“We’re up for it!” is the inspiring (and perhaps to some, a bit surprising) message from the UK Climate Assembly, a carefully selected group of 108 ordinary citizens from every part of UK society who were asked “How should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?”. The clear answer in their 556-page report, based on six weekends of workshops following detailed briefing by experts, is that radical solutions to reducing carbon emissions are not only acceptable to the public, but are demanded with urgency.

You can argue with some of the Assembly’s conclusions, and we will, but the message to central and local government is clear. People in this country are impatient for action and strong leadership, and they have put together many great ideas in a useful blueprint for change. They know that we can’t carry on as we are. Nearly all (93%) agreed that “as lockdown eases, government, employers and/or others should take steps to encourage lifestyles to change to be more compatible with reaching net zero”.

While the Assembly’s recommendations for specific changes may sometimes be contradictory or unrealistic, the underlying principles for achieving the path to net zero are vitally important, and arguably the most valuable message to central and local government. They include: educating and informing everyone in the UK; fairness, including for the most vulnerable (affordability, jobs, UK regions, incentives and rewards); freedom of choice; strong leadership from government; protecting and restoring the natural world; and ensuring steps taken by the government to help the economy recover from COVID-19 are also designed to achieve net zero.

There are some contradictions inherent in this generally upbeat report which clearly underline the complex and difficult changes to lifestyles that will be needed. Understandably, a group which was pulled together this year, immersed in the detail, and then asked to recommend a way through climate change, were hoping it wouldn’t be too uncomfortable. In looking at travel on land for example (responsible for 23% of the UK’s overall GHG emissions), their primary recommendation was “a future which minimises restrictions on travel and lifestyles, placing the emphasis on shifting to electric vehicles and improving public transport, rather than on large reductions in car use.”

They pressed for government investment in low-carbon buses and trains, with new routes, cheaper fares and more frequent services. Members placed great faith in a switch to electric cars, and recommended a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2030-5. Yet they were only looking for a reduction in private car use of 2-5% per decade to 2050. This runs counter to the recommendations of Carbon Copy’s panel of experts in our July webinar From A to B: Carbon Free. As Jools Townsend, CEO of the Community Rail Network warned then: “The dominant position of private car use in our society is a huge barrier, which is now being perpetuated by the idea that ‘electric cars will save the day’. We need to get over that.”

The Assembly’s report acknowledges that “All the UK’s electricity generation will need to come from low carbon sources if it is to meet its net zero target. The UK is also likely to need more electricity in future due to an increase in electric vehicles and electric heating.” Remarkably, they were only briefed in detail on solar and wind power solutions, both of which can only provide part of the solution, because they are intermittent and will require as yet unimaginable amounts of storage before they could be considered as our principle electricity sources. Assembly members did not hear detailed evidence about tidal, wave, hydro and geothermal technologies. This was a serious omission – for example, given that the UK is surrounded by sea, we are uniquely in a position to take advantage of renewable ocean energy from half a dozen technologies, given the will. Yes, it’s difficult and expensive (perhaps ten times the cost of electricity from onshore wind), but we are in a climate emergency, where investment choices cannot be left to ‘market forces’. As one assembly member (voting in the minority) succinctly put it: “Resources should be natural, have longevity, and be reasonably predictable. We should not ask if we can afford to do it but if we can afford not to do it. Tidal, Geothermal and Hydro are front runners.”

Air travel, responsible for 7% of the UK’s GHG emissions, is another example where the Assembly found it difficult to confront tough choices: “Assembly members sought to find an acceptable balance between achieving the net zero target, impacts on lifestyles, reliance on new technologies, and investment in alternatives”. They recommended allowing continued growth in air passenger numbers of 25-50% between 2018 and 2050, penalising frequent fliers and those travelling longer distances, while being sympathetic to those with family in distant countries.

As Flight Free UK has commented: “Assembly members called for investment in electric planes and synthetic fuels, even though they were presented with evidence that electric planes will do little to address the UK’s aviation emissions (96% of which are from international flights, whereas electric planes will only be useful on short flights) and synthetic fuels are likely to be too expensive to be widely used.”

Even with those reservations, we say again that there is a great deal more to cherish in this report than to criticize, and the six UK parliamentary committees which commissioned the Climate Assembly have done a great service to democracy and to the planet. On many topics, such as reducing carbon emissions in heating residential property, their recommendations are insightful and radical. “At least 80% of assembly members ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that hydrogen (83%), heat pumps (80%), and heat networks (80%) should be part of how the UK gets to net zero.” They also emphasised repeatedly the need to keep solutions local, to help with buy-in to new behaviours, and to enable solutions to be tailored to local situations. This is music to our ears of course, being what Carbon Copy is all about: #ThinkBigLocal.

The COVID-19 lockdown landed right in the middle of this public consultation, and it shifted opinions. Members talked about a new sense of opportunity for change, and altered perceptions of what is possible (e.g. what government can do). Only a few felt the economic impacts of the pandemic made reaching net zero more difficult.

The target date of 2050 is enshrined in UK legislation, and was written into the Assembly’s terms of reference. Controversially, and with eerily familiar percentages, 36% of members voted against, and 35% for, bringing forward this binding commitment to reach net zero to an earlier date than 2050, with the balance held by those who were ‘unsure’ or ‘didn’t mind.’ Many climate activists will be frustrated by this, as are we at Carbon Copy, but there is a great deal in the Assembly’s recommendations to be positive about. Just a few of the important ideas in the Additional Recommendations section include: the transition to net zero should be a cross-political party issue, and not a partisan one (96% support); more transparency in the relationship between big energy companies and government (94% support); get to net zero without pushing our emissions to elsewhere in the world (92% support); products and services labelled to include their carbon footprint (89% support).

We’ve barely scratched the surface in this review, and we urge everyone to download the UK Climate Assembly report, if only to read the summary – it’s about 20 pages.

Because, to borrow a line from Sir David Attenborough’s challenging documentary Extinction: The Facts broadcast on Sunday: “What happens next is up to every one of us.”

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