Climate assemblies: will the results live up to expectations? Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images Climate assemblies: will the results live up to expectations? Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The trouble with climate assemblies

‘Climate assemblies’ have sprung up across Europe to recommend policies for governments keen to bring extra credibility to their climate change agenda. But in France, many have become disillusioned with the process. Can they be more than democratic window dressing?

France’s citizens’ climate convention was meant to appease the ‘yellow vest’ movement, born as a revolt against carbon taxes that would hit the country’s car-dependent workers and middle class. It ended up being a disappointment for the climate movement, at least as regards its legislative follow-up.

Launched two years ago, the idea of the convention was to randomly select 150 citizens from all social and economic backgrounds, regions and ages, inform them about climate science and ask them to formulate policy proposals to reach the country’s target of  cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. A group of lawyers would translate the proposals into legislative proposals, and president Emmanuel Macron promised that their ideas would be taken up “without filter”.

Citizens came up with 149 proposals, from ending domestic flight routes if passengers can make the same journey by train within four hours, banning adverts for polluting products, requiring property owners to make their flats and buildings more energy efficient while providing them with financial support, banning the most polluting cars by 2025 and reducing speed limits on motorways.

However, the French government’s climate and resilience bill – which is meant to build on the convention’s proposals – does not seem to live up to expectations. The draft text aims to tighten emissions limits for cars and ban new fossil fuel models from 2030, create low-emissions zones in all urban areas, and ask airlines to offset emissions. But it dilutes some of the citizens’ proposals, for example proposing a ban on flights only when train links of 2.5 hours are available. Others, such as the creation of the ecocide crime or the reduction of speed limits, were left out altogether.

Impact assessments estimate that the law will fall short of delivering the 40% emissions reductions, an already outdated target given the EU plans to deepen cuts to 55%, green groups have warned. The government said further measures can be included in other laws, but in an open letter to Macron and MPs, 110 civil society organisations expressed their dismay and called for more “ambition”.

Similar participatory processes have been launched in the UK, where parliament invited a climate assembly to discuss how the country can achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In Germany, citizens’ assemblies are currently debating the country’s ‘role in the world’, a topic that may include climate elements.

What can we learn from France’s experience? Neil Makaroff, European policy officer at Climate Action Network France, tells ENDS that the citizens’ convention has been an “unprecedented democratic exercise” aiming at “initiating a new consensus on climate policies”. As NGOs, he says, “we found it quite remarkable compared to normal consultation processes. We were extremely positively surprised by the results”.

However, he adds, the disappointment came with the climate law given the many recommendations left aside. “In our opinion, president Macron plays with fire for two reasons. Not implementing the proposals of the citizens’ assembly puts at risk our current climate target” and “creates distrust and a huge disappointment in new forms of democracy”, he warns.

Chloé Gerbier, legal coordinator at Notre Affaire à Tous, an organisation working on climate justice, agrees that the convention has been a “successful exercise” and “up to the task”, especially considering the context of the pandemic. However, the watered-down climate law “risks a loss of confidence in democratic institutions”.

Even more critical is Arnaud Schwartz, president of France Nature Environnement, the French federation of environmental groups. He tells ENDS that the convention has “not worked at all”.

Schwartz questions the idea of randomly choosing citizens who can be exposed to “lobby manipulation” and be “disappointed by the results”, while the work is already done by specialist NGOs working on these themes at the European level. “A lot of time and efforts were spent to come up with proposals very similar to what NGOs have been advocating for years,” he says.

Meanwhile this week, the French National Assembly started discussing a referendum to include environmental protection and the fight to climate change in the constitution, one of the ideas emerged from the citizens’ convention.

Italy is discussing a similar constitutional change, which is supported by new Prime Minister and former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.

But as the citizens’ assemblies show, turning intentions into actions is the most difficult part of the job. Even before new laws and constitutional changes are passed, EU governments have the chance to put these principles in practice as they prepare national plans to receive billions of euros from the EU recovery fund, which became operational this week.

Follow-up: Open letter from NGOs to French President Emmanuel Macron on the climate and resilience law

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