Inspired by the successful example of a citizens’ debate over abortion in Ireland, which led to a nationwide referendum in 2018, the Citizen’s Convention represents a unique experiment in grassroots democratic decision-making about the climate emergency. Giving a direct voice to ordinary people, aged 16-80, and asking them to take responsibility for articulating new policy measures is a first in France, and also runs contrary to its institutional tradition. But it proved to be incredibly rich and eye-opening for most participants. As stated in their final report:
We have lived together, during nine months, an unprecedented and intense human experience, that led us to become conscious of the imperious necessity to profoundly change the organisation of our society and our ways of life. (…) The Earth can live without us, but we can’t live without her. (…) It is a question of life or death.
Following on from the French example, the United Kingdom commissioned its own citizens’ assembly in January to grapple with the challenge of how to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Such processes may help increase backing for the difficult political decisions needed to avert the worse impacts of the climate crisis.
What are the main features?
The Convention’s platform recommends transformative policy changes as seen through the lens of five everyday activities including: housing, foods, moving about, consuming, working and producing. While the proposals are not necessarily new, and they still face obstacles to actual implementation, their selection shows that well-informed citizens tend to opt for far-reaching measures when asked directly to consider the alternatives. For example, among the many proposals, the group recommends to:
Make it mandatory for all property owners to replace their fuel oil and coal heating systems by 2030.
Limit space heating in offices to 19 C maximum, and turn on air conditioning only when outdoor temperatures exceed 30 C.
End domestic airline flights by 2025 - for all destinations with a rail alternative of less than 4 hours.
Reduce maximum vehicle speeds from 130 to 110 km per hour.
Integrate sustainable development and environment courses into all school curriculums.
Create a systematic carbon rating for all consumer products.
Integrate ecologically-based production practices in 50% of all farms by 2040.
Strengthen the criminal code with appropriate punishments for environmental destruction and degradation (“ecocide”).
Is this really a breakthrough?
Yes and no.
Yes, because politicians, backed by vested interests, have stonewalled on the implementation of more assertive climate policies on the grounds that ordinary people will not readily accept its consequences. To the contrary, such a democratic experience demonstrates that citizens understand what is at stake, when they are informed. And when offered the opportunity to play a role, they support an acceleration of policies. This may also boost other experiments in more democratic participation in climate decisions ahead of tough choices to be faced.
No, because the stated objective - a reduction of 40% in carbon emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 - still falls short of the mark in terms of the drastic cuts that would be needed within the coming ten years to limit temperature rise below 2 C. Halving the current level of emissions by 2030 is considered necessary to stabilize critical climate disruption. In addition, the concrete impact of the proposals made by the Citizens’ Assembly was not measured. Finally, either a parliamentary debate or a popular referendum will be still required if the proposals tabled by the Citizens’ Assembly Proposals are to be adopted as law in France.
What happens next?
When the Assembly was launched, President Emmanuel Macron committed to submitting their proposals “without filter” either to a debate in Parliament or to the popular vote by referendum. It is expected the next steps will be announced after the results of the French municipal elections on June 28th. It remains to be seen then how far the proposals will really fly in the face of a parliamentary debate that will inevitably be tense, given some of the criticism and opposition already expressed.