20 Jun 2019
This article is more than 1 month old
MPs launch assembly plan but environmental activists say its conclusions must be binding
Extinction Rebellion activists temporarily blocking the A23 at Lewisham station in London last week. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Getty Images
A citizens’ assembly on the climate emergency will take place this autumn to explore the fastest and fairest ways to end the UK’s carbon emissions.
Six House of Commons select committees announced the assembly on Thursday. It is the second of the three demands made by the Extinction Rebellion protest group to be addressed.
However, the group have criticised the initiative as it wants the assembly’s decisions to be binding, not advisory. Parliament declared a climate emergency in May, but the third Extinction Rebellion demand – action to cut emissions to net zero by 2025 – has not been met.
Theresa May followed official advice and set 2050 as the date for the end of greenhouse gas emissions earlier in June, making the UK the first major economy to do so.
A citizens’ assembly is a representative group of members of the public who come together to learn about and debate issues, and come to conclusions on the best solutions. Parliament has had such assemblies before, for example to assess social care. The climate assembly will take place over a series of weekends in the autumn but the people and locations are yet to be determined.
“This isn’t a challenge for just one parliament, one political party, or one generation; to achieve net zero by 2050 we need to build cross-party and cross-generational support for the actions needed to deliver it,” said Rachel Reeves MP, chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) committee.
She said there needed to be both strong government action and buy-in from the public for the environmental, health and employment benefits that achieving zero emissions could bring to be realised. “I hope the citizens’ assembly will demonstrate that, when all is considered, there is strong public support – even demand – for the government to take the action necessary,” she said.
Greg Clark MP, the secretary of state responsible for climate action, welcomed the citizens’ assembly. “Initiatives to engage the public will be vitally important to appreciating the challenges of getting to net zero and giving people a say in shaping the future policies to achieve the target,” he said.
But Roger Hallam, from Extinction Rebellion, said: “We have a citizens’ assembly that will give recommendations. Everyone knows what that means, which is it will come out with some ideas and get ignored, like people have been ignored for the last 30 years.”
“If you are going to do a citizens’ assembly it has to have teeth and be legally binding,” he said. “We are facing a dire existential emergency. It’s what the UN is saying, what scientists are saying – the only people who haven’t taken it on board are politicians around the world.”
Cutting emissions to zero will require the further introduction of renewable energy and electric cars, the end of gas heating and cooking in homes, restrained flying and meat-eating and the planting of 1.5bn trees to absorb any remaining carbon dioxide. But measures such as a diesel tax in France have been seen as unfair.
Extinction Rebellion mounted large-scale protests in April and young people inspired by the teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg have put further pressure on politicians to act rapidly. The government has already announced that young people will advise ministers on how the UK should meet the net zero target. Extinction Rebellion is also protesting in the Scottish parliament on Thursday to demand a citizens’ assembly.
Areeba Hamid, at Greenpeace UK, said: “The citizens’ assembly shows our politicians are starting to take this major existential threat a bit more seriously, but for it to work, it needs to be more than just a glorified public consultation. Will ministers be forced to take its conclusions into account or will they be able to brush them aside as they have done with countless consultations before? The solutions to tackle the climate emergency have been around for decades – what’s been lacking is the political will to make it happen.”
The House of Commons select committees organising the citizens assembly are BEIS, environmental audit, housing, communities and local government, science and technology, transport and treasury.