What’s a Climate Assembly? Is that like a citizens’ jury?
Pretty much. The Climate Assembly UK is a group of 108 citizens, selected to mirror the population of the UK in age, gender, ethnicity, social class and views on climate change. It was set up at the request of six select committees of Parliament, and it met over a series of weekends earlier in 2020 to discuss how the UK should achieve its commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The Assembly received briefings by experts on different ways that net zero could be reached, and listened to advocates who presented contrasting visions of the way forward. You can watch these presentations on the Assembly web site. Their report is expected to help the select committees develop a consensus on a way forward that is acceptable to the British public.
What did it talk about? Is it going to change government policy?
The Assembly doesn’t decide policy and can’t tell the government what to do, but it gives policy makers an insight into how the public are thinking, or would think, if they had all the right information. The Assembly considered the areas of transport, housing, food and agriculture, consumption, and energy, and gave special attention to greenhouse gas removals.
"The people of the UK are far more on-board with climate change solutions than the skeptics who command so much media attention."
Their conclusions show that the people of the UK are far more on-board with climate change solutions than the skeptics who, until recently at least, commanded so much media attention. And yet some of the recommendations also show that the Assembly found it difficult to confront tough choices. Aviation is an example.
Go on then, what did they say about aviation?
The Assembly members were told that aviation makes up 7% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, that passenger numbers have trebled since 1990, and that passenger numbers are currently forecast to grow further by 2050. The Assembly favours taxes that even out the disparity in cost between air travel and the alternatives, and that increase as people fly more often and as they fly further.
On the other hand, Assembly members value the freedom to fly, and feel that it benefits business and the economy. They recommended allowing continued growth in passenger numbers of 25-50% between 2018 and 2050.
That seems a bit high?
It is quite high, given that the government’s own current forecast of growth, drawn up before the commitment to net zero, is 49% by 2050. But it is less than the 65% growth the government would expect if airports were allowed to expand as much as they want.
So how did they reconcile that with zero emissions?
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 emissions (96% of the UK’s aviation emissions 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.
They also didn’t apparently take into account that, given that the life of a plane is around 25-30 years, many of the planes in use in 2050 will be built in the next five years, so we can’t rely on any technical solutions that are not already in the pipeline.
"Electric planes won't address the UK’s emissions as they are only useful on short flights, and synthetic fuels are likely to be too expensive to be widely used."
Any good news?
Yes, lots. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the report is the way it provides a counterbalance to industry lobbying. There is an over-riding emphasis on fairness, and this is important because some of the solutions offered for aviation are likely to be expensive. Airlines are already arguing that biofuels and synthetic fuels should be subsidised by tax-payers to make them more competitive with fossil fuels. But this would be unfair, because the richest people in society fly far more than the poorest, so they would benefit the most from any subsidy. Assembly members backed the principle of ‘the polluter pays.’
"Assembly members backed the principle of ‘the polluter pays’."
The report is also very keen on education and information, and supports labelling products and services with their carbon footprint. In the case of flying, this would be eye-opening for many.
So, a step in the right direction?
The report confirms what we already know – the British love flying, and while we at Flight Free UK want them to give it up, or even think about cutting down, the majority are not there yet. There’s nothing in the report that contradicts our goal of creating a social shift towards other forms of travel, but it does confirm that there is lots more to do.
"The pandemic might have changed people’s flying habits for good."
Most of the Assembly’s meetings took place before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and some members did say towards the end of the process that the pandemic might have changed people’s flying habits for good. And they also strongly backed the principle of a green recovery, saying that any investment in high carbon industries should be limited or have conditions attached.