Climate change

We must pay attention to the UK Climate Assembly report

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Recently, Extinction Rebellion (XR) has resurfaced in the news as they resume acts of non-violent civil disobedience activism.

Seventy-seven people were arrested in the wake of their blockades of national and regional newspaper printing presses earlier this month.

While effective at raising the topic’s profile, XR’s actions tend to be divisive and potentially detrimental to some people’s attitudes concerning the urgency of tackling climate change. One of the group’s key aims, however, is a UK’s citizens’ assembly on climate change.

This is a deliberative democracy process where individuals are drawn from a cross-section of society to make policy recommendations on a topic. The process is overseen by independent facilitators and sees experts on the topic of discussion provide their views before the assembly decides what to recommend.

The UK climate assembly, instigated by six House of Commons select committees and comprising 108 members, has just published its full report of recommendations for the UK to reach its legally binding target to be carbon neutral, or net-zero, by 2050.

Citizens’ assemblies are in vogue and climate assemblies, focused on devising policies to be more environmentally friendly and tackle climate change, are even more popular.

Camden and Oxford have already published reports from such assemblies and Brighton, along with the Scottish Parliament and Spain are setting ones up. France is going through the motions of its Convention Citoyenne Pour La Climat currently.

XR, who advocate carbon neutrality by 2025, are unhappy with the 2050 net-zero parameter of the UK-wide climate assembly, but many of the assembly’s proposals have considerable potential to be enacted quickly.

The assembly was run by participatory democracy charity Involve along with partners the Sortition Foundation and mySociety. All expert talks to assembly members were published live and remain available to view. Assembly members were selected randomly and then by stratified random selection to ensure a group representative of the UK and the wider public’s opinions on climate change.

Across six weekends, half online due to the coronavirus pandemic, the members heard from a variety of experts and deliberated over ten specific topic areas. These included travel by land and air, what we eat and how we use the land, and as a belated addition, COVID-19, the recovery and the path to net-zero.

The members agreed to underpin principles to achieving net-zero which shaped the proposals they came up with. Freedom of choice, fairness and strong leadership from the government were some of the strongest favoured principles.

Their full report is 556 pages long. It is incredibly detailed, allowing you to almost step into the room – or Zoom video – as the discussions took place.

The 50+ recommendations made vary greatly and are simply too numerous to list in full. Chosen entirely subjectively, here are the ones which stand out:

  • 94% supported labelling food and drink products to show the number of emissions that come from different foods.
  • 80% supported taxes to increase as people fly more often and further.
  • Very strong support for natural means of removing carbon from the atmosphere – forests and better forest management received 99% support, followed by restoring and managing peatlands and wetlands (85%) and using wood in construction (82%).
  • An independent neutral body that ensures progress to net zero, including citizens’ assemblies and independent experts.
  • A ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2030–2035.
  • A change in diet to reduce meat and dairy consumption by between 20% and 40% – the assembly stressed the significance of education, saying these changes should be voluntary.
  • A ban on new gas boilers by 2030-35.
  • Paying farmers and other landowners to use their land to absorb and store carbon, for example by restoring peatland or planting trees (87% support).
  • ‘Advertising bans and restrictions’ on high emissions products or sectors (74% support).
  • 93% ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that, ‘as lockdown eases, government, employers and/or others should take steps to encourage lifestyles to change to be more compatible with reaching net zero’.

The Assembly does have its limitations. Its considerations on electricity were limited by time constraints with members not receiving much information about the possibilities of tidal and hydropower, for example. It was also not convened by the UK government itself and there’s no legal compulsion for any of the recommendations to be taken up.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron promised a ‘no filter’ element to recommendations there. After their more extensive assembly process, policy proposals will be put to a national referendum, parliamentary vote or passed through executive orders. The danger of a window-dressing talking shop fate remains, by contrast, for the UK Climate Assembly.

To his credit, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Alok Sharma spoke at the full report’s unveiling. He stated that ‘there is a lot in this report to agree with from a government perspective’. This does, however, leave the possibility that significant elements may be ignored.

Only public engagement with the report and support for its recommendations can ensure assembly members’ hard work is rewarded by policy proposals being followed through.

In an analysis by the BBC, the proposals made are called ‘radical’. These are arguably not the best choice of words, as it risks the danger of placing the assembly in the same bracket as XR in some people’s minds. 

As attested to by the full report, the assembly members with disparate views debated carefully the policy actions to recommend. What they have produced is ambitious and transformative, but also realistic.

Realistic in both what is achievable and needed to tackle the growing climate emergency. As fires shroud much of California in eerie yellow-tinged darkness during the middle of the day, the assembly’s report provides a light of hope for the most conducive ways to reach net-zero by 2050 or sooner.

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