Sunday, 13 September 2020

The Climate Assembly - values and attitudes

The final report from the Climate Assembly was published this week. 108 members listened to 60 expert speakers over six weekends, deciding how we in the UK can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. This is a huge challenge. It will affect our economy, our transport and energy infrastructure, our diets and our homes and involves co-operation between government, business and individuals. There have been many reports on the findings from different angles. I am particularly interested in how the assembly has allocated responsibility and the values and attitudes their decisions reveal. My themes include fairness, personal responsibility, trust and the role of technology.

Extinction Rebellion included having a citizens assembly as their third demand in combating climate change. However they did not approve of this one because the findings are not binding and the target date for zero carbon was not in the scope of the discussion. However, the assembly we had is still a huge step forward in democracy. The members were carefully chosen to be representative by age, ethnicity, education level, region and level of concern about climate change. They were required to listen to the evidence, question the witnesses, discuss amongst themselves and vote on decisions, very much like jury service. By all accounts they took this responsibility very seriously. 

I think we can safely assume that the views of the members are close to the views that we (as in the UK population in general) would think given information and time to think about the issues. However my references to 'we' do not always include 'I'. Text in blue is my commentary, not from the report.

Fairness, including for the most vulnerable

The members voted for overarching principles as well as specific policies - fairness is one of the most widely supported, although there are nuances as to what this means. For example, we prefer a frequent flyer tax, increasing with number of flights and distance travelled (80% support) to a flat carbon tax on flying. “It is fairer. Those who pollute more, pay more of it. Doesn’t disproportionately affect low income people.”

In some areas it was hard to find agreement as to what is the most fair approach. For example for decarbonising home energy (such as retrofitting homes to be more efficient or installing zero carbon heating systems) there was agreement on the need for financial support for households but not on where this should come from. There was a slight preference for support for everyone (53%) versus poorer household only (47%) and for a levy on electricity bills (53%) versus general taxation(47%). Energy bills were favoured because everyone pays for the energy they use. However this method penalises people with fully electric homes. Raising income tax is rarely popular, and some people said it is unfair because tax is avoided by high earners who employ accountants. However, others think that taxation is fairer as it helps low earners and generally people with bigger houses will pay more tax too. 

Forcing the pace of change through regulations and tax

Only a minority of members voted for urgency as an overriding principle, but they clearly did recognise the need to enforce change at a rapid rate with regulations or taxes. 

Regulations include:

  • Ban sales of new petrol, diesel, and hybrid cars by 2030-2035 (86% support)
  • Ban sales of new gas boilers by 2030-2035 (86%)
  • Improve standards for energy efficiency of products in the home (91%)

    Tax and incentives

    • Pay farmers for carbon storage such as planting woodland or restoring peatland (87%)
    • Making farm payments conditional on low carbon practices or protecting biodiversity (89%)
    • Frequent flyer tax as mentioned above (80%)
    • Taxes on producers for carbon in products and services: higher taxes for high carbon products and lower taxes for green products (83%)
    • Reduced VAT for installing energy efficiency and and low carbon heating in homes (83%)
    • Deposit return schemes to encourage more recycling (86%)

    Personal choice and freedom, tempered by personal responsibility

    Notwithstanding the above, members are generally against regulations that restrict personal choice, especially when it comes to travel, either on air or on land. They foresee increasing air travel, though not as rapidly increasing as it is now and are reluctant to decrease travel on land too. They are concerned that this will reduce our quality of life: Some assembly members said this option “may increase isolation and loneliness”, worried about the “impact of increased costs on rural and disabled communities” or said it would lead to “reduced mobility, poorer life aspirations [and a] poorer standard of life.” Others talked about the “social impact on mental health” or noted that “travel has mental health and psychology benefits.” Some labelled the scenario “oppressive”, suggesting that “the impact of road closures would affect people disproportionately.” 

    There is little support for policies such as discouraging car use by having fewer car parking spaces or reducing the speed limit on dual carriageways and motorways.

    Similarly there is limited support for a future where we buy less stuff and more second hand stuff, or where there are bans or restrictions on high carbon foods such as red meat or food imported by air. However some change in behaviour is acceptable. There is strong support for changing our diets to reduce GHG emissions including eating 20% - 40% less meat and dairy products (75% support - but it must be voluntary) and reducing food waste. Also there is an appetite for more recycling. Deposit return schemes got 86% support, more doorstep recycling 85% and helping businesses to increase recycling got 77% support, especially for recycling old items into new.

    On the other hand, there is some support for restricting choice in some areas. Members believe it is sensible to have different solutions for home heating in different parts of the country, according to local resources and requirement (68%). “People should have the right to choose but [no choice] is understandable if there’s no other option e.g. rural areas” 


    Personal choices need to be well informed. The members want labelling and information on carbon emissions from different products and services (92%) and for food products (86%). This is going to be a massive challenge to deliver, but it would be a game changer for the industry if it can be done. No company wants their product to be seen to less green than the competition. This article in The Grocer suggests it is far more practical now than it was a few years ago.

    Improved public services

    We want cheaper public transport (83%) with new routes and higher frequency (86%). However there is only 66% support for investment to make buses faster and more reliable, such as increased bus lanes or provision of improved interchange stations. We do want more local services (post offices, health centres, shops, schools etc) to reduce the need to travel (72%).

    Technology providing solutions.

    Support for technology based solutions varied between sectors. 

    Technology good:

    • in the aviation sector - accelerated development of electric planes and alternative fuels, as long as safety is not compromised (53%)
    • in the car sector - support for fast action to ban sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2030 (49%) is much preferred to futures with less travel in general (17%) 
    • wind and solar for generating electricity (around 80% agreement for each) - however offshore wind is much preferred to onshore: in the voting by preference offshore wind got 65% while onshore wind got only 7%. Fortunately the difference in cost between offshore wind and onshore wind is decreasing rapidly. Estimates for costs in 2025 indicate offshore wind is only 25% more expensive, according to Carbon Brief.

    Technology bad:

    • a strong preference for natural methods for greenhouse gas removals with over 80% each for more forests, managing peatlands and using wood in construction, while capturing carbon, either directly from the air or from bioenergy power stations, and then storing it have only about 40% support. Part of this is out of concern that carbon storage systems might leak, but also concern that this only a short term solution. I think significant leakage is unlikely and although I agree it is only a short term solution I fear we will need it for a while.
    • bioenergy (without carbon capture) gets limited support (40%), because of concerns that it is environmentally damaging, encourages too much use of fertiliser, is bad for biodiversity and uses too much land
    • nuclear power has even less support (34%), because of high cost concerns and because it takes too long to build, as well as concerns over safety: there have been “too many disaster stories, and they are massive disasters.” 

    In the home energy sector there were three technologies considered: hydrogen boilers, heat pumps and district heating but no obvious best choice. District heating is not suitable for all homes and there was similar support for the other two: 80% for heat pumps and 83% for hydrogen although heat pumps had more strong support (34%) compared to hydrogen (20%). The arguments against hydrogen include that the technology is not ready and that it will be expensive. Also if it is made from natural gas then we need even more fossil fuel and we still have to deal with storing the CO2.  The arguments against heat pumps include that installation is disruptive, that many homes will need to be insulated first, that they take up space, are ugly and noisy. However heat pumps have the advantages that they are very efficient, they have no emissions in the home (only at the power station depending on power source) and the technology is available now.

    Trust in government rather than business

    By and large we trust governments more than business. We want government information and support (either local or national) for home retrofit rather than from private companies. 78% approve of information from government and 83% want the service to be funded by government compared to 37% support for information and funding from the private sector. There is wide concern that “companies may not have your best interest as a priority (profits first)” or that they could “potentially offer more profitable choices, instead of lower carbon choices.”

    There is limited support for relying on voluntary agreements for producers and retailers to reduce carbon emissions (44%). Instead there is widespread support for resource and efficiency targets and standards (91%) and for regulations to ensure that products are designed for durability, with minimum requirements for how long they should last (83%).

    There was also quite strong support for nationalisation of public transport (75%). Some members are against nationalisation on principle and others regard it as too costly to implement and not value for money. However the majority like the idea because of better integration, less profit focus and a proven track record in other countries.

    As an overriding principle, we look to government for leadership. However we want this to be clear, proactive, accountable and consistent, with cross party support.

    A balanced approach

    There are no real surprises here. We want regulations to enforce change and support to enable it. However, we are very protective of our right to personal choice, especially with regard to travel. 

    We are reluctant to trust corporations either to lead change or to provide solutions for households. We prefer to trust government, but we want transparency and accountability. We want regulations to make businesses more transparent too, such as carbon labelling on food and carbon taxes on products that require carbon accounts.

    In some areas we prefer natural approaches, especially for greenhouse gas removal and we want farming practices to protect biodiversity as well as reduce emissions and indeed store carbon. However we are eager for technical solutions to certain challenges in particular air travel and possibly less disruptive methods for low carbon heating. 

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