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The participants met over six weekends to discuss how the UK can decarbonise.
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The Government’s Climate Assembly: Lessons on the public support for decarbonisation

The participants met over six weekends to discuss how the UK can decarbonise.

At the beginning of September, the Climate Assembly appointed by the Government reported its findings. The question it was asked was how the UK could get to net zero carbon emissions in pursuance of its local obligations contained in the Climate Change Act 2008. It has now published a detailed report of its findings, which makes interesting reading.

The Climate Assembly was commissioned by six Parliamentary Committees, including the BEIS Committee, which oversees the work of the principal Government Agency, headed by Alok Sharma MP. The fact that the Government felt the need to seek opinions from the populace demonstrates its awareness of the gulf between Government policy – which is generally supportive of decarbonisation and the 2008 Act – and wider public opinion. If social media or the red top tabloids are anything to go by, then the Government might well think that there is going to be a problem moving this agenda forwards.

The Assembly’s report therefore provides the first substantive piece of evidence about what the British people think in relation to reaching these legal targets. In this context it should be emphasised, of course, that the question was not whether we should be doing this but how we should reach those targets.

Participants were drawn from all walks of life, interestingly including climate sceptics – those who do not believe climate change is either happening or anthropogenic. Efforts were made to accommodate every aspect, from age, to ethnicity, to education, and geography, so the group mirrored society in the UK today.

The participants met over six weekends to discuss the issues. Three of those were actual meetings and the other three were online, due to the intervention of the COVID-19 pandemic. The participants heard from 45 different speakers and considered and debated the issues before voting by secret ballot on the recommendations.

A number of points arise from this exercise. Firstly, the Government and Parliament believe that it has been a great success. The Assembly has delivered a clear set of recommendations and this body of evidence will be helpful to the Government in moving the agenda forwards.

Secondly, the Assembly managed to engage with the climate sceptics. Apparently, they took the view that as the UK is legally obliged to meet the net zero carbon targets, they might as well have a say about how it should do so, as this will affect them too. Presumably, everyone accepted that discussions on whether we should be doing this were not on the table and those reservations should be left at the door.

It is also the case that the Assembly realised that the more information and guidance they were given on scientific facts, the more they became convinced that action was required. Further education work was a clear principle that was underlined in the findings, and something the Government should take careful note of.

The results of this exercise for renewable energy technologies were also very good. 78% of members supported wind, either onshore or offshore and 81% supported solar PV. So these two principal renewable technologies – wind and solar – were given the strongest independent support, as they were demonstrably seen as commercially proven, green and low cost. The Government should not miss the opportunity to use this as an important prop when pressing forward with support for these technologies.

It was also interesting that when the pandemic hit, the Assembly asked for this to be included in its remit. It is particularly striking that there was 79% support for steps taken by the Government to ease the pain of the lockdown to be linked to the targets for net zero carbon. Taken at face value, then, the Government’s blank cheque to the airlines to stop them going bust, but without any proper link to future targets for emissions reduction, would not meet with approval.

Also on the COVID-19 topic, 96% strongly agreed that as the lockdown eases lifestyles must start to change to be more compatible with net zero carbon targets. In other work, it has clearly been shown that when people can be helped to this conclusion, it is certain that they will start to make changes in their own lives and become an advocate for change to others. This is a powerful influence in changing hearts and minds. So the fact that COVID-19 was actually seen as an opportunity for change is significant.

There are no plans for the Climate Assembly to meet again, as its work on this specific commission is now completed. However, Alok Sharma did say in his speech at the launch last week that its conclusions would help shape the work of him and his department in preparing for COP26 next year. If the results of this exercise can genuinely influence Government policy for the better, then it will have been an even greater success. It is now inevitable that there will be further public engagement on the green agenda to follow.

One last issue raised by the Assembly was that it believed that local choice was also an important principle. So, for example, whether an area gets a district heating network should be something upon which local engagement takes place. We are already starting to see local Citizens Juries being established, such as the first one in Oxford last year. Again, the success of this particular venture might spur more local authorities to run similar exercises on a local level, to help them shape their plans to meet Climate Emergency declarations.

In conclusion, if the Government did believe at the start that public opinion was genuinely divided on the need for robust policies to drive forwards the green agenda and emissions reductions to comply with the Climate Change Act 2008, it is under no such illusion now. The small and noisy group of sceptics that have been successful in giving the impression of having wider public support have via this work been revealed as just that: small and noisy.

People do care about the climate and the environment and want to see urgent action. So the Government should use its work under COP26 as the springboard for a new and more robust and ambitious set of policies for 2021 onwards.

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Stephen Cirell

Stephen Cirell is an independent consultant specialising in local authority renewable energy projects. He is author of ‘A Guide to Solar PV Projects in Local Government’.


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