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What is Fair? – Ask the people

It was great to see the conclusions of the Citizens Climate Assembly published last week, having looked in depth[1] at the French equivalent. As an advocate of citizens assemblies and deliberative engagement more broadly, and given the crucial importance of tackling climate change, I am clear that the report deserves to be taken seriously and read carefully by policy makers and others.

So what can we take from this report? Inevitably in this sort of exercise the views of citizens will be shaped by the evidence put to them and even in an extended process like this the amount of time they could give to individual issues was limited given the breadth of topics they covered (from transport through housing retrofits and greenhouse gas recovery to diet and smart farming).

What these sessions are great for is the plain common sense that comes out of talking to citizens. Their top principle was that given we all have a part to play in addressing this challenge, you need to educate and inform people more about climate change. There was a call for clear and strong government leadership but also a strong emphasis on local areas deciding what's right for them and individuals retaining an element of choice.These themes also came out strongly in Sustainability First's new virtual book - 'How do we build from the corona crisis toward a sustainable future?' - which summarises the submissions to our recent Art and Essay Competitions on this topic.

While regulators struggle with what "fairness" means, the Assembly provided a clear view that this was about being "Fair to people with jobs in different sectors. Fair to people with different incomes, travel preferences and housing arrangements. Fair to people who live in different parts of the UK". However, on the vexed question of whether insulation measures should be paid for through taxation or bills the assembly was divided with a slight preference for paying through bills. While the usual arguments were made about taxation taking account of income, they had concerns around tax evasion and whether government would actually spend it on insulation at the end of the day given other pressures on government finances.

Where the citizens' voice is really important is in understanding, for example, how far it is reasonable to expect – or require - people to change their behaviours faced with the challenge of climate change. The answer was firmly that people should still be able to travel, for example, but with a shift to EVs and taxes on frequent flyers. On diet the desire was again for voluntary action through education, not mandation. However, one area where regulation was supported, interestingly, was the idea that a ban on the sales of new gas boilers should be announced now to come into effect from 2030-35, encouraging innovation and giving everyone time to prepare.

Where I was left less convinced was on the votes around the choice of solutions for heat decarbonisation or generation technology where they rightly concluded that all were likely to have a role. That doesn't seem to take us any further forward and one wouldn't expect it to. These options require careful technical and economic analysis and could readily be a topic for whole series of assemblies in their own right. But obviously these questions can't be totally ignored as part of this sort of debate and the discussion provided some useful pointers. In particular the emphasis on the need for different solutions for heat in different local areas (94% support) is a message that policy makers should heed.

The majority of findings were presented in terms of flip chart style summaries of pros and cons with numbers voting for or against the variety of proposals put forward by the organisers. This felt rather superficial as a basis for some of the bolder recommendations (such as banning gas boilers) while still highlighting some of the key considerations. Moreoever, there was a final session at the end where the Assembly was able to give its thoughts in a more unscripted way which I found perhaps the most interesting chapter. The top messages from that section (all attracting over 90% support) were the importance of cross-party political support, the need for transparency around government relationships with big energy companies, and the need to get to net zero without pushing our emissions elsewhere in the world. Spot on. They also asked for a follow up session to report on progress which should probably be incorporated as good practice for all citizen assemblies.

In the French assembly the question they were asked focussed on identifying initiatives to reduce carbon by 2030 and it did feel like the individual proposals that they come up with had been more fully hammered out with at least some of the practicalities addressed.

The UK Assembly report could not simply be taken and implemented (in the way the French were promised that theirs would be) but it still provides an invaluable insight into where citizens stand on these issues, what their priorities are, how they think about the trade-offs and the range of practical considerations that need to be addressed. Policy makers should read carefully what the Assembly says about any areas they are working on and should consider the potential for further deliberative exercises to drill down into particular issues.

As the Assembly concluded reaching net zero will not be easy and it will not be cheap but it must be fair. And if you want to understand what being fair means then these deliberative sessions are exactly the right way to do it.

[1] See earlier blogs on The Voice of the People here and here

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