Early lessons from France and the UK on the roles of climate citizens’ assemblies and legislators to enhance climate action

Participants in the Climate Assembly UK sitting at tables
13 November 2021
Authors
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Mathilde Bouyé, Associate at World Resources Institute
Commentary
Early lessons from France and the UK on the roles of climate citizens’ assemblies and legislators to enhance climate action
Both experiences highlight the value of citizens’ assemblies in spurring greater and fairer climate ambition thanks to different representation, legitimacy and deliberation methods. They also provide early lessons on the decision-making process that follow.

When the Climate Assembly UK released its final report on 10th September, vigorous political debates were already ongoing in France regarding the 149 climate measures put forward in June by the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate, some of which had already been rejected. In both countries, the fate of these proposals depend on their translation into legislation.

Climate citizens’ assemblies are often presented as a response to public distrust in representative democracy and its ability to address the climate emergency. As the mandate of the French citizens’ convention stresses, they can help address public demands for greater climate action, social justice and public participation at once. But how can these climate assemblies influence the enhancement of climate action, compared to that of elected representatives?   

The French and UK climate citizens’ assemblies have different starting points in that regard. The French citizens’ convention stemmed from an executive decision following the Yellow Vests’ protests and a demand from the “Citizens Vests”. At the outset, the President assured that the convention’s proposals would be submitted for adoption without “any filter” – revision – through legislation, executive decree or referendum. This initiative divided members of the National Assembly: some insisted that the deliberation of randomly selected citizens should never replace proper parliamentary debates by elected representatives. Others underlined that the innovation changes parliamentary work for the better. By contrast, the Climate Assembly UK was called by six Select Committees of the House of Commons with strong cross-party support, bolstered by previous experiences such as the 2018 Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care. However, the climate community initially regarded this parliamentary consultation as a weak channel to effectively influence the government.

Both experiences highlight the value of citizens’ assemblies in spurring greater and fairer climate ambition thanks to different representation, legitimacy and deliberation methods. They also provide early lessons on the decision-making process that follow. While they show a strong potential for fruitful synergy between citizens’ work and that of legislators, questions remain about the type of commitments and process that could help ensure transparency and trust in the way the citizens’ proposals are considered to feed into legislation.

Climate citizens’ assemblies bring new voices to the table

The legitimacy of citizens’ assemblies rest on a different form of representation than that of parliaments, one that mirrors the full diversity of the society. Their members are randomly selected out of a pool of solicited volunteers – based on key parameters such as age, gender, education and location – to put together a sample of the population. Citizens’ assemblies better reflect minorities than elected assemblies and can voice the needs of all social groups. Like their broader societies, about one-quarter and more than a third of French and British assemblies’ members respectively, did not have a degree. Both assemblies were not open to elected representatives and employees from political parties to preserve their independence.

Unlike elected representatives, citizens assemblies are not responsible for making decisions. However, they provide unique inputs into decision-making, especially on climate action.

Citizens’ assemblies enable elected officials to better understand what climate measures are acceptable to the public. For instance, the Climate Assembly UK shared its preferences regarding priorities to achieve carbon neutrality – e.g., shifting to electric vehicles and improving public transport, rather than significantly reducing car use. Its report shows the level of buy-in for each proposal and the reasons why some were disliked.

They also help build a much-needed whole-of-society approach to climate action. The French and UK assemblies discussed climate measures that affect people’s daily life – what they eat and buy, how they heat their house and travel: what they eat and buy, how they heat their house and how they travel. They also made their resources and briefings available online, which can contribute to greater public awareness and education on climate issues.

Citizens’ proposals offer new inputs for greater and fairer climate action

The French and UK citizens’ assemblies were asked proposals on the way to achieve national carbon mitigation targets already adopted by the legislators. They didn’t suggest alternative mitigation targets, although the mandate of the French citizens’ convention – referring to a cut of at least 40 percent of carbon emissions by 2030 – left some space to propose a greater reduction and the Climate Assembly UK discussed the 2050 timeframe at some point. Organizers acknowledge that it was impossible to calculate the mitigation potential of assemblies’ proposals in real time and that providing citizens with enough knowledge to advance other economy-wide mitigation targets would have required much more resources.

Nonetheless, both assemblies put forward four types of proposals that, if adopted, could significantly improve climate legislation:

Table 1: Types of citizens’ inputs to existing legislation

Type of citizens’ proposals for climate legislation Examples of measures drawn from the report of the French citizens’ convention on climate
Enforcement of existing legislation
  • Enforcing the act banning planned obsolescence (ie. planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life)
Enhanced climate targets and measures
  • Banning all single-use plastics by 2023 – not by 2040, as planned by the same act
Measures previously rejected by the parliament
  • Introducing the notion of ‘ecocide’ crime in the penal code (rejected in 2019)
  • Banning the rent of poorly energy efficient housing by 2028 (rejected in 2019 during the review of the Energy and Climate Bill)
New climate measures
  • Basing the scale of mileage allowance for the use of private car on carbon emissions, rather than engine power to reduce allowances for more polluting cars – with an exception for families with more than 3 children
  • Identifying the maximum surface that can be developed in each municipality to contribute to halving urban sprawl at the national level

Source: Author

These experiences show that citizens’ assemblies can handle the complexity of climate measures with adequate support from experts, with some limitations for cross-cutting issues such as finance. Both point out key levers for major economic shifts such as bans on the sale of carbon-intensive products, investments in green technologies, changes in market rules, taxes and incentives, and information and transparency on the products’ carbon footprint.

As MPs from the UK and France noted, their evidence-based approach and deliberation with professional facilitators can help address controversial measures, which are costly from an electoral point of view. The Climate Assembly UK heard experts presenting a wide range of options as well as advocates of very different stances to discuss policy trade-offs, which certainly remained challenging for both assemblies. In a few instances, the assemblies also dropped measures perceived as too politically divisive, such as the 4-day work week in France.

Both assemblies place emphasis on social equity in climate action. The mandate of the French convention referred to social justice and UK assembly set ‘fairness’ as a core principle that should guide a pathway to net-zero. Both suggest measures (e.g., grants) to make low-carbon options, such as public transport and green food, more affordable and ask for fiscal equity. For instance, a majority of UK assembly members preferred taxes that increase as people fly more often and further as opposed to standard taxes on all flights. The assemblies also put aside measures which adverse impacts couldn’t been offset with existing policies, in their views, such as a carbon tax in France. 

Citizens’ ambitions are in the hand of the legislators: what early lessons?

As the French and UK assemblies have shared their reports, some early lessons can be drawn on the decision-making process and the respective role that parliaments and governments can and have played to date.  

Compliance and duplication check of citizens’ proposals compared to existing national and European legislation is a key step, performed differently in the two countries. In France, a legal committee helped the citizens’ convention craft proposals that could directly feed into legislation, as requested by the Presidency. This is unprecedented in a citizens’ assembly. While further research is needed on the influence of this committee on citizens’ proposals, experts we interviewed highlight that its suggestions could be rejected and have, overall, spurred citizens to further refine their measures. In the UK, the convening parliamentary committees serves as a chamber of control after the release of the report.

Legislators’ commitments to address citizens’ proposals have been central in the discussions following their release. In France, the announcement of a direct translation of a few measures into executive decrees, one or two referendums, and the preparation of a government bill aligns with the Presidency’s prior commitment. A mandate from the executive may increase the likelihood of government’s buy-in, but also has downsides: some proposals can be rejected or scaled down with limited discussion. The Presidency immediately dismissed three measures – a 4% tax on dividends above 10 million euros, a reduction of the speed on the highway to 110 km/h and a revision of the preamble to the Constitution. Other measures with major economic impacts, such as the extension of the 5G and a ban on domestic flights shorter than 4 hours when alternatives exist, are subject to heated debates – some NGOs have boycotted consultations hosted by the government. In the UK, commitments to take on board citizens’ proposals weren’t made initially, but after the report release: by the convening parliamentary committees, the government, referring to its work on the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and the Committee on Climate Change, mentioning the 6th carbon budget. The convening committees also called opposition leaders for cross-party consensus and a long-term approach.

A clear timeline for addressing citizens’ measures was expected in both countries. The French government promised a government bill by the end of the year. In the UK, the convening committees wrote to the Prime Minister to ask a government’s response to the assembly before the end of the year.

In both countries, scrutiny mechanisms are put in place to hold the government accountable. In the UK, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee will launch of an overarching inquiry to analyse to what extent the government will take assembly’s findings on board. In France, in addition to the regular follow-up meetings proposed by the government, “The 150” association, formed by some members of convention, created a website to track legislators’ decisions on citizens’ measures.

Despite very different democratic cultures, the French and UK experiences highlight a potential for synergy between citizens’ assemblies and elected institutions to enhance climate legislation. While citizens’ assemblies are gaining traction and could be institutionalized in some countries, further reflection is needed on the mandate and capacities they need to address trade-offs and equity issues on climate measures and which process and commitments could help preserve the value of their proposals in decision-making.


Image: Climate Assembly UK