Westminster turns to people power to help tackle climate change

3 Jul 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 3 Jul 2019

Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash
Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash

The UK’s planned new Citizen’s Assembly – specifically set up to look at climate change – could be good news for democracy and the planet, and also provide a positive legacy for an otherwise dire term of parliament.


It can feel like policy is holding its breath until Brexit is resolved.

Theresa May – who is still Prime Minister, you might have forgotten – has been a lame duck for most of her tenure as the UK’s leader.

Her bizarre situation is a personification of the roaring political chaos of the past few years, all light and noise but no heat.

Even if policy chooses to stand still – which is not quite true - circumstances do not. Climate change, for one, continues.

What has been done to address this? Interestingly, late last month, plans for a Citizen’s Assembly was announced from Westminster. The assembly will exist to help combat climate change and achieve the pathway to net zero carbon emissions.

Six different select committees are behind the plans and the announcement from parliament says it is “likely” to launch in the autumn.

This news follows the Prime Minister’s “legally-binding” target to cut greenhouse emissions in the UK to net zero by 2050.

The PM is probably painfully aware of how history might view her time at the top but if this commitment is meaningful and we, as a nation, follow through on the promise she will have achieved something tangible that, in the longest of terms, will be a lot more important than a botched snap election and an approach to Brexit that was calamitous - but little different than what is suggested by her would-be successors (and, ultimately, a grand failure in impossible circumstances).

Select quotes

Select committees are oversight bodies and so the establishment of this Citizen’s Assembly could be antagonistic to government rather than in step with it.

However, circumstances appear more cordial than is often the case.

Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said: “Ending our contribution to climate change can be the defining decision of our generation in fulfilling our responsibility to the next, but it will require the effort of a generation to deliver it. Governments and political parties of all colours will need to work with the public, both young and old, and all sectors of business and society to deliver on the Prime Minister’s commitment to the UK cutting carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

“I welcome the Citizens Assembly launched by six Select Committees today; initiatives to engage the public will be vitally important to appreciating the challenges of getting to net zero and giving people a say in shaping the future policies to achieve the target.”

Meanwhile, Labour MP Rachel Reeves, who Chairs the BEIS Committee, said: “The Prime Minister’s commitment to the UK setting a net-zero target for carbon emissions by 2050 is welcome; the job now is to get on with mapping out the path to achieve it. This isn’t a challenge for just one Parliament, one political party, or one generation; to achieve net-zero by 2050 we need to build cross-party and cross-generational support for the short-medium-and-long term policies and actions needed to deliver it.

“Net-zero presents the UK with a golden opportunity to deliver environmental and health benefits, new jobs, sustainable green industries and export opportunities. But the UK won’t play its part in helping to save our planet or enable us to reap the benefits unless there is a co-ordinated, cross-departmental effort from the Government, together with buy-in from the public for the measures needed to achieve this ambitious goal.

“The Citizens Assembly announced by six Select Committees today will give an opportunity for public input into the climate change debate. It will also help to provide committees with a clearer insight into the public’s views on the fair sharing of the potential costs of different policy choices and how we can best meet them.

“It’s clear that meeting the net-zero target will involve all parts of our economy, from, for example, heating our homes, electric vehicles and decarbonising transport, to energy infrastructure, green finance, and low-carbon goods and services. I hope the Citizens Assembly will demonstrate that, when all is considered, there is strong public support – even demand -  for the Government to take the action necessary to deliver the benefits of net zero by 2050.”


The idea of using citizen’s assemblies is a relatively new one. More aspirational than material, so far.

However, very close to the UK – and NI in particular – just such an assembly has played a major role in climate change discussions.

The Irish Citizen’s Assembly was established by parliament in July 2016 and consisted of a chair and 99 citizens, selected at random and demographically representative. They met for 12 weekends during the 18 months to April 2018. They listened to expert evidence and were given time and space to deliberate and think about what they heard.

This process took in five different topics, with the Assembly producing a report on each that was submitted to the Oireachtas, which was mandated to respond. These topics were abortion, ageing population, fixed-term parliaments, referenda – and climate change.

In compiling its climate change report, a ballot was drafted with 13 questions that were then voted on by the citizens. Each of the proposed recommendations passed (as such) with a minimum of 80% support (and generally a lot more – 80% was the lowest winning vote by nine percentage points and related to an indication of willingness to pay higher taxes) and formed the basis of its submission, How the State can make Ireland a Leader in tackling Climate Change.

The Irish Parliament’s response was to form a Committee on Climate Action, which produced its report in March. The Dáil endorsed the report in May and the government’s action plan was published on June 17.

Ireland has been a straggler in reducing CO2 emissions. It is on course to miss its 2020 targets. It has received heavy criticism for failing to be more robust in the face of climate change.

Whether Ireland’s climate change action plan turns out to be an effective one will depend on a lot of things. A plan is just theory, and nothing else.

However, what the Irish experience does show is that a citizen’s assembly can provide genuine impetus on a problem that has proven difficult or impossible to move forward within the traditional structure of elected representation.

So the announcement for Westminster could be good news for democracy and good news for the planet.

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