With the help of randomly selected citizens, the city of Bonn wants to reach the aim of net-zero emissions by 2035. Steffen Krenzer observed the process of the Bonn Climate Forum. Here is his report.
In 2019, the Bonn City Council had already decided that the federal city should reach net-zero emissions by 2035 at the latest. This decision was preceded by the fact that FridaysForFuture and other climate groups had made the issue of climate protection visible in political discussions through their demonstrations and had applied for the declaration of a climate emergency in 2019. Some time later, the SPD motion on the new climate target was approved by almost all factions in the city council.
Net-zero emissions cannot be decreed
The members of the Transition Town Initiative Bonn im Wandel e.V. had welcomed this goal, which was very ambitious by German standards. At the same time, it was clear to them that net-zero emissions cannot be decreed. It needs citizen participation, cooperation and good interaction between all actors, ideas and a well thought-out climate plan.
In cooperation with the city administration and local politicians, but also with the support of more than 70 initiatives and organisations, they therefore launched Bonn4Future, a large-scale process in which open participation also plays an important role.
Four climate forums
On 10 September 2022, the fourth and, for the time being, last Climate Forum came to a close. The citizens' action plan for a liveable and net-zero Bonn was handed over to Lord Mayor Katja Dörner. Exactly one year earlier, the process had started with the 1st Climate Forum, which dealt with images of the future.
80 randomly selected and 50 invited participants from business, administration and civil society jointly developed a positive vision for a liveable and net-zero Bonn of the future. The visually appealing images of the future, which were captured using the "graphic recording" method, served as orientation for two further forums that took place at the same time in June 2022.
Climate Action Plan
The focus of these forums was on how net-zero housing and climate-neutral mobility can be achieved. Finally, Climate Forum 4 dealt with the development of the Climate Action Plan, which contains a concrete plan including milestones and first important steps in seven thematic fields.
The topics are both areas with high carbon savings potential, e.g. "transport", and those that are important for a social transformation, such as "awakening and cultural change". The design of the overall process was based on transformation theories and formats from urban development (backcasting): It started with the vision, from which (backward) planning was undertaken. As is usual in citizens' assemblies, the participants were supported by experts in the field as well as by professional facilitators.
Special features of the process
Compared to other, meanwhile numerous, examples of sortition-based, deliberative processes on the topic of climate protection, Bonn4Future has some special features. These are interesting, especially for the discussion on how climate assemblies can be designed in the future to contribute as much as possible to climate protection.
Randomly selected and invited participants discussed together. This served primarily to include the experiences and perspectives of actors from institutions, initiatives and organisations, but also to facilitate the transfer of the results into civil society and thus their implementation.
"Everyone" is addressed
In the climate forums, recommendations were not only formulated for the city council, as is usually the case, but instead "everyone" was addressed: The city of Bonn, the citizenry, businesses, media professionals, the federal government and the state. In addition, projects and ideas were also developed whose implementation can be driven forward by citizens. This is based on the understanding that not only politicians are responsible for the change towards net-zero, but ultimately all citizens of Bonn. The first project ideas from the 2nd and 3rd Climate Forum have already been tackled.
The design of the process was developed in a consultative process with experts and interest groups and originates from Bonn im Wandel e.V. The implementation is also mainly in the hands of the association. It is carried out in close cooperation with the city, which has contractually committed itself to certain cooperation services. This includes, for example, the random selection of participants and the provision of expert knowledge by public offices.
High funding amount
The city had provided an unprecedented amount of money for the participation project, from which about three positions could be financed for two and a half years. Of the total funding amount (719,000 euros), further measures are financed in addition to the four climate forums, for example the establishment of a local sustainability platform.
Without the support of volunteers and many overtime hours or unpaid contributions from Bonn in Transition, the project would not have been possible, but the model of the city financing project positions for a participatory process may be interesting for other cities.
Enthusiasm flows into process organisation
The big advantage is that the work of the initiators is at least partially financially appreciated and at the same time the great motivation and enthusiasm of the initiators can flow into the process organisation - an effect that is usually not achieved when the organisation is taken over by the administration or service providers.
The fact that local politics, above all Lord Mayor Katja Dörner, appreciates the process has contributed significantly to the good functioning of the project so far. The relationship between Bonn im Wandel e.V. and the city of Bonn is not a client-contractor relationship. Civil society and the city work together according to the concept of action learning: after each climate forum, reflection workshops take place and central decisions are made jointly.
This is not a matter of course, because the project had already been decided on before the last municipal elections and in the meantime a different majority determines council policy. The apparent cross-party support for the project is very welcome.
The active participation of employees of the administration in the process, for example in the preparation of information, was striking. At the last forum in particular, more than 40 people from the administration were present as observers, input providers or participants in discussions and were thus able to experience the process directly and help shape it.
Parallel to the participation programme, the City of Bonn has commissioned a consortium to produce a plan that will shed light on the path to net-zero from a scientific perspective. Even if the dovetailing of climate forums and the scientific report did not function optimally, the basic procedure of mutually complementing scientific plans and plans for climate protection topics drawn up in participation programmes certainly makes sense.
For many citizens' assemblies, the question arises as to who bears the responsibility after the last meeting for "keeping up", making the results known and implementing them. Formally, the responsibility lies with the addressees. However, it has been shown that citizens' reports easily get lost in the daily routine of politics and administration, even if there is interest in principle.
The Bonn model - an initiative directly involved in the organisation, the inclusion of non-loose participants from the urban society and the strong participation of the administration - seem promising and give hope that many of the results will receive attention and be implemented.
Bonn4Future is a pioneering project, not only for Bonn but also for other municipalities. Gesa Maschkowski, who developed the Bonn4Future process, emphasises: "No one knows how we are going to manage the huge changes towards climate neutrality - and that is why we are here trying to find solutions together. We are not 100 per cent perfect and we can fail. But we can already start today to deal better with each other and with this earth."
Keeping track of the many threads of the overall process, actors involved and issues addressed is a mammoth task, with always room for improvement: For example, public awareness for the process is still relatively low - which also has to do with low resources for public relations.
Participants also seemed overwhelmed in some places with the multitude of possible types of results. Also, as is always the case with such processes, there was not enough time to cover everything that would have been interesting. Nevertheless, the organisers and participants were extremely satisfied with what had been achieved so far. Now it is time to put the encouraging project ideas and recommendations for climate action in Bonn into practice.
In spring 2023, the city administration, in cooperation with Bonn im Wandel, will present a draft with recommendations on how to proceed to the city council. The results of the Bonn4Future climate forums will be discussed with the respective departments of the administration. Some suggestions have already been included in the city's climate plan.
About the author: Steffen Krenzer works for Mehr Demokratie on the topics of citizens' assemblies and "climate protection and democracy", among others, and was able to observe the process at Bonn4Future from close quarters as a participating expert.