Tuesday 2 July 2019 4:01 am

A citizens’ assembly is the wrong way to tackle climate change

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies. He tweets @EamonnIves.

Last week, our interim energy minister signed into law the UK’s commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

That was the easy part – achieving it will be more challenging.

To help parliament in its search for solutions, no fewer than six select committees recently joined forces to announce their plan for a citizens’ assembly on how to bring Britain’s emissions down to net-zero by 2050.

Citizens’ assemblies are congregations of randomly selected individuals, who are brought together to learn about an issue and recommend how to fix it. They are used around the world, and although uncommon in the UK, there is precedent for using them here – in 2018, over the course of two weekends, 47 people convened in Birmingham to deliberate upon the future of social care in England. 

Indeed, citizens’ assemblies appear to be in vogue. Before being knocked out of the Tory leadership race, Rory Stewart included one in his strategy to help break the Brexit impasse. 

At face value, they seem an attractive strategy for solving important and controversial issues that require long-term, cross-party effort. But scratch beneath the surface and the efficacy and judiciousness of citizens’ assemblies quickly dissolves. 

First, there are difficulties with the set-up. In theory, a citizens’ assembly is a microcosm of society, perfectly representing the nation’s rich tapestry of different perspectives and walks of life. The reality is somewhat different. 

Consider the 2018 social care assembly: overrepresented groups included men, older people, and ethnic minorities, while northerners were underrepresented by a full seven per cent, as were (to a lesser extent) those from C2DE social grades. 

It is impossible to achieve a fully representative sample of the population, considering everything from disabilities to sexuality to levels of saving. 

And by their very nature, citizens’ assemblies will fail to represent people who have better things to do than to give up their free time to discuss policy issues with random strangers.

Once the sample has been selected, participants are presented with evidence, often by specialist experts. But in a world seemingly rife with “lies, damned lies and statistics”, who’s to say how evidence should be exhibited to members of the assembly? 

My expert might be your imbecile, yet there isn’t a conclusive way of accounting for this to ensure that fair and objective information is afforded to participants to allow them to reach more rational conclusions.

The above are all pathologies of citizens’ assemblies in general, but these are particularly problematic when it comes to climate change. The environment is necessarily a specialist subject, where scientific and economic expertise truly matters. 

The idea that ordinary folk should be trusted to make evidenced judgements on the minutiae of how to eradicate hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases a year from the UK economy is fanciful.

It’s heartening that politicians in Westminster now regularly acknowledge climate change as a challenge in need of confronting. But this strategy is totally inadequate. 

Instead of passing the buck because the issue is too politically thorny to address, MPs should follow the advice of economists across the world and introduce a border-adjusted carbon tax. 

This is widely acknowledged to be the most efficient way to cut emissions. It would charge individuals for the pollution they are responsible for, incentivising them through the price system towards adopting cleaner, greener lifestyles. Other market-led initiatives, like road pricing, or reforming agricultural subsidies, would also help nudge the UK closer to net-zero.

On an issue as important as climate change, MPs should be leading from the front – not abdicating responsibility to a handful of unsuspecting individuals. From one citizen to another, let’s drop the idea that an assembly will solve global warming.

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