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people power - climate assembly response

CLIMATE ASSEMBLY: The Power of People

Craig Dalzell – 23rd December 2021

The Scottish Government has finally officially responded to the Scottish Climate Assembly with a full report of their own and detailed comments on each of the 83 recommendations put forward by the Assembly. This is an encouraging step up from their response to the first Scottish Citizens’ Assembly which didn’t do much more than point at the 2021 Programme for Government and claim it as fulfilment of their promise even if it barely touched on their recommendations.

Given that prior treatment, I’ll confess that I wasn’t particularly hopeful for this report but I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the main. Yes, there are some sections where the Government has simply pointed at their list of existing policies and yes, many of those lists don’t go nearly far enough (The UK Climate Change Committee recently reportedthat if all current Scottish Government climate policies were enacted on time and in full, it would still miss Scottish climate targets) but there have been some new policy announcements as a result of this Citizens’ Assembly and that should be loudly welcomed. Citizens Assemblies are a new feature of Scottish democracy. One that has the potential to either wither on the vine of political apathy, or to flourish into a powerful force for political change. It all depends on how much politicians are willing to trust the citizens with the power to make that change.

The most significant victory for the Assembly is in the section on Resources. I’ve spoken about Resource Libraries before – notably when I spoke to the Edinburgh Tool Library on the Common Weal Policy Podcast. These will form a core part of the response to the climate emergency by changing our relationship with consumer goods. We can simultaneously reduce our consumption of resources and increase the quality of goods we use by borrowing and leasing more of what we currently buy (particularly for things that we use occasionally, like DIY tools, or things that we need only for a short time, like baby clothes) and learning how to repair, re-use and upgrade our goods rather than just throwing them away for a new model.

The Scottish Government has identified 24 tool or resource libraries in Scotland and as a result of the Assembly has pledged to fund and support the creation of another 76 to bring the total up to 100. This shouldn’t be a final goal, of course, as the Assembly has identified that the utility of these libraries only increases with ease of access. Every community should have one – possibly built around their Community Hub. Indeed, if Scotland wants to fulfil its goal of creating “15-minute neighbourhoods” where core services are available within a 15 minute walk, cycle or public transport journey, then this should give an indication of how many Resource Libraries we shall ultimately need. At least one per “neighbourhood”.

Even more powerful than these libraries themselves has been the Government’s acceptance of the principle of “Extended Producer Responsibility”. This is another core part of our redefinition of how we buy our products. Producer Responsibility means that the producer is the one who ultimately is responsible for the environmental impact of the goods they produce – not you. You are already doing your best to recycle plastic packaging and you’re paying your Council Tax to fund its removal but you can do little to force the producers to stop creating that plastic waste in the first place and, of course, you have little “choice” when the “free” market dictates that all producers of similar and rival products follow the same bad practice.

When I pitched the idea of EPR to the Assembly during the evidence sessions I did so on the basis of it applying to all parts of the product, including the packaging it is shipped in. I did so because I expected packaging to be excluded from any initial acceptance of the policy (so you might be able to send a dead mobile phone back to the company for remanufacturing, but you would still have to recycle the box and plastic wrap yourself). However, the final response from the Government appears to be that they’ll adopt EPR for packaging FIRST, and then look at the product inside the box. Not the way I expected it to happen, but so long as it gets to the final goal, I’ll take it.

There was a more mixed response to the section on housing and construction. The Government has accepted many of the principles that the Assembly has called for but has been a bit less keen to act upon them. They have declined, for example, the call to increase building regulations so that new buildings are constructed to passive energy efficiency standards. Part of the excuse was that they didn’t want to specifically adopt the Passivhaus industry standard but the Assembly specifically said that the standard should be Passivhaus or an equivalent bespoke Scottish standard. On the call for buildings to be constructed with the Circular Economy in mind and thus designed to be dismantled and materials reused, the Scottish Government hasn’t outright declined but has said they’ll merely investigate whether such a policy would be possible – despite an actual example of just such a house being built using Scottish wood, presented at COP26 and then dismantled as per its design. I’ll be following the promised investigation but given the timescales of required to response to the climate emergency, I hope it will look not just at feasibility but at how this kind of building can be scaled and implemented as quickly as possible.

Some other successes in buildings have been acceptance of the Assembly’s call for decarbonising heating and for a system of regulatory compliance in repairs and retrofits – both ideas paralleling similar calls from Common Weal’s Common Home Plan. The latter is particularly important as it doesn’t matter how high building regulations are set, if there is incentive for manufacturers to cheat and to fall below those standards because no-one is checking their work and no-one is forcing them to correct it, then they will. I used to describe the bad actors in the building trade as working to “minimum standards + 1” but it’s clear that many don’t even aspire to that lofty goal but instead to “narrowly avoiding prosecution”. It won’t matter how efficient your fancy new, quadruple glazed window is if it isn’t fitted properly and it’s leaking air and water at the seams. So it’s very encouraging to see the Assembly win a new quality assurance policy from the Government, though we’ll need to monitor its development to ensure that it’s fit for purpose.

I obviously don’t have space to run through the responses to every one of the 83 calls for action but I do encourage folk to read the Government’s response in full. It’s a measure of how powerful citizens can be if given the chance by those who normally cling to that power and the Assembly as a whole has been a measure of how radical a random, representative sample of the Scottish population can be when given the chance to tell others what they want rather than simply be told what it is acceptable for them to want. Citizens’ Assemblies aren’t a democratic panacea nor are they are replacement for other things that Scotland lacks like a proper system of local democracy but they have proven their worth now in our democratic framework. Every single member of the Assembly and everyone who helped to organise and run it deserves our appreciation. I hope that I can have the privilege of being invited to give evidence to the next one that comes to Scotland (such as the upcoming on on Council Tax) but perhaps more importantly, I hope that one day I will get the chance to do my civic duty by serving on one and adding my voice to Scotland’s civic demos. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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