In all likelihood, the city of Amsterdam will not achieve its climate protection goals. However, in order to avoid disputes about the additional climate protection measures that will be necessary as a result, the municipality is playing ball with the residents. In November 2021 an experiment will take place in which a group of randomly selected Amsterdammers, who together form a cross-section of the population, will work out solutions in a citizens' assembly.
The Citizens' Assembly is supposed to solve a problem that city councillor Marieke van Doorninck had already warned about: by 2030, the city council wants to achieve a 55 percent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 1990. According to the latest calculations, however, Amsterdam will only achieve a 37 percent reduction. And for 2025, the situation is even more dramatic: the interim target was to emit five percent less than in 1990, but it looks like the city will actually emit three percent more.
"Making full use of citizens' ideas"
After the summer, a group of 100 randomly selected Amsterdammers will be invited by the city council to think about how the city can reach this target. Councillor Marieke van Doorninck wrote in a letter to the city council that she wants to "make full use" of the power and ideas of Amsterdam's citizens. For the first time, a democracy tool is being used whereby residents themselves create the framework, rather than elected representatives. When composing the citizens' assembly, the criteria of age, gender, ethnicity and level of education are taken into account in such a way that the assembly is a reflection of the population.
"In politics there is competition that can get in the way of good solutions," says Niesco Dubbelboer of the Meer Democratie initiative. "Politicians sometimes can't jump over their shadows, citizens are much more able to do that." This can also give the rest of the city the feeling that politics is not only made by politicians, he adds. "Issues that have been sensibly decided in a citizens' assembly no longer feel like a top-down discussion," says Dubbelboer.
The right procedure
Jelmer Mommers of the Bureau Burgerberaad researches the procedures of deliberative democracy. He warns that simply bringing people together is not enough. "Everything depends on how you organise it". Some conditions: a heterogeneous group of about 100-150 people of different ages and educational levels, a central question that is neither too narrow nor too broad, and expert support during the process. And both Mommers and Dubbelboer warn: the council and the participants need to agree in advance and make it clear what they will do with the results of the citizens' consultation. "The question is whether the politicians dare to implement the result," Dubbelboer says.
Deliberative democracy in the climate debate was recently tested in France. President Emmanuel Macron had invited a group of 150 citizens to a citizens' assembly over seven weekends to reflect on how to effectively reduce the country's carbon emissions. With the advice of experts, the participants came up with 149 recommendations.
"These were good proposals. A ban on short-haul flights, for example. Politicians here don't dare to do that. Or a ban on advertising for fossil fuels," explains Mommers. However, only about ten percent of the recommendations were implemented. "The rest were watered down or rejected," Mommers regrets. Charles Girard, professor of legal philosophy, blames this on, among other things, ambiguities about the role of the citizens' assembly and a lack of legal framework. Municipal climate assemblies, of which there were quite a few in the UK, for example, were usually more popular with their recommendations. They were often adopted 1:1 by the local councils.
According to Mommers, many citizens are in agreement at the core. People all want clean water, clean air and no weather extremes. These principles are the basis for the "cooperation project" of the citizens' assembly, in which tough measures can be taken that could be politically sensitive. "Often proposals come out of this that go further than we thought politically possible. This is a very effective way to counter polarisation."
Reint Jan Renes is a lecturer in psychology for a sustainable city. Together with the city administration, he is thinking about what Amsterdam's citizens' assembly should look like. He also sees increasing polarisation, for example in the discussion about wind turbines. Renes has long argued that the climate crisis should be tackled "together with the people". "A citizens' assembly should not only find support among Amsterdam citizens, but also among administrative staff and politicians. I am curious to see if they will succeed in taking control out of their hands."
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