September 27, 2023

Reaching Net Zero- what does this mean for democracy in the UK?

by Amy Baker, Carnegie UK

“Do we have the fairest credible path to reach Net Zero by 2050, in a way that brings people with us?”- Rishi Sunak, 2023 

When I first started at Carnegie UK we had a group session with staff and trustees on environmental wellbeing. I remember it because it made my brain hurt.  

We kept returning to the same issue. At Carnegie UK we believe that we should all live within the planet’s natural resources and that we all should have a voice in decisions that affect us. But does the urgency of the climate emergency put these two things at odds? 

The longer I’ve been working on climate at Carnegie UK, the more convinced I’ve become that these priorities are far from being in tension. In fact, I’ve come to realise that they go hand in hand: we will only live within the planet’s natural resources, if we all have a voice in the decisions made to do this. Tackling the climate emergency properly will require tough decisions that will change the way all of us live our daily lives. And for us to buy-in to these decisions, we all need to feel ownership over them. 

I’m not alone in these thoughts; there’s lots of evidence that shows this. This includes Climate Assembly UK, bringing together over 100 people from all walks of life and across the political spectrum who met over six weekends to discuss, informed by balanced evidence, how the UK should meet its targets to become net zero by 2050.  

The final recommendations the Climate Assembly made did not shy away from measures that would be tough and would involve all of us making changes to our current lifestyles to reach net zero. These recommendations included banning the sale of new diesel/petrol cars; increased aviation taxes on people as they fly more often and further; and working to reduce dairy/meat consumption.  

So, on the surface, the PM’s question resonates with the kind of challenges posed in that session over a year ago. But, when put into context, the Prime Minister’s definition of ‘bringing the people with us’ contrasts to ours. The net zero policies Rishi Sunak changed last Friday were policies promised when his party was elected on in 2019, including making the 2050 net zero target law. These were democratically endorsed by the UK population. There has been no such democratic endorsement for Rishi Sunak to change these policies. 

If the UK Government is serious about reaching net zero in a way that brings people with them, we invite the Prime Minister to join us, and others (like Involve and Democracy Network), in exploring how our democratic system can become more participatory. This means going beyond just being represented by the politicians we elect, and using additional methods, like citizens’ assemblies to allow us to have a more direct say in individual policy decisions.  Our democratic system must evolve to truly give people their say in the tough choices we will have to make together to tackle the climate emergency. 

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash