What should a UK citizens' assembly on climate change and net zero look like?

The decision in June by six parliamentary select committees to establish a citizens' assembly on combatting climate change and achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is a hugely welcome one.

Parliament's commitment to explore deliberative, democratic options for decision-making around decarbonisation is very much in keeping with Pillar 3 of Sustainability First's ongoing Fair for the Future project, which looks at changing roles and responsibilities for achieving fairness in UK energy and water sectors, and which suggests deliberative tools are essential for navigating some of the trade-offs decarbonisation entails, building consensus and achieving a required 'step-change' in stakeholder engagement.  But what should the parliamentary citizens' assembly look like in practice, and how can it be framed to best meet its stated aim of giving 'clearer insight into the public's views on the fair sharing of the potential costs of different policy choices'?

In our 2018 'Sustainable Licence to Operate' strawman, Sustainability First suggested that citizens' juries or assemblies were one potential means of 'maximising transparency' and ensuring greater 'independence and rigour' in processes for engaging consumers and wider stakeholders on issues of fairness, within and between generations and for people and planet.  Citizens' assemblies have been adopted by a number of governments over recent years as a means of ensuring members of the public can, through deliberative and democratic channels, navigate complex trade-offs, and shape and inform policymaking.

Ireland convened a citizens' assembly to make recommendations on a number of key issues, including the country's abortion ban, bringing together 99 members of the public together for five weekends of discussion.  The citizens recommended a referendum on the abortion ban, which in 2018 resulted in its being overturned.  Scotland followed in April this year, setting up a citizens' assembly of 120 people to discuss a series of broad questions on the country's future direction; the assembly will meet over six weekends from autumn 2019 to spring 2020.

The Irish citizens' assembly did also include consideration of climate, offering almost unanimous support for measures to tackle the climate emergency: 97% recommended ensuring climate change is at the centre of policymaking; 100% felt that the state ought to take a leadership role in addressing climate change through mitigation measures; and 80% indicated they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities.

In the UK, the call for a citizens' assembly on the climate emergency has been mainstreamed by Extinction Rebellion (XR), which has made the establishment of an assembly on climate and ecological justice one of its three core demands.  This pressure has in turn led the UK parliament select committees to announce their autumn 2019 citizens' assembly on net zero.

The convening of a citizens' assembly represents a significant step in the UK's decarbonisation efforts, coming hot on the heels of parliament declaring a climate and ecological emergency and legislating for net zero by 2050.  If done well, deliberative engagement of this kind can find a way through political polarisation and the legislative logjams this can cause.  As Clive Mitchell of public participation charity Involve – which has been awarded the contract for the select committees' citizens' assembly – told attendees at our most recent Fair for the Future workshop, bringing members of the public together to tackle challenging trade-offs through deeper forms of dialogue has the multiple benefits of helping to add value and navigate complexity and uncertainty.  Furthermore, these deliberative forms of engagement, when appropriately acted upon, can lend legitimacy to policy and action – especially important in energy and water sectors widely seen to be facing a real legitimacy challenge.

How might this manifest in a climate-specific citizens' assembly? Green Alliance convened two citizens' juries in 2019, pilots which indicate – as with the Irish example – strong support among the public for strong climate action by government and businesses. Participants offered support for policies including making all new car and van sales electric or plug-in hybrid by 2030, making industry more energy-efficient, and increasing the use of solar or onshore wind power – provided such actions were taken in tandem with 'clearer government leadership'.

The Green Alliance pilots together with the Irish experience offer some lessons to heed for the parliamentary select committees. The charity in fact makes explicit recommendations for the upcoming citizens' assembly. One of the most important is to 'give it enough time'. In the present political moment, any citizens' assembly is bound to run up against other urgent parliamentary priorities, but the committees must ensure that enough time is given over for the public to consider the case for climate action. It is perhaps a cause for concern that parliament has promised 'at least two weekends' for the assembly – this threshold falling well short of the five-weekend Irish and the promised six-weekend Scottish assemblies.

The citizens' assembly ought also to secure input from the widest possible stakeholder community, in addition to the expected civil service experts and climate scientists. Green Alliance point to doctors and farmers as examples of stakeholders who should be called to contribute, but there are in addition a whole range of stakeholders at the climate emergency grassroots who might also be involved, including perhaps energy and water customers in vulnerable situations or employees in the sectors.

Activist groups such as XR will wonder whether this exercise goes far enough. The committees have stated that their findings will be advisory and not legally binding. While welcoming the move as an 'important first step', XR does not consider the move to have met its demand for what it calls a citizens' assembly 'with real or legislative power'. That parliament's – and citizens' – recommendations have the potential to be overlooked by government could well be a valid concern, especially with the current political turbulence around Brexit and the potential for climate to slip down politicians' agendas.

Questions are also being asked of the assembly's remit – how to achieve the government's target of net zero emissions by 2050 – which some climate activists believe to be narrow, especially given debate over the date by which we need to decarbonise. While 2050 is the date set out in legislation following the Committee on Climate Change's landmark report, XR argues for net zero by 2025, the Labour Party continue to come under pressure from activist groups like Momentum and Labour for a Green New Deal to commit to net zero by 2030 – a date also proposed by the Green Party – and the Liberal Democrats suggest a net zero emissions target of 2045 at the latest.

Whatever one's position on these questions, there is widespread agreement that the parliamentary citizens' assembly can further shift the dial on the climate emergency, representing the latest change in the urgency with which UK politics tackles the issue. And, in the face of parliamentary gridlock and political crisis, exploring ambitious deliberative approaches such as citizens' assemblies has arguably never been as important.