy. Such processes bring together groups of citizens reflective of a wider population to learn about, discuss, and provide recommendations on how to address important issues. After decades of experimenting with these processes on environmental and science-related issues, it is heartening to see them enter the mainstream.

Citizens assemble

Running these processes is never easy at the best of times. Especially on such a contested topic at a national scale. After three-weekend meetings in Birmingham, Covid-19 hit and the citizen’s assembly was forced online. Huge credit must go to the organisers at Involve, UK Parliament, the expert leads, and especially the citizen participants who put in over 6000 hours collectively.

The assembly members have produced an impressive and wide-ranging set of recommendations. These span what we buy and eat, how we should generate electricity, heat our homes, and use the land, along with options for greenhouse gas removal. They identified cross-cutting principles of education, fairness, freedom and choice, co-benefits, and nature, that should guide the Government’s approach to net zero. If you haven’t already, the best way to get an overview is to see the executive summary for yourself (or even better the full report if you have time: warning – it’s over 500 pages!).

The formal evaluation of Climate Assembly UK is due in Spring 2021. I expect it will confirm that, on balance, the citizens’ assembly has been a success. There is now a pretty set repertoire of yardsticks for judging these processes. Was the citizens’ assembly representative and inclusive? The organisers went to great lengths to achieve a sample “representative of the UK public” from all walks of life. Check. Did citizens learn through the process? A most powerful and moving aspect has been assembly members’ stories of their collective purpose, learning, and transformations. Many will never be the same again. Another big tick.

What about the impact on decision-making? This is much less clear. The citizen’s assembly has been heralded as an ideal tonic for politicians reticent to take bold action on climate change for fear of electoral retribution. At the launch the Chairs of the six select committees, Secretary of State Alok Sharma speaking on behalf of Government, and the Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, all made positive noises. Select committee inquiries will look into the recommendations of the Assembly but will the Government listen and respond?

The many assemblies of citizens

Before going on to impeccably chair the launch event, Darren Jones MP and Chair of the Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Committee said the Assembly provides a “unique insight into the considerations, concerns, and hopes of the British people”. Select committee chairs praised the “informed” and balanced recommendations of the citizens’ assembly which reach beyond the “loudest” voices, “special interest” groups, and “activists”. On the basis of this, “the challenge is now for us in Parliament and for Government to navigate the pathways” to net zero by 2050, they said.

That Parliament and Government look set to take the considered views of Climate Assembly UK seriously is a very good thing, but there is a danger here. In striving to ensure this citizens’ assembly is authoritative and impactful, other public voices, citizen engagements, and visions of ‘the transition’ get excluded. For all its brilliant qualities, Climate Assembly UK does not equal “the views of the UK Public” (as stated in the main report). It is a public representation, formed in a particular way for particular purposes. Beyond the aforementioned standard-issue criteria, when evaluating such processes I’ve suggested it is also important to ask: what gets excluded and how they relate to other forms of engagement?

There are many other publics and ways in which citizens engage with climate change and net zero-related issues on an ongoing basis. This is not only about the other citizens’ assemblies on climate change occurring at more local and regional levels. There are many other assemblies of citizens in the form of activism (think the school strikes or Extinction Rebellion protests), digital engagements, grassroots community action, everyday consumption practices, and so on.

This was a key finding of our research in the previous phase of UKERC. Deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies are part of the many different ways citizens engage with energy and climate change in a wider ecology of participation. Importantly, the particular ways in which citizens are assembled leads them to think, say and do differently in relation to climate change and net zero. For example, citizen-led (rather than institution-led) assemblies of citizens often take different timescales, ways of bounding the problem (are trade and outsourced emissions included?), directions of travel, notions of justice, and alternative models of growth and democracy. So, the challenge for those in power is not only to represent individual citizens through a citizens’ assembly (or other singular means), but also to ensure that the many other assemblies of citizens are represented, listened to and allowed to act on climate change.

An assembly of assemblies

This was recognised by the assembly members themselves. Their key recommendation of “education and information” for all caught the headlines. But delve deeper into the full report and you’ll find a much richer road map for engaging society with net zero. Not only are more citizens’ assemblies called for (a view rightly echoed by the politicians). “Local community engagement”, local participation where “everyone should have a voice”, and “equality of responsibility” were also important principles for a number of assembly members as part of a “joined-up approach across society”.

More of the same is not an option then. Education and citizens’ assemblies are vital but not enough on their own. The societal engagement mix for net zero needs to be much more ambitious, diverse, and system-wide. This is an important point to hold on to as Climate Assembly UK and the race to net zero sparks investment in programmes for public engagement across government, parliament, business, and civil society. Careful thought is needed on how a joined-up approach to societal engagement with net zero should be organised, resourced, and for what purposes. And on how these new kinds of institutional architecture and social science expertise might complement the core technical expertise of existing bodies like the Committee on Climate Change.

At UKERC we are trying to do our bit to meet this challenge. We have recently established an Observatory for Societal Engagement with Energy and net zero transitions (SEE). The Observatory is mapping and monitoring the many assemblies of citizens and public engagements with energy and net zero transitions in the UK on an ongoing basis. It is connecting up different communities from across this citizen engagement mix to encourage learning and reflection. An assembly of citizen assemblies if you like! We look forward to inviting you to engage with the work of the Observatory over the coming months.