Climate action through citizens' assemblies?

15. November 2019

"This national convention, if it works well, will be the first in a series of conventions on other issues. The format should become a permanent structure of our democracy." This promising announcement was also made by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on behalf of President Emmanuel Macron at the launch of the first French citizens' assembly in Paris on 4 October 2019. The topic: climate protection.

Citizens' assemblies are increasingly being convened to address the climate crisis. A citizens' assembly is an assembly of randomly selected citizens whose composition is intended to represent as good a reflection of the population as possible. Therefore, criteria such as gender, age, education, place of residence and migration background are taken into account in the sortition process. The basis for the random selection is formed by the population registers of the municipalities. From these, randomly selected residents are contacted and invited to participate in the citizens' assembly. They can then apply to participate.

Parliaments not representative enough

The starting point is the feeling of many people that the existing instruments of democracy are not sufficient to deal with the climate crisis and that parliaments do not adequately represent many population groups such as women or young people.

"In Germany, responsibility is in the hands of a relatively small number of MPs who are elected by the population. In recent decades, this form of government has failed to make the decisions needed to effectively address the climate and ecological crises. Four-year legislative terms prevent governments from giving long-term problems like climate change the priority they need," criticises the Extinction Rebellion movement.

"Overcoming hardened fronts"

"Citizens' assemblies can overcome hardened fronts and make different options for action visible, says the initiative "Klimamitbestimmung", which in 2020 submitted a petition supported by 69,863 people for a nationwide climate assembly to the German parliament. The scientific presentations at the beginning of a citizens' assembly guaranteed informed decisions and the moderated discussions afterwards strengthened the view for the common good, as researchers in Ireland had been able to prove. "Especially with an issue of the century like climate change, we need a big societal debate about how we want to deal with this challenge. This is exactly what a citizens' assembly can do," say the petitioners of Klimamitbestimmung.

"Experiences from other countries show that the participants of a citizens' assembly take the responsibility very seriously. The exchange with people who think differently enriches the debate and prepares the ground for recommendations that are scientifically sound and socially fair," emphasise the initiators of the petition. "While in other forms of citizen participation often only certain groups of the population get involved - e.g. those who can afford the commitment in terms of time and finances - a citizens' assembly reflects the diversity of our society through random selection. This increases the recognition that such a body enjoys among the population as a whole. And when politicians know the breadth of society is behind them, they feel emboldened to make long-term, forward-looking decisions."

Pioneer UK

UK municipalities are particularly active in the use of citizens' assemblies. The pioneer here was the London borough of Camden, whose city council unanimously endorsed the proposals of the local citizens' assembly for municipal climate protection measures on 7 October 2019. The 17 proposals include mounting solar panels on as many houses as possible, building more cycle paths, car-free zones and days, a pilot project for a municipal heating programme, and the establishment of a climate emergency review committee made up of experts and residents. More than 40 similar citizens' assemblies have existed or are in place in British municipalities such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Guernsey, Leeds, Oxford and Sheffield.

As in France, the UK has also had a national Climate Assembly since January 2020, which published its 50 climate policy recommendations in September 2020. The Spanish Climate Assembly handed over its 172 recommendations to the government on 6 June 2022. On 4 July 2022, the Climate Assembly in Austria presented its 93 recommendations. Other national climate assemblies took place in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden. Another national climate assembly is planned in the Netherlands.

Many local climate assemblies

There have been local climate citizens' assemblies in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Budapest, Frankfurt/Main, Glasgow, Kawasaki, Krakow, Lisbon, Paris, Stuttgart and Vienna, in the Swiss Canton Geneva as well as in the US State of Washington, among others.

Climate assemblies are currently running in in Preston, England, in the French Region Bourgogne - Franche-Comté, in the Italian state of South Tyrol, in the Dutch cities of Deventer, Rotterdam and Zwolle and in the North Macedonian city of Skopje. Likewise, such citizens' assemblies on climate policy are planned in Hackney and South Yorkshire, England, in the Italian city of Bolzano as well as in the German federal states Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein and the German city of Edermünde.

Citizens' assemblies: permanent and global

In Brussels, Belgium, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Milan, Italy, the first permanent climate assemblies are in place. Their task is to monitor local climate policy over the next few years.

In 2021, a global climate assembly had taken place with the Global Assembly. For this global mini public, 100 people from all over the world had been randomly selected to present a plan to combat climate change to the world's heads of state and government. A declaration of the citizens' assembly on adherence to the Paris Climate Agreement was read out by participants of the Global Assembly at the UN Climate Summit COP26 in Glasgow on 1 November 2021.

Model Ireland

The model for the new citizens' assemblies is the Citizens' Assembly (or its predecessor, the Constitutional Convention) in Ireland, whose proposals on marriage for same-sex couples and abortion rights won broad majorities in referendums. A citizens' assembly on Climate Change was also held there in 2017, which recommended far-reaching measures on climate protection.

Members of the citizens assembly voted 80 per cent or more in favour of 13 recommendations on climate change. These included proposals such as creating a new government structure to put climate policy at the centre of policymaking. There were also majorities in favour of increasing Ireland's carbon tax and taxing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which is Ireland's biggest emitter of climate-damaging gases. Recommendations continued to include widespread expansion of cycle paths and public transport, reforestation measures, an immediate halt to subsidies for peat extraction and the promotion of organic farming. In mid-2019, the work of the citizens' assembly culminated in a Climate Action Plan, with which Ireland aims to reduce its emissions by 30 per cent between 2021 and 2030.

Referendum in France failed

The climate assembly in France had met over seven weekends. The goal: to formulate proposals on how France can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. President Macron had promised to let all citizens vote on recommendations of the "Citoyenne" in a referendum. In addition, citizens' assemblies are to become a permanent institution and also deal with other issues.  On 20 July 2021, the French National Assembly passed a comprehensive legislative package on climate protection. In it, 25 proposals of the Convention Citoyenne did not appear, 19 were adopted, 75 were partially adopted. Among other things, the package provides for the new offence of "ecocide", a ban on certain short-haul flights and premiums for the purchase of electric bicycles.

On 14 December 2020, Macron had already announced that he would follow the citizens' assembly's proposal to have all citizens vote in a referendum on the insertion of the state goal of climate protection into the constitution. However, this proposal failed on 6 July 2021 due to the disagreement between the Senate and the National Assembly on the wording of the constitutional amendment.

Climate assembly in Germany

The federal climate assembly in Germany ran from April to June 2021. 160 randomly selected people met there and discussed possible measures to deal with the climate crisis. They were informed by experts from science, business and civil society. The participants discussed together how Germany can still achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement - taking into account social, economic and ecological aspects. The Citizens' Assemblies recommendations have been incorporated into a Citizens' Report, which was handed over to top politicians of all democratic parties represented in the Bundestag on 15 September 2021.

"We need to invent new forms of democracy, it is essential. Representative democracy has worked well: Today it is no longer capable of doing so," said French political scientist Loic Blondiaux at the launch of the French climate assembly. "Our democracies are facing a climate crisis that could jeopardise their remaining democracies." Citizens' assemblies can be a contribution to saving democracy.