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Climate Assembly UK gives mandate for bold action on climate change


Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh is an environmental psychologist, specialising in perceptions and behaviour in relation to climate change, energy and transport, based in the Department of Psychology, University of Bath. She is also Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) and sits on the Bristol Advisory Committee for Climate Change (BACCC). As one of the expert leads for the Climate Assembly UK, Lorraine discusses the Assembly’s findings in the blog post below.

This month saw the launch of the report from the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate change, Climate Assembly UK. The report is significant because it gives a clear mandate to policy-makers – including at a local council level – for bold action to tackle climate change.

Citizens’ assemblies bring together people from all walks of life to discuss important issues, and have been used all around the world to inform policy. Climate Assembly UK was commissioned by Parliament to look at how the UK should reach its legally-binding target of net zero emissions by 2050, because of the impact these policy decisions will have on people’s lives. The 108 Assembly members were representative of the UK population in terms of demographics, geography, and concern about climate change. They attended six weekend meetings, listening to expert speakers, discussing, deliberating, and then making recommendations. The report contains over 50 specific policy recommendations as well as principles and pathways for reaching net zero, covering: how we travel and heat our homes, what we eat and buy, how we generate our electricity, land use, greenhouse gas removals, and green recovery from COVID-19. Many of these recommendations relate to actions which local councils can take – for example, around transport and procurement.

The report provides a wealth of insights on public preferences for reaching net zero across these wide-ranging topics, but there are some key themes which consistently reappear. These include:

  • fairness (i.e. that different income groups, sectors and regions should not be negatively impacted by or left behind in a net zero transition);
  • taking advantage of co-benefits of decarbonisation for communities, health, ecosystems, and the economy;
  • maintaining freedom and choice where possible, supported by better information and education; and
  • consistent, accountable and strong leadership from government.

Crucially, they felt responsibility for reaching net zero should be shared across individuals, companies and government. For example, an overwhelming 96% of Assembly members ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that as lockdown eases, government, employers and others should take steps to encourage lifestyles to change to be more compatible with reaching net zero.

I was one of four expert leads who supported the Assembly’s design and delivery. Other BACCC colleagues were also involved as part of the team of expert speakers and academic advisors. Throughout the process, I was impressed by how engaged Assembly members were; they took their role seriously, digesting a lot of information, and asking incisive and pertinent questions. Indeed, unlike attitude surveys, citizens’ assemblies seek to elicit informed and considered public opinion about the conditions under which people will or will not support different policy options, and the principles underlying these decisions. As such, they provide an important complementary source of evidence, along with technical assessments, that can ultimately improve the quality of decision-making.

Not only this, involving the public in decision-making strengthens its legitimacy and provides a strong mandate for policy-makers to take action, which many politicians had previously felt they lacked. We also know public support for policies is strongly predicted by perceptions of fairness; and part of this fairness is procedural (i.e., involving those who will be affected in decision-making). So, building climate change policy on a foundation of public participation will improve the chances it will be accepted by citizens.

The reception of the report has been overwhelming, and there has been broad support for the Assembly’s recommendations across the political spectrum. This is very encouraging because many of recommendations go significantly beyond current government policy (e.g. an earlier shift to electric vehicles, lower automotive and aviation growth, and a greater reduction in meat and dairy consumption). Identifying solutions which are carefully considered and do not alienate large sections of society is critical for moving forward rapidly in reaching net zero. It is also encouraging that the government’s response to the Assembly’s report has included a commitment to ‘greater citizenship involvement around climate change and net zero’. Assembly members were keen that more community engagement should happen on decision-making and delivery of climate change policy, and this is something which local councils should heed if they want to develop socially-robust and effective interventions to deliver net zero.

Bristol Green Capital Partnership is looking forward to working with members of the Bristol Advisory Committee on Climate Change (BACCC) as part of Bristol’s the Community-led Climate Action project.

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