Citizens’ Assembly: the climate policies hoping to make France the country of Enlightenment again

©Katrin Baumann - Citizens’ Assembly for Climate

Sylvain Burquier, one of the 150 citizens randomly drawn to join the Citizens’ Assembly for Climate in October 2019, looks back at the proposals presented to the French government last June to address the major issues related to climate change. Interview.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that followed have caused an unprecedented fall in CO2 emissions since World War II. Yet the goals set in the Paris Agreement are still far from being reached. After nine months of intense work —from October 2019 to June 2020—, the members of the French Citizens’ Assembly for Climate recently outlined some 149 measures meant to place the fight against climate change at the center of the country's future policies. Out of these, 146 were approved by the French government and will be included in a "multi-measure" bill next fall. Sylvain Burquier, one of the 150 French citizens drawn at random to take part in this ambitious endeavor, and deputy secretary of the "Bureau des 150", the association created to monitor the work of the citizens' assembly, looks back at these measures and how they could tackle today’s major climate issues. 

The citizens' assembly goal was to come up with measures to reduce by 40% France’s greenhouse gases by 2030, compared to 1990’s levels. Why delegate such responsibility to 150 citizens drawn at random?

The citizens' assembly was called upon by President Emmanuel Macron in the wake of the yellow vests movement, to address two major issues. The main one is of course the climate crisis, which entails other major issues, such as the preservation of biodiversity, with millions of species disappearing right now, mass migrations and social justice, which we tend to forget when speaking about climate change. Those who will suffer its consequences the most are those who generate the least amount of CO2 emissions. On the other hand, these climate and social crises undermine our fellow citizens’ trust in politicians and can lead to another crisis — one of politics and democracy. We can see it playing out right now with the elections of leaders such as Bolsonaro or Trump. That is why establishing a system of deliberative and participatory democracy, with a citizens' assembly drawn at random, was precisely the answer to this distrust. Plus, previous experiences with similar systems in Texas and in Ireland have shown that a representative citizens' assembly provides a broader framework to address topics as specific and challenging as climate change — because we really do represent the entire population, we have access to all the necessary information on this particular subject and we do not have the same constraints as politicians to make decisions. 

At the end of your work, five major topics came to the forefront: travel, consumption, housing, production and work, and food. How are these topics aligned with today’s major climate challenges?

These five work groups were each defined to respond to a particular dimension of the daily life of citizens, businesses and the entire political sphere that has a clear impact on climate change. During our first assembly session, we all experienced a real “slap in the face moment”, when we really became aware of the potential drama that could affect us, and of the gap that exists between the goals of the Paris Agreement, the national low-carbon strategy and the limitation of global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels. The health crisis that we have just gone through has been somewhat of a training exercise — a rather nice version of what could happen to us due to global warming, which could create up to 300 million climate refugees. Because the current challenges of mobility, agriculture and housing go hand in hand with one another and are intertwined, we wanted our response to be as global and systemic as possible.

The assembly came up with some 149 measures, 146 of which have been approved by the French government and will be integrated in a bill. Which ones could have the greatest climate impact?

All of them are important, but on a personal note I would highlight a few that can have an effect on society as a whole rather than just on greenhouse gases emissions. There’s the regulation of advertising, for instance, which is a major issue that has consequences both on over-consumption and energy, with the use of illuminated signs. Those related to the fight against soil artificialisation, which is another crucial subject — the equivalent of a French department disappears under department stores and companies every seven years, and that's frightening. The thermal renovation of buildings, which generate lots of CO2 emissions, is also an essential point —  one that could boost economic recovery as well. Finally, the revision of Article 1 of the Constitution [to include the preservation of biodiversity and the respect of the climate] also seems essential. It would mean that the French citizens are able to reclaim their own Constitution in favour of the planet.

How can companies in the private sector produce and work more ecologically?

Personally, I see the ecological transition as an opportunity for both companies and citizens. That is why I have put forward a proposal for all structures, be they financial, banking, industrial, associative or local authorities to align their carbon footprints to their accounting balances, which would give a real added value to private companies. Such measures should not be seen as restrictions or punishments, but rather as an opportunity to rethink the entire production system. Replacing companies’ vehicle fleets and pushing for green investments could also have major impacts on climate.

If implemented, will these measures be enough to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement?

On our end, we have completed the task we were entrusted with; to come up with a plan to reduce France's greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 compared to 1990’s levels. But our country emits 0.9% of the planet's emissions, so there is a whole world to rethink. However, as we have seen with the covid-19 crisis, we are capable of adapting quickly in the face of major challenges. It is now up to companies and governments to get involved and take action to go through the necessary ecological transition. In any case, if we succeed in changing the Article 1 of Constitution to include the preservation of biodiversity and the respect of the climate, it would be, in a way, like making France the country of the Enlightenment again — and an example for the rest of the world to follow.


©Katrin Baumann


This article has been written as part as a series of stories produced for open_resource by Sparknews, a French social enterprise that aims to foster new narratives that can help accelerate a social and environmental transition to tackle our world’s most pressing issues.


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