19. 02. 2020

Citizens Assemble - Government Stumbles!

Frankly, it’s been humiliating watching our Prime Minister make such a pig’s ear of hosting this year’s Conference of the Parties in Glasgow in November. This is by far and away the most important Conference since Paris in 2015; the challenge of securing a good outcome from it (let alone the kind of transformative outcome we really need) is immense; the failure of last year’s Conference in Madrid makes that all the more challenging; we’re already 18 months behind where the French were in the run-up to the Paris Conference, and the only thing that has brought the agenda to life so far is the unceremonious sacking of Claire O’Neill (Boris’s original choice as President of COP26) by Dominic Cummings, her response to her sacking, and the endless tittle-tattle on the ongoing stand-off between Boris and Nicola Sturgeon.

On Friday last week, the appointment of the lightweight Alok Sharma as the new President of COP26 was met with a mixture of bafflement and consternation from the NGO community. With Sharma simultaneously serving as Secretary of State at BEIS, and taking into account his wretched track record on the votes he’s cast on climate issues over the last few years, this seems like an absurd appointment.

Meanwhile, one of the most exciting climate initiatives here in the UK – the Climate Assembly – continues to make good progress. This is possibly because the UK Government has had literally nothing to do with it. The Assembly is a parliamentary initiative, set up last year by the Chairs of six Select Committees as a direct consequence of Parliament having declared a Climate Emergency last year, and then passed into law the target of achieving Net Zero emissions by 2050.

This is a genuinely innovative endeavour, involving a small number of carefully-selected individuals (110 of them) to come up with advice for the six Select Committees on how best to ensure the UK delivers on that statutory target of Net Zero by 2050.

They’re not there to discuss the science of climate change (that’s considered to be ‘settled’), which avoids the usual phoney debates. Instead, they’ve been asked to focus on the most significant areas of concern – home energy, transport, consumption, food and farming, which were described as the most ‘relatable elements’ in any low carbon transition – in order to feed conclusions back into the respective Select Committees in April/May.

I was invited to be an ‘Observer’ on the first weekend of the Assembly. To be honest, it was a bit of an odd experience, as both Observers and media were corralled into separate zones to make sure that we didn’t have any contact with any Assembly Members! We were not allowed to listen in on any of the Round Table discussions, just the plenaries. These were good – with excellent inputs from various experts – and with a surprisingly high level of knowledge emerging in the Q&A sessions.

I hope that doesn’t sound patronising. But the whole point of an exercise of this kind is to get way beyond the usual suspects involved in the climate debate. The ‘sortition process’ is therefore crucial. The invitation to take part was issued to 30,000 randomly selected citizens, of whom 2,000 responded positively. This was then boiled down to the 110 individuals (courtesy of some sophisticated algorithm!), selected on age, gender, ethnicity, education, location and ‘level of concern about climate change’ criteria. This ensures that the 110 accurately reflect the demographic profile of UK citizens, as revealed through regular polling by Ipsos MORI.

As it happens, the 17.2% of Assembly Members who self-declared to be either ‘not very concerned’ or ‘not at all concerned’ about climate change is rather more than the 14.4% in the most recent Ipsos MORI poll. And the 49% of Assembly Members self-declaring as ‘very concerned’ is slightly less than the 51% in the Ipsos MORI poll. The credibility of the Assembly’s findings depends on its representativeness – which probably explains why they’ve weighted things slightly in this direction.

As to the Assembly itself, it’s a demanding process, with three weekends of intense discussion in Birmingham before a final weekend formulating their advice and recommendations for parliamentarians. There’s a massive amount to take in – and I was a bit astonished to sit in on the session designed to look at the sort of principles that should underpin policymaking, opening up a discussion about things like ‘intergenerational justice’, ‘co-benefits and trade-offs’, ‘the precautionary principle’, ‘distributional fairness’, and so on! This is pretty sophisticated stuff – even for those who spend a lot of their lives in these thickets!

Inevitably, I couldn’t help but detect some bias in the policy mix: nuclear was still advanced as a legitimate low-carbon technology alongside renewables, without so much as a passing reference to the economic absurdities associated with Hinkley Point, imposing massive additional costs on consumers. And there was a lot of emphasis on Carbon Capture and Storage, despite the fact that this inefficient, hugely expensive, carbon-intensive technology has an extraordinarily limited operational track record.

The third weekend is taking place in Birmingham at the end of this month. I really wish Assembly Members well in their deliberations – in the same vein as David Attenborough did, so eloquently, on their first evening together. There’s a lot riding on this Climate Assembly – not least in terms of the encouragement it can provide for our parliamentarians to get on and raise their game in terms of our collective response to the Climate Emergency.

And that, in turn, might help persuade the Government to raise its game, by focusing first and foremost on ensuring that COP26 is a real success. I am, however, far from sanguine on that front.
 

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