The voice of the people

It's not surprising that groups like Sustainability First are calling for a focus on a green recovery from the current crisis. But what does the population at large think? We know that concerns about climate change had been rising rapidly up the agenda but are they now being pushed back down as people are faced with much more immediate financial and other worries? The evidence from the citizens assembly on climate change in France is that people are as concerned as ever to see climate change addressed, with an emphasis on doing so in a way that creates a more just and resilient society.

Of course, it is always hard to read across between countries on matters of social policy given the different contexts and underlying culture. But the pandemic and the experience of lockdown is global – and the climate change challenge is also global with movements such as the schools strikes spreading between countries.

And the few polls that there have been in the UK do show support for the green agenda continuing. For example Ipsos Mori published a report for Earth Day last week which showed that 71% of people globally (66% in GB) agree that in the long term climate change is as serious a crisis as COVID-19 and 65% of the global public (58% in GB) support a "green" economic recovery. GB lags other countries (perhaps reflecting how the issues are presented in the media) but we are not fundamentally out of step.

The French citizen's assembly then is particularly interesting – both for the substance of the messages coming out and for the process they have followed. The French citizen's assembly follows a similar deliberative process to ours involving a group of people picked at random, reflecting a broad mix of society, who listen to expert input and then debate issues among themselves to come up with recommendations. However the French assembly is on a slightly larger scale and with a clearer commitment to act on the outcomes as shown in the table below.

In terms of process then the French approach – which was a response to the Gilets Jaunes protests – does come closer to the best practice around citizen's juries, set out for example in an earlier Sustainability First blog which highlighted the importance of allowing enough time, of involving a wide set of stakeholders in giving evidence and ensuring the results are given due attention.

As in GB, the French citizens assembly was due to have its final weekend just as Coronavirus hit. They responded by introducing an additional 2-day virtual session to focus explicitly on the implications of Coronavirus for the proposals they were putting forward, with the final 3-day session to vote on the proposals being deferred until later in the year. In GB the final weekend has been replaced by 3 shorter virtual sessions including one final one linking the climate and coronavirus.

Coming out of their 2 day additional session, the French citizens assembly decided to provide the
President and government with a paper setting out 50 of their 150 proposals, in the state that they
were in, not yet having been voted on by the assembly, but which they felt were of particular
relevance in terms of being able to deliver at the same time economic recovery, carbon reduction
and improved health and collective well-being, including for the most vulnerable. They wanted the
government to consider these proposals urgently as they think about how to come out of the
current crisis.

Because these proposals had not been formally voted on, the assembly decided not to publish them
at this stage but instead published a short note highlighting the principles they wanted to see
adopted. However, le Monde had obtained a copy of the full report sent to government and hence
some of the proposals are now in the public domain.

In the published paper the citizens assembly note that coronavirus and climate change both have
their roots in a lack of respect for the natural environment and a zeal for globalisation. They argue
that the strategy for coming out of the crisis must link environment and the economy and bring
hope of a new model for society: "un société plus juste et plus perenne [sustainable]… un modèle
économique et sociétal différent – plus humain et plus resilient". In particular – and learning from
the crisis - they want to see a reduced dependence on imports – more local food, health supplies
and energy – which would create more jobs and resilience. However they do reaffirm the
importance of global responses to global challenges such as COVID-19 and warn against countries
trying to go it alone.

In terms of the specific ideas cited in le Monde, top of the list - as it probably should be here – is a
recommendation to retrofit 20 million homes by 2040 to improve energy efficiency through whole
house solutions with a focus on tackling all F and G rated properties by 2030.

Many other proposals are redolent of ideas that get floated here. They argue for reduced individual
car use encouraged by more support for cycling, bans on the most polluting vehicles and zerointerest
loans for clean vehicles. All research and innovation support should be targeted at projects
that help drive de-carbonisation. More use should be made of repair, re-use and recycling.

However other themes are a bit different and may have been prompted in part by the current crisis.
They want to see a brake on over-consumption with a variety of ideas on the regulation of
advertising to help achieve that. One would be a warning on all advertisements saying "Do you really
need this? Over-consumption is killing the planet". They also want to see a stronger focus on local
produce with a buyer's guide to help consumers make local choices.

Finally, there is a strong message coming out of the group about the value in listening to citizens. As
they say in their published report the group has not always agreed on issues but they have learned
to listen and to work together to come up with proposals. One of their proposals is for mini
assemblies to be held across the country to help raise awareness and develop local solutions on
climate change. They also argue in their public report that the current crisis won't be resolved
without a communal effort and that citizens should be involved in the decisions. « C'est le moment
idéal d'écouter et de prendre en compte les remarques des citoyens pour la construction d'une
société future ».

Sustainability First has consistently stressed the importance of citizen and consumer engagement,
including on complex issues. The GB citizens assembly session on May 16 will be a chance to hear
how the current crisis has affected views here on climate action. Whether the GB assembly
recommend more and deeper engagement around the nature of the recovery will be one test of
whether they feel that their contribution and the process here has been of real value, in the way the
French one seems to have been. A commitment now to a parliamentary debate on their findings
and to take forward the leading recommendations would make clear that the views of the GB
assembly are valued and will have an impact – a key factor in judging how successful such processes
have been.