Oxford’s citizens assembly on climate change

Labour Councillor Tom Hayes is Oxford City Council’s Deputy Leader and Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford Cabinet Member. He tweets @CllrTomHayes. This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 edition of SERA's flagship magazine, New Ground.

Even as we change it, we must live in the world. Change can’t be done to people; it must happen with, for, and by people; and just because climate action is recognised as scientifically necessary it doesn’t mean enough people will truly accept it as politically required. That realisation fuelled Oxford’s decision to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change.

Our climate problem is, fundamentally, a problem of time. Our present carries in it the entirety of our past. If today is the totality of human-created emissions, tomorrow must be the totality of our collective emissions reductions. Our ever-shrinking time horizon for meaningful action means the future really must be as near as tomorrow. Fixing what is broken will involve remaking in a very short time horizon. How do we build a shared faith that our future will be better than the present when people are feeling at their most powerless?

That Attenborough, Greta, and Extinction Rebellion have appeared should be celebrated; yet they came along when people have been feeling at their most disenfranchised. 

Councillors ride the same buses, walk the same streets, and shop in the same places as those we represent. We know first-hand how the phrase ‘Get Brexit Done’ perniciously tapped into the collective exhaustion of our communities. While our place in the world hangs in the balance and everything feels too hard, our democracy, already stretched to breaking point, now must deal with a planet that feels on fire.

At a local level, councillors are inviting the public into decision-making. There are going to have to be trade-offs in a world of austerity. Can councils spend more on climate action while ensuring nobody sleeps rough by funding homelessness services? Can we accept building fewer council homes if we make them zero carbon, and how do we explain our decision to those on our waiting lists? 

That’s not to say that progress hasn’t been made. Oxford City Council has reduced its emissions by 40 per cent over the last four years. But, the ambition to go further demands widespread buy-in and co-production by our citizens. So when Oxford was passing our climate emergency declaration, I amended it to provide for a citizens’ assembly. Our council began the work of making it the most insightful Assembly that it could be.

What did we do? We formed an advisory group of experts, campaigning groups including Extinction Rebellion, community representatives, and elected councillors from mainstream political parties. Excellently chaired by Oxford’s Leader, Susan Brown, the advisory group designed the assembly and crucially, resolved a tension that had emerged.

Should the assembly focus on recommending the trade-offs that an underfunded council should make or should it use this historic opportunity to reimagine Oxford by focusing on the social and economic ‘co-benefits’ of taking climate action? The advisory group determined it would be  the latter, so we developed it to provide members with the chance to cultivate a love of place and people in it. 

We discovered that the assembly’s debate about climate action could be a way to learn about the values which underpin our society, and update and inhabit them, cultivate a new sense of belonging, and nurture a new patriotism for Oxford. 

We held two busy weekends of discussion and deliberation to answer the specific question agreed by the advisory group: ‘The UK Government has legislation to reach “net zero” by 2050. Should Oxford be more proactive and seek to achieve ’net zero’ sooner than 2050 and what trade-offs are we prepared to make?’ 

We presumed that 2050 was everyone’s new ‘business as usual’ position. But, precisely because we recognised the risks involved in waiting for Government to act, including 2050 turning out to be late and national decision-makers taking terrible decisions in the rush for the deadline, we sought to find out how much more proactive the council should be than this new business as usual position. 

We followed guidelines set by Involve and the Government’s Innovation in Democracy Programme, with Ipsos Mori recruiting 50 residents, broadly reflective of the profile of the city’s residents. There was no option to directly apply to be a member of the assembly, although many wanted to. The assembly was designed to provide unique insights into all groups in our city, not just the loudest voices on green issues. As the city’s leading representative, democratic institution, the council reserved the final say on acting on the recommendations. 

In the first weekend, we had presentations for members to question experts and build understanding of the five themes that make up Oxford’s particular contribution to the global climate crisis, in line with a report commissioned on baseline emissions. The themes were buildings (responsible for 81 per cent of the city’s emissions), transportation (17 per cent), waste management, biodiversity and offsetting, and renewable energy. Breaking the climate crisis down by theme, then further into bite-size chunks, helped the assembly to feel less daunted.

In the second weekend, members engaged in more deliberation, and voted on a set of ambition levels for each theme - low, medium, and high with each including a mix of co-benefits and trade-offs that were unique to that theme. Many members found it hard to choose, but facilitation helped draw decisions out. Assembly members were also asked to vote on certain statements to help guide the council’s ambition.

When it came to waste management, members believed that it wasn’t just about reducing, reusing, and recycling waste mattered, there should also be an onus on producers with 71 per cent believing they should have most responsibility for dealing with waste with 16 per cent consumers and 11 per cent councils.

When it came to buildings, as one member said: ‘It seems a bit ridiculous with the new builds, in the near future you will have to go back and retrofit again, so it seems absurd that you wouldn’t start there.’ All members agreed that the Government should introduce a new national policy to require that new homes are built to net zero standards.

On transport, the view was  to encourage behaviour change and modal shift away from private car use, a unified strategy among councils and public transport providers, and greater incentives for public transport use, particularly for vulnerable groups. Should the Government bring forward the ban on the sale of new polluting cars and vans from 2040 to 2030 - 83 per cent of members said they should. Sadly, the Government has gone against this by recently announcing just five years would be shaved off.

Regarding biodiversity and offsetting, the assembly wanted more green space and tree planting, viewing as an ‘easy win’ and galvanising community action. There were tensions between land for green spaces or building new homes with 66 per cent wanting to prioritise planting more  trees in public spaces, while 34 per cent wanting to work with neighbouring councils to secure land outside the city for large-scale tree planting.

When it came to renewable energy, there was surprise at how much Oxford is already doing with the council’s setting up and funding the social enterprise Low Carbon Hub to install more community owned renewable energy capacity across the county. It was believed that there was too much emphasis on the individual to take the initiative (an issue across themes) and that local and national government should help households to make the transition. It was also believed that neutralising climate change was more important than the aesthetics of, say, installing solar panels on Oxford’s historic buildings.

On the main question, 90 per cent wanted Oxford to reach net zero sooner than 2050 and be a leader in tackling the climate crisis  while a majority voted for all of the most ambitious scenarios. Members wanted enhanced flora and fauna in the centre; more cycling, walking, public transport, and far fewer cars; improved building standards, widespread retrofitting, with more domestic and non-domestic energy met by sustainable sources. 

However, a consistent one in three rejected the most ambitious visions. The assembly showed that the airing of differences gets you somewhere new and better by shaping and swaying opinion. Given the point was for people to encounter views they disagreed with without vilifying them, the assembly succeeded.

Our assembly showed that people are central to recognising the climate’s plight and to consider the question what must I do to protect my loved ones now that I know what lies ahead?

Many members have now taken on leadership roles within their neighbourhoods and city. To create a net zero city, you need net zero citizens in every place, indeed every conceivable association of people. Heroes like Attenborough and Thunberg are great to get the movement going, but it’s a network of zero carbon citizens and champions that will help us avert catastrophe. 

Observing every hour of the citizens’ assembly, I felt inspired. Carrying that inspiration into decision-making has been easy. With our new £19m 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 of our council stock and homes.

As a progressive party, we believe that societies are capable of being made better, kinder and fairer. So, the climate challenge becomes how can our response restore that sense of community essential to happy lives? Oxford’s citizens’ assembly has shown the ways that we can establish new communities of common feeling and the sense of belonging to each other and places that we care about. Our response to the climate crisis will hopefully help cultivate that belonging and address the local character of our climate crisis. Our goal isn’t just to address climate change, it’s to go on strengthening community-led change, prompted by our new type of democratic discussion.

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  • john Eli
    commented 2021-08-31 12:05:12 +0100
  • john Eli
    commented 2021-08-31 12:04:57 +0100
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