Chris Seekings travels to the first UK citizens' assembly on climate change to hear from the people tasked with advising the government on the best path to net-zero
More than 100 members of the public recently gathered in Birmingham for the UK's first citizens' assembly on climate change. Representing a wide spectrum of age groups, genders, ethnicities, regions and attitudes towards climate change, these are the people chosen to advise the government on the best path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Over four weekends, they will discuss everything from how we eat to energy bills, exploring the best ways to reduce emissions before their recommendations are presented to parliament in April. This builds on the considerable success of similar initiatives across the world, with Ireland's Citizens' Assembly notably having been instrumental in bringing about changes to abortion law in 2018.
“Citizens’ assemblies are a really important complement to representative democracy and help strengthen it,” explains Sarah Allan, engagement lead at Involve, which was chosen by parliament to run the assembly. “They make sure that our elected representatives have the best possible information available to them when making decisions, and the choices on how we get to net-zero are going to have a big impact on people's lives.”
With Storm Ciara bringing travel chaos to much of the country, it was fitting to hear the assembly discuss the future of transport in the UK. University professors and a representative from the Committee on Climate Change gave detailed presentations on the source of transport emissions in the UK before offering various pathways to net-zero. Topics ranged from carbon offsetting to restricting air travel, with the prospect of a frequent-flyer levy proving popular. It is a slick operation, with assembly members put into groups and given 10 minutes between presentations to exchange opinions and devise questions for the speakers.
“The quality of the questions has been excellent, which tells me that people are understanding the information,” Allan says. “Citizens' assemblies allow members to give an informed and considered view about what they think should happen after hearing the best possible evidence and listening to each other’s experiences and values.”
“The public trusts decisions coming out of a citizens’ assembly more than those just taken by governmental departments”
Although there is a lot of information to digest, including some that is quite technical, the members seem to grasp the subject well, with one speaker telling me that they are “very engaged” and “thinking deeply” about the issues. This is the first time some have even heard about the challenges at hand; carbon capture and storage generates a lot of interest, while the prospect of a moratorium on airport expansion is mooted.
“Experts say we need a path to net-zero, but there are multiple ways to net-zero,” Allan says. “Specialists are recommending different things, so getting the public's opinion on which path they prefer is very important.”
There is also a representative from a charity and one from a large carmaker, who give alternative presentations on what they believe are the best paths to net-zero, with the former advocating more punitive measures and the latter suggesting technological ones. It is important to remember that the recommendations put forward by the assembly are not legally binding. However, it was commissioned by six parliamentary select committees, whose chairs have all committed to carefully consider the suggestions put forward in April. “The signs are looking good that the select committees are going to use the results for their work,” Allan says. “The early research shows that the public trusts decisions coming out of a citizens’ assembly more than those just taken by governmental departments. People are reassured when others like them are involved in those decisions. This information is going to be incredibly valuable in showing what the public thinks is the best way forward, and politicians should take it very seriously.”
The people's voice
Three Climate Assembly participants share their experiences
Invitations to the Climate Assembly UK were sent out to 30,000 random households, and more than 1,500 responded to confirm their availability. A computer then whittled this down to produce a representative sample of 110 people. To reflect Ipsos MORI research on attitudes towards the environment, three of the citizens were ‘not at all concerned’ about climate change, 16 were ‘not very concerned’, 36 were ‘fairly concerned’, 54 were ‘very concerned’, and one was ‘unsure’.
Assembly member Ian, from Glasgow, tells me: “When I first got the letter I thought: 'what's this, another piece of junk mail', but we looked into it and it turned out it was real! The assembly has been really interesting. I had picked up on the subject before the whole process started because you read about climate change every day, so there is something going on, and I was very keen. Coming here, it has been really good listening to scientists and professors, and really interesting talking about what we buy, how we travel, how we heat our homes, what we eat and how these things are all linked. I think the way the information has been laid out has been understandable for everybody – they have not made it too complicated. These national citizens' assemblies are really good because they bring people together from all over the country with different ideas and different ways of life, and it is good to get a good mix of people. I would like to think the government would listen to us, since it has committed to it. They might have their own ideas, but this offers a different slant for them to consider and a different way to think about their approach.”
Chris, from the Midlands, says: “I knew relatively nothing about climate change. I am a big petrolhead and I wasn't really interested in it, so it is nice to get the information from the professionals, which has been passed on to us well. The information has been technical, but there are plenty of measures in place to ask and get it explained to us in a more simplified way if we do find it too technical, which I have done a few times. My attitude is definitely changing towards pro-climate action. I think I am going to be a little bit more conscious of things, little things like buying the right lightbulbs. It might cost an extra couple of quid, but if they are going to save me a bit of money in the long term and help the planet, I will do it. I am not going to go on an eco-march, but I definitely will consider walking somewhere if it just five minutes rather than drive. I hope the government listens. The question has been asked, and they will get a response that they shouldn't ignore. If they are prepared to spend money on a high profile event like this then they haven't got much choice.”
Adrian, from Belfast, tells me: “I have found it very educational. We have been given a lot of information about climate change and the impact on lots of different facets of British life, and what change needs to happen to meet net-zero by 2050. I had an awareness of it, a passing interest, making sure I put stuff in the right bins and being conservative in my use of different materials, but I have realised the situation is more urgent. There is certainly a lot of information, but the way it is presented is easy to understand, and so far I think the assembly has been a good idea. The proof in the pudding will be whether the government adopts a lot, some, a little or nothing of what we suggest. I think the current government has recognised in the recent election that climate change is moving up the political agenda, and if they are serious about getting another term in office then they need to address this. If the message is heard from this climate change assembly then we will have a good chance of success.”