By Henry Owen, CAG Oxfordshire Project Manager
Oxford has an exciting experiment in citizen participation in shaping local policy around climate change running right now – it’s called a citizens assembly. The Oxford City Council’s website says:
A citizens assembly is a group of people who are brought together to discuss an issue or issues, and reach a conclusion about what they think should happen. The people who take part are chosen so they reflect the wider population – in terms of demographics (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, social class) and sometimes relevant attitudes (e.g. preferences for a small or large state).
Citizens assemblies give members of the public the time and opportunity to learn about and discuss a topic, before reaching conclusions. Assembly Members are asked to make trade-offs and arrive at workable recommendations.
This particular citizens assembly is being asked to consider the following questions:
How do we use less energy?
Buildings – how do we ensure our buildings are fit for the future?
Transport – how do we develop a sustainable zero-carbon transport system?
How do we make more energy?
How do we transform our energy system to ensure it comes from renewable sources?
How do we improve environmental quality on the journey to net zero?
Waste – How do we reduce our waste to deliver net zero?
Offsetting – How could Oxford offset the emissions it can’t reduce?
The first weekend of the process just happened and involved input on each theme from a range of ‘experts’ and some initial discussion and deliberation by the assembly members.
I had the pleasure of appearing on the Waste Reduction panel for the citizens assembly in Oxford on Saturday, alongside Trewin Restorick from Hubbub, and Maria Warner from Oxford Direct Services. You can watch the panel’s opening contributions here from about 5 minutes in, and I speak at 20 mins into the video.
I gave some examples of community action on waste reduction from the CAG Network, focusing on community fridges (e.g. Botley, Blackbird Leys), libraries of things (Share Oxford), and repair cafes (all over!). The most difficult thing was choosing what to speak about, as I only had 3 minutes! I highlighted that we need to consume less and differently to tackle the climate crisis, and reduce waste. That can’t all be achieved at the city level, but locally we can support projects that are making a practical difference and reducing waste now, but also helping shift our throw-away culture.
More broadly I was keen to stress that tackling the climate emergency should not be an exercise in making ‘trade-offs’ and difficult decisions, as many of the materials provided to participants framed it. But that there can be massive ‘co-benefits’ of taking action of climate change – i.e. by tackling the climate breakdown we can live better, healthier, fairer lives.
For me, when we get it right, climate action is the stuff we should be doing anyway to improve our communities, even if there was no climate emergency. More than that – because of the challenges we face, we have a historic opportunity to re-imagine how society functions, so it works better for us all.
So what happens next? The citizens assembly will be meeting again in a couple of weeks, and the organisers say the second weekend will involve participants’ discussion and deliberation of each subject area and the introduction of specific questions around particular trade-offs (again, City Council’s choice of approach there). A report of their ‘findings’ should come out towards the end of this year!
You can watch videos from all the sessions at the citizens assembly here. Other themes covered during the assembly are buildings, transport, renewable energy, biodiversity & offsetting. Read more about it here.