Climate crisis: ‘Tough and sad time’ brought by coronavirus is chance to radically change economy, says citizens’ assembly

Final report from panel of ordinary citizens backs working from home and taxes on frequent fliers

David Attenborough addressed Climate Assembly UK earlier this year
David Attenborough addressed Climate Assembly UK earlier this year

The citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis has urged Boris Johnson’s government to use the coronavirus pandemic to fundamentally reshape the economy so its commitment to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 can be met.

Publishing its final report on Thursday, the Climate Assembly UK expressed support for homeworking and radical changes in transport policy — saying the “tough and sad time” brought on by lockdown restrictions presented an opportunity for a huge shift.  

Despite concerns over the sizeable hit suffered by the aviation industry during 2020, the assembly called on the government to bring in new taxes on flights to cut the long-term rise in air passenger numbers.

The panel of more than 100 ordinary citizens — set up by six House of Commons select committees last year to give the public a bigger say — suggested the aviation taxes could “increase as people fly more often and as they fly further”.

Their report called for a complete ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars at some point between 2030 and 2035, asking the government to consider bringing forward the current deadline of 2035.

The very highest-polluting vehicles should be phased out even sooner, the assembly said, calling for more grants for electric cars and more government investment in low-carbon buses and trains.

A large majority of assembly members — 79 per cent — agreed steps taken by the government to help the economy recover “should be designed to help achieve net zero”.

An even larger majority, 93 per cent, agreed government and employers “should take steps to encourage lifestyles to change to be more compatible with reaching net zero”.  

One panel member, 56-year-old Sue from Bath, said: “Even in a year like this, with the country and economy still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear that the majority of us feel prioritising net zero policy is not only important but achievable, too.”

Members of the public also backed moves to boost vegan and vegetarian diets. Their report recommended that government and industry encourage “a voluntary change in diet” so meat and dairy consumption in the UK is cut by between 20 and 40 per cent.

The panel also called for more deposit return recycling schemes, an expansion in doorstep recycling and new targets to make sure businesses cut the energy and materials they use when making products.

In response to calls for cross-party cooperation, the chairs of the six commissioning select committees have written to both Mr Johnson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urging them to back the recommendations of Climate Assembly UK.

The 108 assembly members were carefully selected to give a representative mix of views from the population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity,  and educational level to offer a new perspective on how the government should address the climate crisis.

Their report is the culmination of six weekend gatherings held throughout in 2020 — as well as a memorable address from Sir David Attenborough at the assembly’s first event in Birmingham in January.

Welcoming the publication of the report, chair of the business and energy select committee, Darren Jones MP, said: “This is an extremely important contribution to the debate on how the UK reaches our net zero target and I hope it gives impetus to policymakers to take bold action to reduce our emissions.  

The Labour MP added: “The fact that assembly members have been able to arrive at clear recommendations whilst respecting each others’ values and experiences sets an example for us all.”

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, the organisation advising the government on emissions targets, said the assembly’s report showed “there is broad support for climate action in the UK”.  

He said the recommendations “are particularly useful in considering the policies that will help achieve the goal. It’s a real step forward to have this new insight”.

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