The voice of the people – Part 2

There's been a recent wave of good news around deliberative engagement on climate change. Last week the UK Climate Assembly produced an interim briefing on the question of a green recovery and the French equivalent produced its full 460 page report with 150 recommendations.

It was uplifting to see Le Monde covering that report in depth including a front page picture of the standing ovation (complete with face masks) that marked the handing over of the report to the French minister responsible. Then on Monday president Macron welcomed the French assembly to the Elysée to give his response.

In an earlier blog I compared the UK and French assemblies and noted the wide range of initial recommendations that the French assembly had included in its initial report to the president on the implications of Covid-19 for the climate debate.

In contrast the UK Climate Assembly's interim briefing simply presents the results of two polls on the link between climate and Covid-19 with a large selection of verbatim quotes to help bring it to life. The conclusion is that:

  • 79% of assembly members 'strongly agreed' or 'agreed' that, "Steps taken by the government to help the economy recover should be designed to help achieve net zero". This included limiting or putting conditions on investment in high carbon industries and dealing with Covid-19 and climate together as far as possible;
  • 93% of assembly members '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." This included encouraging home working and changes to how we travel with government providing leadership and information alongside a role for businesses and local institutions.

This is clearly a positive endorsement of the importance of a green recovery and the six select committee chairs who established the UK Climate Assembly have written to the prime minister to make that point. The desire to build on the changes around increased working from home reflects what should be an easy win but still needs encouragement.

However, reading through the full briefing I was struck by a couple of omissions. First, despite the fact that energy efficiency comes out top of the list of suggested investment opportunities from most environmental organisations – and was mentioned by Chris Stark in his introductory remarks at the session – none of the verbatim quotes mention it. It seems it hasn't registered with Assembly members that we really need to sort out our homes and how we heat them – and they are now some of the best informed citizens we have. I also didn't get any sense of urgency around the climate agenda – important yes but not urgent – can't we just sort out the economy first?

That contrasts with the conclusions of the French assembly which had a clear sense of urgency - perhaps influenced by the fact that the question they had been asked to address was on the actions needed to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 whereas the UK Assembly was focussed on achieving net zero by 2050, which must still sound a long way off to most people.

The French assembly also created a much stronger picture of wanting to see a different world socially and economically post pandemic – more just, more humane, more resilient as well as more environmentally aware. But again, that may well reflect the question they were asked which was not just how to reduce greenhouse gases but how to do so in a spirit of social justice.

Turning then to the full report from the French assembly which is interesting in part as an example of the French way of doing things but also contains 150 detailed ideas that it is probably worth someone considering systematically at some point to see whether they might work here too.

The headline proposal was for a referendum on amending the constitution to make clear the importance of protecting the environment ("our patrimony"), on the introduction of a new crime of "écocide" and on the creation of a new position of the Defender of the Environment. The debate did highlight the dangers of referendums (which we could teach them a thing or two about) but the conclusion was that this was important as a way of raising the profile of the issue of climate change. However, beyond these constitutional changes they have wisely not proposed putting any of their recommendations to popular vote.

The only recommendation the assembly voted on but which was ultimately rejected (by 65%) was a proposal to reduce the working week from 35 hours to 28 hours, considered unacceptable in the current economic situation.

The most controversial recommendation, prompting a heated debate, but which was ultimately supported by 60% of the assembly, was to reduce the speed limit on motorways from 130km/hr to 110km/hr (reducing emissions on such journeys by 20% in the process). Given the backlash that resulted from Macron's decision to reduce the speed limit on other roads from 90km/hr to 80 km/hr (which incidentally led to me getting my first ever speeding ticket!), this is exactly the sort of issue where having informed citizen input makes sense.

There was also significant debate around the proposal for improving the energy efficiency of homes with a requirement for all homes to be at least band C by 2040. While the issue was recognised as important, there were concerns around making this a legal obligation when not everyone could afford the upgrades required. To help households meet the obligation it was proposed that there should be a minimal level of financial support for everyone, with those on low incomes facing a charge that would be close to zero. The proposal was supported by 87% of the assembly and included practical suggestions such as a network of "one stop shop" retrofit organisations and creation of a cadre of building professionals.

Other recommendations included relatively obvious ones like encouraging community scale renewable electricity, banning the sale of high emission vehicles from 2025 and encouraging lower emission vehicles through tax incentives, improving cycle lanes and supporting public transport. But there were also more radical ideas such as trying to reduce over-consumption through a mandatory "do you really need this?" warning on on-line purchases and other restrictions on advertising.

Given the importance of food to the French[1] - and noting that it accounts for 25% of the carbon footprint of the average French household – it is unsurprising this was an important theme. Changes were proposed to prevent over-fishing and to reduce use of pesticides. There was to be a stronger focus on reducing food waste and on agro-ecology, including for that to be a mandatory part of agricultural training. The aim was to encourage more organic and sustainable food from local sources and, to ensure this was accessible to all, food vouchers would be provided that could be used in farm shops and communal catering services would be required to provide two vegetarian meals a week. The aim was to reduce meat and dairy consumption by 20%.

This relatively interventionist approach played out across a range of sectors including recommendations for restrictions on the concreting over of urban spaces, reductions in internal air flights where there is a good low carbon alternative and prohibitions on the extension of airports, restrictions on use of air conditioning below 30 degrees in public buildings and shops, with similar restrictions on overnight lighting, a ban on heated terraces and a ban on single use plastics from 2023. To encourage sustainable consumption, product guarantees would be extended to 5 years and product labelling would have to include information on the product's carbon impact. To ensure effective enforcement of regulations there should be training for the judiciary on environmental matters.

Many of the recommendations achieved overwhelming support with votes of over 90%.

The question of how all the proposals would be funded was one that the assembly was not able to spend as long on as it really needed. It identified a wide range of possible options from an extension to the existing French wealth tax to a tax on financial transactions or a tax on dividends above a certain level. The recommendation was that there should be a moratorium on introducing a carbon tax for 5 years while citizens are made more aware of the urgent need for climate action and giving them time to change their habits. – but this was again a subject of some debate.

Earlier in the process Macron had committed to take forward the assembly's recommendations in full but said that he was allowing himself "3 jokers". On Monday he played those 3 jokers. The change to the speed limit on autoroutes was potentially divisive and needed more debate. The change to the preamble of the constitution risked placing the environment above humankind (but the proposed change to one of the articles could be put to a referendum). And the tax on dividends was rejected as an inhibitor to innovation and growth. Aside from those, the implication was that the proposals would be progressed and to back that up he announced an additional 14 billion euros of investment over 2 years in energy efficiency and clean transport. With the greens having made significant inroads in the municipal elections at the weekend this was a timely announcement.

The assembly will meet formally again after the summer to feed back on the government's response. Around a third of the recommendations have had legal drafting developed by lawyers working alongside the assembly which should ease implementation. And, taking matters into their own hands, the members of the assembly have created an organisation - "Les 150" – to keep an eye on how their recommendations are taken forward.

Viewed from here it looks a good and thorough process but inevitably there have been criticisms. The far right has rejected the recommendations as "anti-growth". Environmental experts were disappointed that there was no support for carbon taxes, no discussion of nuclear and limited ambition on pesticides. Economists criticised the lack of attention to market signals and an over reliance on regulation. An expert on deliberative engagement questioned whether they were presented with sufficient diversity of views in terms of the scientific experts chosen to present (of which there were 140). Without counter opinions being presented the risk is that participants just replay what they have been told – "but the expert said…". Questions have been raised about the representativeness of the group and suggestions made that the style of language used in the report sounds more like drafting by civil servants than the voice of the people. Whatever else it has certainly attracted attention and raised the profile of both the process and the issues.

Satisfaction, relief and pride were words the members of the Assembly used as their report was handed over. Both the UK and French assemblies have involved a huge time commitment from both the participants and the organisers and both have given citizens a stronger voice in determining how we tackle this enormous challenge. But there is always scope to learn and improve so I will continue to keep an eye on what impact the two groups have and how the different structures and questions affect the nature of the recommendations and the response to them.

I look forward to the UK Climate Assembly full report in September and hope that, following the French model, it includes some practical near term recommendations as well as consideration of the long term challenge and that it looks not just at how to achieve net zero but how to deliver a just transition. And in the near term that means a focus not just on a green recovery as advocated by the Assembly, but to "build back better" in its widest sense – social, economic and environmental.

Many of the issues raised by the French assembly were also picked up in the over 1,200 submissions to the Sustainability First Art and Essay Prizes on the theme of 'How do we build from the corona crisis toward a more sustainable future?' The visions and ideas for practical action submitted by the artists, university students and early stage researchers to the competitions provide a wide range of perspectives from 'the grass roots' as to how recovery from the pandemic needs to address environmental, social and economic goals and inject a sense of urgency, but also hope, into the UK pandemic recovery debate. We will be publishing a virtual book of the prize winning and shortlisted entries, and the key themes from the competitions, later this month. Please do join the Sustainability First mailing list if you would like a copy.


[1] French gastronomy is listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage