Citizens’ assemblies show governments how to tackle the climate emergency

Woman holding a microphone and talking to someone.

In most governments, elected officials discuss and make laws for the rest of the population. However, as we see with the climate emergency, even though most countries have pledged to commit to keeping global warming below 1.5-degree Celsius as stated in the Paris agreement, we are far away from reaching that goal. With citizens’ assemblies, experts, scientists, and politicians bring together people from all over a country, state or local area to discuss a specific issue or topic. More and more of these assemblies try to find solutions on how we can reach the 1.5-degree Celsius goal.

What is a citizens’ assembly?

A citizens’ assembly is a form of citizen participation. Unlike with elected officials sitting in a parliament, a citizens’ assembly randomly selects people from all areas and social backgrounds. The people who take part in an assembly are chosen to reflect the wider population of the country or state they are from. This includes demographics – their age, gender, ethnicity, and social class – and regarding climate change, their views on the issue can also matter.

For example, at the Climate Assembly UK in 2020, 108 people from all over the UK were part of the assembly and selected through a lottery. Age-wise, 21.7 per cent of the UK population are in the age group of 16 to 29-year-olds. Of the assembly members, 22.7 per cent were in that age group and so on with other age groups. Same with gender: 49.4 per cent of the UK population is male and 49.1 per cent of assembly members were male as well. The people chosen for the assembly altogether represented the UK age-wise, with gender, educational level, ethnicity and so on.

Not just a survey of opinions

The first citizens’ assembly took place in Canada in 2004. Since then, most citizens’ assemblies have taken place in European countries, such as Belgium, France, and Germany or in Canada and the United States of America. The assembly is not just a survey of opinions. At the beginning of the assembly, the participants receive information on the topic – in this case, climate change – then they are given the space to exchange ideas with each other in small focus groups. Here, they can weigh different points of view and form an opinion.

Afterwards, the assembly members adopt recommendations and write down proposals that are then passed on to politicians. The recommendations are not politically binding decisions, but they offer politicians guiding principles on what the assembly members have agreed and decided on.

Crafting a path towards a climate-friendly way of living and doing business

Horst Köhler, German politician and patron of "Bürgerrat Klima" next to a television.
Horst Köhler, German politician and patron of "Bürgerrat Klima". Photo: Bürgerrat Klima, Robert Boden

In June this year, Germany’s first countrywide Citizens’ Assembly on the climate emergency, “Bürgerrat Klima”, finalised and voted on their overarching guiding principles on how Germany can reach the 1.5-degree Celsius target. 160 German citizens participated in the assembly and presented their recommendation for climate protection to the government. The goal was to craft a path towards a climate-friendly way of living and doing business and how to reach the 1.5-degree goal as the country has pledged to achieve when signing the Paris Agreement.

After the next federal election in Germany which will take place in September 2021, the Citizens’ Report will be handed over to the parties in the German Bundestag. The assembly has decided on four areas of action in which recommendations for climate protection measures are being developed: Food, Transportation, Energy production, Buildings and heat.

Overall, three Overarching guiding principles have been developed:

Overarching guiding principles climate Germany.
Photo: Mika Baumeister I Unsplash
Overarching guiding principles climate Germany.
Photo: Nikola Jovanovic I Unsplash
Overarching guiding principles climate Germany.
Photo: Bantersnaps I Unsplash

Net Zero by 2050: 25 underpinning principles by Climate Assembly UK

At the Climate Assembly UK, 108 citizens discussed how the UK, which has committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, can reach this goal. The assembly members met over six weekends in Spring 2020 – in person and later during online meetings. In the final report, which was published on 10th September 2020, the recommendations about what the UK should do to reach the net-zero goal by 2050 were put together.

The assembly members agreed on 25 underpinning principles and then voted to prioritise them. Those principles cover topics such as surface transport, air travel, what we eat and how we use the land. Informing and educating everyone about the issue of climate change and possible solutions were voted by the most people at the assembly with 74 votes. Next came fairness within the UK, including the most vulnerable. This means affordability of jobs in all regions in the UK regarding climate change and more.

Leadership from the government that is clear, proactive, accountable, and consistent in a cross-party consensus got 63 votes and landed in third place. Overall, the assembly members voted on long-term planning and ensuring solutions are future-proofed and sustainable.

Power to the people?

In France, President Emmanuel Macron agreed to submit the final consensus of a citizens’ assembly on climate change to a referendum, parliamentary vote of decree. The Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat was charged with working out how to cut France’s emissions 40 percent by 2030. In the end, all but three of the group’s 149 recommendation were accepted. The creation of two new regional parks and a nature reserve were some of the proposals and have already been adopted. In some countries, people already have the power to bring forward positive change for the environment and the planet.

All in all, although the recommendations made by citizens’ assemblies are not politically binding, they are still important. They give politicians as well as the general population a set list of goals and principles that a reflection of the wider population has agreed on. However, due to them not being politically binding, politicians do not have to put them into laws or further discuss them. That is still a huge disadvantage of citizens’ assemblies. There is no consensus that a vote on the recommendations must follow afterwards.

Still, regarding climate change, citizens’ assemblies are important concepts to think about and present solutions on how each country can tackle the climate emergency. It puts focus on what the people think about global warming, rising sea levels and a loss of livelihood. The results can also pressure governments into increasing protection for the environment and people.

Feature’s section is a long-form read that explores the different aspects of a topical environmental issue. These detailed yet intimate guides aim to give you insights in an easy-to-understand format.

Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.

Hello there! I'm Julia, co-founder of Eco-Spotlight and a freelance journalist. With Eco-Spotlight, I want to focus on sharing stories of inspirational people and positive impact, as well as learn more about the environment, and sustainability.

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