Re-imagining our citizens’ climate assembly

These are extraordinary times: people keeping at least two metres from each other; schools closed; public gatherings cancelled; government putting together one of the largest economic stimulus packages in history; landlords not collecting rent; the homeless being told to stay put in hotels free of charge; and workers furloughed on full pay, in some cases.

In Brighton and Hove, we hear that pollution on our streets has halved year on year as people ditch their cars during the coronavirus pandemic. Where is the other half coming from?

Brighton & Hove City Council was set to run a citizens’ climate assembly this spring – focusing first on transport – that might have helped answer that question.

We want our assembly to recommend practical actions the city can take to become carbon neutral by 2030 – a headline-grabbing and impossible target, but a good aspirational one.

So I read with interest the article in last month’s edition of first on the success that Oxford City Council has had with its own climate assembly. Oxford’s event had three themes, taking a more holistic approach to the climate crisis: how do we use less energy (buildings, transport); how do we make more energy (transform our energy system); how do we improve environmental quality on the journey to net zero (waste, offsetting).

“It cannot be business as usual when we are allowed out of our homes again

Biodiversity was considered within each of these areas, whereas in Brighton and Hove we seem fixated on rewilding.

A key driver for our assembly is to protect our health. The council says that climate change is the greatest threat to health in the 21st century, and cites a recent study identifying air pollution from transport as a contributory cause of more than 50 deaths a year locally. But how many of us would still agree, as we sit under a lockdown initiated on account of a health pandemic?

There are calls for us to take a similar approach to the climate emergency as we have to the health emergency. It certainly cannot be business as usual when we are allowed out of our homes again.

As a result of the pandemic, the assembly has been pushed back into the autumn, meaning that the time is right to revisit the idea before we go on any further and spend more taxpayers’ money. It is an opportunity for Brighton and Hove, and any other city considering running an assembly, to step back and reconsider options.

With the overnight shift to remote meetings and digital technology, could the conventional future that the city’s leadership had imagined only a few weeks ago be changed already?

As some of us, including our school children, are seeing this conventional future merged with a digital one, perhaps we can also imagine more than 50 players (the assembly’s members) getting involved. Could we take our citizens’ assembly onto a digital platform?

A recent report by Nesta, the innovation foundation, suggested that involving citizens through dry and traditional techniques such as surveys, town hall meetings, and citizens’ assemblies could be seen as tokenistic rather than leading to real change. Nesta imagined a future beyond citizens’ assemblies involving play, immersion, sensing, creating and deliberating.

Can we? And can we be the leaders for real change? This is the challenge to all of our politicians, and to cities across the country.


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