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The growing traction of climate citizens assemblies

Climate Planning & Laws

Climate assemblies are increasingly being used by national and local governments to guide decision-making on climate policy. Promoted by civil society organisations, these assemblies engage everyday people to learn about, deliberate and make recommendations on aspects of the climate crisis. At the beginning of October 2021, Spain launched its national citizens’ assembly on climate change, involving more than 100 citizens representing the diversity of the Spanish society to address and discuss the question of “A safer and fairer Spain in the face of climate change, how do we do it?”.

Spain’s story, even though just getting started and with the potential to unfold, responds to a trend that has been spreading across Europe over the last couple of years: the creation of citizens assemblies as processes that aim to contribute to the design of a fair transition to net-zero by helping decision-makers and other stakeholders understand how citizens perceive and prioritise climate action.

While the Irish Citizens’ Assembly was the first to consider climate at a national level in 2016, there are two other national experiments worth telling the tale about, one in the UK and the other in France. The ECF has been closely following and supporting these two initiatives where breaking political stasis on climate action has been a key goal. Both Climate Assembly UK and the French Citizens’ Convention on the Climate have the potential to inspire other geographies to embrace a similar line of action.

Climate Assembly UK

The context. In June 2019, six select committees of the UK Parliament announced plans to hold a citizens’ assembly on “combating climate change and achieving the pathway to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050”. Climate Assembly UK (CAUK), which had no mandate from or direct link to the government, was held between January and May of 2020 in Birmingham and online (post-Covid-19).

Led by public participation charity Involve and with the support of advisory and academic panels, CAUK provided participants with balanced evidence from 47 speakers on the choices the UK faces on topics such as electricity, travelling, home heating, and farming, among others. Participants deliberated on the choices presented for each topic and were invited to express levels of (dis)agreement or preferences but were not able to amend the options available. As a result, Assembly members agreed on 50 recommendations, which were presented to Parliament as “The path to Net Zero” report in September 2020.

France Citizens’ Convention on the Climate

The context. Two expectations among the French population set in motion France’s Citizens’ Convention. On the one hand, there was an increased desire from citizens to go further and faster in fighting climate change; on the other hand, there was a need to give citizens a greater say in public decision-making when approaching this fight. The need to deliver on the climate action coupled with the sparking of the Yellow vests opposing social and climate set the scene for the French Citizens’ Convention on the Climate.

After the Grand Débat National in France in April 2019, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, announced the creation of the Convention and committed to submitting its proposals, with “no filter”, either to a vote in Parliament, referendum, or direct regulatory application. From October 2019 to February 2020, the Convention brought together 150 people, all drawn by lot, to learn about, debate and prepare draft laws on all issues relating to ways to combat climate change.

The goals

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The Climate Assembly UK aims to strengthen and support the UK’s parliamentary democracy by ensuring policymakers have the best possible evidence available about public preferences on reaching the net-zero target. On the other hand, the question set to answer at the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate was “How can France cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990, in a spirit of social justice?”. The mandate of the Convention was focused on defining a series of measures that would allow achieving such a reduction by drawing attention to our way of living, consuming, producing, working, travelling, housing and feeding. It aimed to give citizens a voice to accelerate the fight against climate change. The Convention’s ultimate objective was to submit laws, regulations, and referendums on climate action to the President and Parliament.

The actions - CAUK

  • The ECF helped initiate the Assembly itself, along with the UK Parliament and Esmée Fairbairn, and granted the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) to carry out additional media, stakeholder, and parliamentary outreach.
  • Using the assembly to better understand citizen deliberation, remained a top priority throughout the process. The ECF granted the Centre for Climate & Social Transformation (CAST) to identify the values that members of the Climate Assembly UK relied on in reaching decisions and to review the influence of different assembly setups in both the UK and France on the broader public. It also funded a stakeholder evaluation to assess the Assembly’s impact on different groups.
  • Climate Assembly UK was widely and favourably covered by national and trade media, with over a thousand pieces of coverage across online, print, radio, and television.
  • The government’s independent adviser, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), used the findings of the report to inform its Covid-19 recovery report and its Sixth Carbon Budget.
  • The findings were debated in the House of Commons, and the business, energy, and industrial strategy (BEIS) have launched an inquiry to follow up on the proposals.
  • Climate Assembly UK inspired a behind the scenes documentary by Picture Zero and Curious Films called “The People Versus Climate Change”, available on BBC iPlayer.
  • The ECF is now supporting two public campaigns centred on the stories of key characters in the film – Amy, Marc and Sue – to create change at a local level around Electric Vehicles, heat pumps and green jobs, and help inspire the national debate on these issues.

The actions - CCC

  • Over ten months, citizens were involved in an unprecedented democratic experiment together with experts and economic, organisational, and public representatives to ensure their ability to draft concrete measures, with full knowledge and complete independence.
  • CEO of the European Climate Foundation, Laurence Tubiana became a member of the governance committee of the CCC, and the ECF network in France contributed to raising awareness in the climate communities and in connection with the youth mobilisation.
  • In January 2020, President Macron reiterated his commitment to bring laws, regulations and referendums drafted by Convention “unfiltered” to the appropriate body. In an official address held at the Elysée Palace a week after the final session, President Macron committed to supporting 146 of the 149 proposed measures.
  • In January 2021, the French government submitted to Parliament a proposal to reform the Constitution to guarantee that the state will take action on climate change. A month later, in February 2021, another proposal was submitted with the attempt to translate the measures regarding housing, transport and consumption into law.
  • In the months following the end of the CCC’s deliberations, the citizen participants organised themselves into a grouping called “Les 150”. This group has become an important and visible advocacy voice.
  • The French Convention and the ECF supported work has already had an impact in terms of generating debate around the right of citizens to have a voice on the design and implementation of transition; recognition of the need to include the social dimension more strongly, and the visibility of specific policy proposals that have wide support among the French society as outlined by the poll commissioned by RAC France in partnership with the media Le Parisien in the week following the adoption of proposals.

Citizens’ empowerment

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Beyond France and the UK, national-level Climate Assemblies have also recently been completed in Denmark and Scotland, and are under preparation in Austria and in many other countries at the local and regional level. In Spain, there is still a long way ahead with the preliminary session being held in November 2021 and the deliberative process not due until the end of April 2022. Moreover, ahead of COP26, a Global Citizens’ Assembly was launched on October 5, 2021, being this the first of its kind at a global level. Its guiding mission is ‘to give everyone a seat at the global governance table’ with the intention that this can serve as a prototype for longer-term infrastructure to engage citizens in global policy-making.

If done well, Climate Assemblies can be an important tool to help rebuild policy legitimacy and accountability in the eyes of the general public, as well as empower people by bringing them into the conversation. But besides assemblies, there are other lines of action for citizens’ engagement that need to be embraced: the democratic toolbox is richer and should be broadened with new and more inclusive processes and tools to be developed.

  • The ECF launches KNOCA, a unique network dedicated to democratic climate action

    In face of the growing importance of citizens’ involvement and the increasing need to build societal buy-in and ownership of action, the European Climate Foundation has launched the Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies (KNOCA). This new initiative will bring together learnings and expertise from different citizens’ assemblies across Europe, share and structure best practice knowledge, and foster further understanding and debate of how deliberative processes are and can be applied to address the climate crisis. To find out more about KNOCA, its members and lines of action click here.