A wake up call

The UK Climate Assembly captured the fact the public take climate breakdown seriously - the government must act.

The members baulked at some suggestions which might restrict their freedom to drive. 

If you have read about the UK Climate Assembly’s report in the mainstream media but haven’t looked at the report you may have a distorted view of what the Assembly decided and what it all means. 

The headlines emphasised a frequent flyer tax and a ‘ban on SUVs’ while politicians welcomed the report’s defence of “freedom and choice”. 

The reaction of the main environmental organisations was surprisingly muted.

Insight

The Assembly presented a particular challenge to Extinction Rebellion which raised the idea in the first place but had concerns about the process and the recommendations that emerged from it.

I had an unusual insight into that dilemma, as a member of XR and an invited speaker at the Assembly’s session on surface transport.

This was my second experience of a citizens’ assembly and I was impressed again by the seriousness and good sense of the general public – so different from what we see in political debate or on social media.

The process was far from perfect but it tells us a lot about the public’s views on the climate emergency and what governments should be doing about it.

The Assembly was set up by six parliamentary committees following the declaration of a climate emergency by the UK parliament last year.

Catastrophe

Its members were selected to provide a representative cross-section of the UK population by six demographic criteria and their attitude to climate change.

Some of the media coverage – and the Assembly’s own website – gave the impression that the Assembly was being invited to write a plan for the UK to reach net zero. That was only partially true.

Within its limited remit the Assembly members did a great job, but it’s important to understand what they were, and were not, asked and enabled to do.

XR’s main concerns related to the 2050 date to reach net zero, which the Assembly was asked to work towards, reflecting UK law.

That date was set as a global objective in the Paris Agreement – countries like Britain will have to act much more quickly if we are to have any hope of averting a climate catastrophe.

Model

Some of the assembly members raised this issue and called for a vote on an earlier date. The vote was not carried, but the largest group were in the ‘unsure’ category. As the Assembly was not asked to look at that question, no expert advice was provided on it.

Presenting the report, Chris Stark of the Climate Change Committee emphasised that the report talks about 2050 “at the latest”.  It should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the 2050 date.

The Assembly was not asked to look at all sectors of the economy.  They were asked to look at those sectors which would have the most direct impact on the public, so for example they considered aviation and personal transport but not freight.

No-one tried to calculate whether the combined recommendations would lead to net zero.  On their own, they would not.

As the organisers explained, it would have been impossible to model the impacts of the hundreds of different policies considered, accepted, rejected or amended by the Assembly members.

Atmosphere

For the parliamentary committees who commissioned the Assembly that did not really matter.

This was not a decision-making report. Its purpose is to press the government to act on some measures but not on others – for example, to invest more in offshore wind and less in nuclear power.

All of that was understandable, but more worryingly it seems no-one was tasked with checking whether all the recommendations were consistent with each other.

This failure is most obvious when comparing the chapters on aviation and greenhouse gas removal.

Chapter 4 would allow air passenger numbers to rise by between 25 percent and 50 percent by 2050. That would require large-scale removal of carbon from the atmosphere to achieve net zero. 

Cycling

But then Chapter 9 rejects the technical solutions which might conceivably achieve that – for good reasons, but creating a glaring inconsistency.

Transport is now the biggest emitting sector, by a long way, and it’s not surprising to see the transport recommendations grabbing the headlines.

The members baulked at some suggestions which might restrict their freedom to drive, preferring a more rapid transition to zero-emission vehicles.

This disappointed some people I know in XR, who wondered whether this might have reflected the advice they were given.

In fact most of the speakers talked about modal shift to public transport, walking and cycling, re-localisation of economic activities and various measures to restrain car use.

Act

Some of these, such as road closures, were selected by the members, but the public’s reluctance to embrace radical anti-car measures should surprise no-one.

Like it or not, it is a sign that the process is working. Remember also that net zero will require a transition to zero-emission vehicles, with or without behaviour change or even radical system change.

There are many different models of participatory democracy.  The Climate Assembly was probably the most extreme version of the advisory type.

The Assembly was given a limited remit and asked to advise six committees, who are themselves advisory. Alok Sharma, the secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, spoke for the government at the launch. He made all the right noises but no promises.

The citizens selected to speak on behalf of the Assembly said, in effect: we have given up a lot of our time, done all this work, and now you, government, must listen and act.  Their report is not a comprehensive plan, but it is a strong wake-up call for government.

This Author

Dr Steve Melia is a member of the XR Brain Trust. He lectures in transport and planning at the University of the West of England.  His next book, Roads Runways and Resistance – from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion, will be published by Pluto Press in January.

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