Just because climate action is recognised as scientifically necessary, it doesn’t mean everyone will accept it as politically necessary.
This realisation – that change in a democracy must be community-led – fuelled Oxford’s decision to launch a new type of discussion, by holding the first citizens’ assembly on climate change by a UK city.
Our challenge was: should the assembly recommend trade-offs to an underfunded council or should it use this historic opportunity to reimagine Oxford by highlighting the ‘co-benefits’ that arise from climate action?
For instance, can councils spend more on climate action while ensuring nobody has to sleep rough by funding homelessness services? Or should a council be smarter by holding a new type of discussion that identifies how to spend money effectively on climate change to achieve other social and economic policy goals?
In the end, the answer was clear. It wasn’t just smarter to prioritise a co-benefits approach, it was the best way to support citizens to cultivate a love of place and the people in it. We discovered that the assembly’s focus on climate action would yield insights into the values underpinning society, enabling us to update and ‘live’ them, and nurture a new patriotism for the city of Oxford.
What did we do? We held two weekends at the Said Business School of the University of Oxford to answer this ‘exam’ question: should Oxford be more proactive and seek to achieve ’net zero’ sooner than 2050, and what trade-offs are we prepared to make?
We followed guidelines set by the public participation charity Involve and the Government’s Innovation in Democracy Programme, with Ipsos Mori recruiting 50 residents, reflective of the profile of the city’s population. There was no option to apply to be a member, although many wanted to.
The assembly was designed to provide insights into what all groups in our city value, not just the loudest voices. As the city’s representative and democratic body, we reserved the final say over whether to act on the recommendations.
Over the first weekend, we facilitated members to question experts and raise their understanding of the five emission sources that make up Oxford’s contribution to the climate crisis. These are buildings (responsible for 81 per cent of Oxford’s emissions, according to our data); transportation (17 per cent); waste management; biodiversity and offsetting; and renewable energy.
During the second weekend, members deliberated and voted on ambition levels (low, medium and high) for each of these themes, as well as other statements and the overall exam question, to help guide the council’s ambition.
For example, when it came to waste management, assembly members believed that it wasn’t just about reducing, reusing, and recycling – 71 per cent believed producers should mostly deal with waste.
All members agreed that the Government should introduce a new national policy to require that new homes are built to net zero standards.
Members prioritised behaviour change encouraging a shift away from car use, a unified strategy for councils and transport providers, and incentivisation of public transport use. They wanted green space and tree planting, seeing this as an ‘easy win’ to galvanise community action. But there were tensions between setting land aside for green spaces and for building houses.
There was surprise at the council’s progress so far on renewable energy (we set up and funded the social enterprise Low Carbon Hub to develop community-owned renewable energy projects). Assembly members believed that too much emphasis fell on the individual to take the initiative (a recurrent issue across the themes) and that households need help to transition.
And the aesthetics of, say, installing solar panels on Oxford’s historic buildings mattered less than just generating renewable energy.
When it came to the main exam question and ambition levels for each theme, the results were clear: 90 per cent wanted Oxford to reach net zero sooner than 2050 and be a leader in tackling the climate crisis.
Members wanted (and had considered the barriers to) enhanced flora and fauna in the centre; more cycling, walking and public transport, and fewer cars; and better building standards, widespread retrofitting, and sustainable sources for meeting domestic and non-domestic energy needs. A clear majority voted for all the most ambitious visions of a future Oxford across all five themes.
Observing every hour of the citizens’ assembly, I felt inspired. Carrying that inspiration into decision-making has been easy. With our new £19 million climate emergency fund, my council will be net zero carbon by the end of this year.
We’re going further and faster on our zero emission zone to restrict polluting vehicle use, encouraging renewable energy growth, enhancing biodiversity, and preparing for an enormous programme of retrofitting our council stock and homes.
The assembly forced members to face a question that confronts everyone once they learn about the crisis of climate change: what must I do to protect my loved ones now that I know what lies ahead? Members have taken up that challenge by adopting leadership roles. Heroes like Attenborough and Thunberg get the movement going, but it’s zero carbon citizens that build a net zero carbon city.