The UK’s First Climate Assembly Met – But Now What?

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The UK’s first citizens’ assembly on climate change has now had two out of their four allotted meetings held to tackle the meaty challenge of deciding how the government should meet the legally binding target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The assembly will meet for four weekends over the course of two months. The first meeting was purely educational – allowing the 110 ordinary people who comprise the assembly to get up to scratch with the challenges of reducing carbon emissions. The assembly listened to climate experts and had their questions answered,  including practical conundrums such as ‘which is better for the environment, British beef or an avocado from Peru?’ as well as questions that required deeper ethical considerations like ‘how can we ensure the cost of changes don’t affect poorer people disproportionately?’.

The experts present included representatives from the New Economics Foundation and Natural England. Also in attendance were a panel of representatives from organisations such as the National Farmers’ Union and the Confederation of British Industry.

The assembly discussed the implications of the government implementing individual carbon budgets, the development of synthetic fuels and how the fast-fashion industry should be addressed.

The second meeting got down to thwe grittier details. The assembly discussed the implications of the government implementing individual carbon budgets, the development of synthetic fuels and how the fast-fashion industry should be addressed. However, the assembly is already experiencing difficulties in coming to a joint agreement, with one member stating “it’s hard because everyone’s going to want to keep the same standard of living – not make massive changes. But we’ll have to. So it’s going to be interesting how we get to that happy medium.” Over the course of the four weekends, the assembly will be faced with the enormous challenge of proposing a set of recommendations to the government on how they should reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The key subjects to be considered are transport, agriculture, energy and consumerism.

The members of the assembly were chosen to be reflective of the diversity of the nation. 30,000 households were randomly sent an invitation to apply, of which 1800 responded, keen to be considered. Of these, a computer algorithm chose the final 110 members based on their age, ethnicity, gender and education levels. The commitment to diversity was even extended to the members’ stance on climate change, meaning that citizens of the assembly range from climate change deniers, to devotees and every viewpoint in between. 

Crucially, the assembly’s proposals to the government won’t be costed so they can be as far-fetched as they like, such as taking all petrol and diesel cars off the road by 2040. On top of this, similar citizens’ assemblies in other countries like Ireland and France have shown dwindling attendance rates over the course of the discussions. To try to mitigate against this, the members of the assembly are being offered an incentive of £150 per weekend attended, as well as paid-for travel and accommodation fees.

While it’s great that ordinary members of the public are being brought into the conversation about climate change, there is no obligation for the government to act on their recommendations.

But how much influence can the citizens’ assembly actually wield? While it’s great that ordinary members of the public are being brought into the conversation about climate change, there is no obligation for the government to act on their recommendations. Six select committees from the previous parliament called for the assembly to be formed but the current government has no compulsion to implement the recommendations. They don’t even have to read them. A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, whose primary demands include the formation of a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice, stated that while it is a significant achievement for ordinary voices to finally be heard, this assembly does not match their demand. As the assembly has not been commissioned by the current government and therefore has no real power, Extinction Rebellion wants to see an assembly that has more genuine influence in the future.