On the 16th floor of Birmingham’s Park Regis hotel, glass walls provide sweeping views of the city skyline, along with a long backlog of cars on the motorway outside – but transport is just one of many issues the 110 people gathered here will have to grapple with as they decide how the UK should respond to the climate crisis.
People travelled from all over the country for the first meeting of the UK climate assembly on Saturday. Over four weekends they will discuss a range of issues with experts and decide on a set of recommendations for how the government can reach its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Assembly member Leia, 20, from Darlington, said giving up her time for the cause was an easy decision to make: “You don’t get an opportunity to influence government policy very often and climate change is really important.”
Another participant, Amanda, 56, a healthcare project manager from Kent, said: “I was really chuffed to be chosen. There were some things which I didn’t know about that I’ve learned today, which is really interesting, but I’ve always been quite green.”
Invitations to the assembly were sent out to 30,000 households chosen at random, and of the over 1,500 people who responded asking to be considered, 110 were selected by a computer to be representative of society. There’s a mix of ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds and education levels, but also a range of views about the climate crisis.
A citizens’ assembly is a group of people brought together to discuss an issue or issues, and reach a conclusion about what they think should happen, according to the definition put forward by the House of Commons library.
Citizens’ assemblies give members of the public the time and opportunity to learn about and discuss a topic, before reaching conclusions. Assembly members are asked to make trade-offs and arrive at workable recommendations.
Facilitated by experts and combining small-group discussions with large-scale debates and a series of votes, members meet over a series of weekends with the goal of removing the conflicts of interest and tribal loyalties that can hamper politicians in reaching a conclusion.
The people who take part are chosen randomly so they reflect the wider population in terms of demographics – age, gender, ethnicity and social class.
The number of members involved can vary. A recent citizens’ assembly, formed to examine social care provision in England, had 47 members who were English citizens and eligible to vote in UK general elections.
Citizens’ assemblies, and other similar methods, have been used in the UK and other countries, including Australia, Canada and the US, to address a range of complex issues. One of the most prominent to take place in recent years was the assembly established by the Irish parliament to address abortion after a decision had been made to have a referendum on the issue.
Jamie Grierson, Home affairs correspondent
Chris, a 32-year-old production engineer and father of two from Oxford, was unsure of the severity of the problem. “I wasn’t sure if it was a crisis. I’m not a climate denier as people will quite quickly say. Climate is real, it does change, it has changed. I appreciate man is changing it. But whether we’re at the level of crisis – I hadn’t seen enough information.”
He was keen to hear directly from experts, and was pleased to see opinions being distinguished from facts. “My biggest fear coming here is that a decision would be made purely based on emotion with no logical steps or thought about the implementation or the impact.”
The assembly heard from speakers at organisations including Natural England, the New Economics Foundation and Wellcome, and were given the chance to ask questions. Some of these were practical – “What’s more environmentally friendly, British beef or avocados?” – while some were more ethical – “How can we ensure the cost of changes don’t affect poorer people disproportionately?”
Participants could hold up a yellow card if a speaker was going too fast, or a red card if they needed something explained or clarified. “It’s about distilling down the enormous complexity of climate change into small pieces of information that are accessible, balanced and meaningful for people, so it is quite a tall order,” said Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh, the director of the UK Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, and one of the assembly’s expert leads.
“Some people are probably totally comfortable with a lot of what’s been covered today, and some people will have never really heard anything of this kind before.”
“If you have a parliament of a fixed length of five years, it is very difficult to persuade politicians that they should give money and time and attention and worry to an issue which is not going to come to a climax – and people won’t know if it is successful or not successful – for 10 years, 15 years hence,” he said.
“Your very existence here means members of parliament are taking it seriously. The people in this country ought to be extremely grateful to you, as indeed am I.”
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, observed the morning session and said she was impressed by the level of engagement from members. “The buzz in the room was brilliant. I just think it’s so important that politics is done with people, not to them … Look what happened with the gilets jaunes in Paris – people have to understand and feel as if they are part of the process.”
She said her biggest concern was that the assembly discussions were based on the assumption that net-zero emissions should be achieved by 2050 and not earlier, but organisers said there would be time at the end of the process for members to discuss this if they wanted to.
The Committee on Climate Change says cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 is necessary, affordable and desirable. Here are some of the actions needed to make that happen:
• Petrol and diesel cars banned from sale ideally by 2030 and 2035 at the latest.
• Quadrupling clean electricity production from wind, solar and perhaps nuclear, plus batteries to store it and connections to Europe to share the load.
• Connection of new homes to the gas grid ending in 2025, with boilers using clean hydrogen or replaced by electric powered heat pumps. Plus, all homes and appliances being highly efficient.
• Beef, lamb and dairy consumption falling by 20%, though this is far lower than other studies recommend and a bigger shift to plant-based diets would make meeting the zero target easier.
• A fifth of all farmland – 15% of the UK – being converted to tree planting and growing biofuel crops and restoration of peat bogs. This is vital to take CO2 out of the air to balance unavoidable emissions from cattle and planes.
• 1.5bn new trees will be needed, meaning more than 150 football pitches a day of new forests from now to 2050.
• Flying would not be banned, but the number of flights will depend on how much airlines can cut emissions with electric planes or biofuels.
The assembly has drawn some criticism over the fact the recommendations will not be legally binding. Lucas said: “Although the government aren’t obliged to take the recommendations seriously, I think for a government that has said it wants to [make the UK] the greenest country in the world, it would be quite difficult for them to completely sideline these views.” The results from the assembly will be made public in April, and a House of Commons debate will follow.
At just 17, Max from Hertfordshire was one of the youngest members of the assembly, and he was optimistic over the impact it could have: “If this whole thing ends up making a big difference, and the government really does listen, it means we’ll be leading a new movement internationally, and we need to be the leaders of a better tomorrow.”