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Homing in on net zero: Watching the Climate Assembly in action

How should we decarbonise heating? What is going to be powering our economy in 30 years’ time? How do you ensure fairness as we transition to net zero? These are just some of the thorny topics that are being discussed over the course of the Climate Assembly UK.

Bringing together 110 members of the public, the Climate Assembly hopes to gain an insight into the preferences of an informed and considered public on how to meet our 2050 net zero target. It was launched jointly by six select committees and will be used by MPs to inform and shape Government policy.

I was able to observe proceedings on the Saturday of the second weekend, where the assembly looked at energy supply and undertook a deep dive on how we travel, energy in the home and what we buy. While there was a strict rule that neither observers nor press speak to the participants – to avoid us influencing or being seen to influence the process – it was fantastic to observe the proceedings and listen in on some of the deliberations.

The assembly is made up of people from all walks of life and the organisers have gone to considerable pains to ensure it is representative of the general UK population with regards to gender, age, education level, ethnicity, where they live in the UK, and even down to attitudes to climate change. Over four weekends in Birmingham, participants hear from a carefully curated range of experts then discuss in groups the nitty gritty of net zero policy.

I sat in on one of the “energy in the home” sessions in the afternoon, where participants learnt about and then discussed energy efficiency, heat pumps (including hybrid heat pumps) and hydrogen heating. The questions were telling, with the experts being pressed on whether hydrogen technology and carbon capture and storage were ready to deliver, how hydrogen boilers and heat pumps work in practice, including whether the latter are noisy, and technical questions on solid wall insulation. A recurring theme throughout the discussions was the cost of the different options, which participants were understandably keen to get a handle on.

Considering that participants were at that point only two and a half days into their crash course on energy and climate change policy, what struck me most was the ability of participants to get straight to the crux of the issues at hand. Participants had so much information thrown at them but were able to cut through the jargon and grapple not only with the tricky technical questions, but the challenging issues around fairness.  

The Chair of the BEIS Select Committee – Rachel Reeves – made an appearance to highlight the importance of the assembly’s work. She was asked how they could ensure that Government actually listened to what the assembly said. This was met with applause from the room and is testament to the importance participants are attaching to the process.

Chatting with some of the other observers between sessions it became apparent that those of us entrenched in the detail of policy development may not readily observe the extent to which the public is willing and able to engage with the relevant issues. There can be a tendency to dismiss the challenges around net zero as too confusing, too disruptive, too complicated. But the Citizens Assembly highlighted that the complexity or uncertainty of a topic needn’t be a barrier in itself, providing that it’s framed in the right way.

This is encouraging news, especially as we look at how to convince people to swap out their gas boilers for a low carbon alternative, to buy an electric vehicle (and charge smartly!), to reconsider their meat consumption and air travel, and many other things. None of these are easy to tackle but as long people actually feel involved in the decisions – rather than tough choices being imposed upon them – there are real grounds for optimism.

Joseph Cosier, Policy Manager of New Energy Services and Heat (NESH), Energy UK

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