Deliberative democracy: A bottom up approach to helping solve the climate crisis

By Deborah Holmes Michel, OECD Environment Directorate

Our planet’s ecological systems are increasingly under pressure, millions suffer from the negative effects of air pollution, and very few countries are on track to meet their Paris Agreement objectives. Leaders need to imagine different ways of working that might get us to net-zero emissions and alleviate the climate crisis.

Cultivating imagination to tackle environmental crises

As Rob Hopkins in his book From What is to What if asks: What if our leaders prioritised the cultivation of imagination? Our models of democracy might need to be rethought and reinvented. Decision-making that gives people the opportunity to deliberate, digest and contemplate particular issues in a safe context is known as deliberative democracy. Debate should be informed and informative; participants should be from a range of backgrounds and perspectives, and be willing to talk and listen to each other with respect. Deliberative democracy can be seen to work well in citizens’ assemblies. This can be applied to tackling a wide range of environmental issues in the context of the climate crisis.

In France, the Citizen’s Convention on Climate (Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat) (CCC), was an unprecedented democratic experiment that aimed to give citizens a voice to accelerate the fight against climate change. An assembly of 150 citizens, representing the diversity of the French population, worked to produce 149 measures (on education, consumerism, transport and housing) designed to reduce France’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 (compared to 1990), in a spirit of social justice. One of the CCC proposals that made it into French law was the suspension of domestic flights on routes that could be travelled by train in under two and a half hours (reduced from initial proposal of four hours). Though criticised for not going far enough, this was the first time a major economy restricted domestic air travel for environmental reasons.

Regions and cities are key players in the shift to carbon neutrality

Taking measures towards the transition to a carbon-neutral economy is not the sole preserve of national governments. Regions and cities are key players in this movement. The OECD’s work on Financing Climate Action in Regions and Cities – OECD focuses on their investment in climate mitigation and adaptation initiatives.

Some municipalities have had the imagination to go beyond the usual stakeholder engagement of informal consultation with select advisory groups, committees, public consultation. For example, Bologna in Italy has successfully trialled an urban innovation model based on civic collaboration. Public administrations are run in collaboration with citizens, basing policies on the concept of the city as commons and citizens as a source of energy, ideas, talent and resources in support of urban regeneration. This new approach to living public policy has led to designing daily uses of public spaces and urban commons, fostered trust in the municipality, and has led to the design of the Regulation of collaboration between citizens and the city for care and regeneration of urban commons.

The city of Bologna has been reimagined to include l’Ufficio Immaginazione Civica or “Civic Imagination office”. Six laboratories across the metropolis serve as permanent community hubs for collaboration and innovation. At these labs, city hall staff and community groups work together, co-designing ideas to revitalise public spaces, tackle pollution and manage mobility.Similar movements are popping up around the world, for example the city of Barcelona, which is now offering free public transport to citizens who ditch their cars.

Empowering and harnessing the imagination, at every level of governance, can lead to new solutions

Every step we take towards a democracy that is more genuinely inclusive, more bottom-up and more empowering of local communities is a step closer to imaginative thinking and huge possibilities. As citizens’ assemblies prove, it is possible to create governance models in which citizens have a real say in developing a vision, and participate in its implementation.

A few cities have gone even further, and established what’s effectively a “Ministry of Imagination” which enables citizens to work with government officials to find workable solutions in many diverse areas. The Laboratorio-para-la-ciudad-mexico in Mexico City (population 8.9 million) is in effect a “Ministry of the Imagination” – a mega urban laboratory. The Open Government Partnership initiative provides the opportunity for government leaders and civil society advocates to work together to promote transparent, participatory, inclusive and accountable governance. One huge success has been Mapatón, a system, which harnessed the city’s most abundant resource, its citizens, to create, for the first time, a full map of the city’s microbus network. Similar urban labs also exist in China and Japan.

The Welsh government’s Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 goes far beyond just promoting sustainable development, and makes it the law for each and every public body “to carry out sustainable development, to set and publish objectives and take all reasonable steps to meet them” with national indicators and milestones. This Act – the first law of its kind to be passed worldwide – is an example of how to build in the needs of future generations into all aspects of public life. One of the goals is “a prosperous Wales”, with “prosperous” defined as “an innovative, productive and low-carbon society which recognises the limits of the global environment and therefore uses resources efficiently and proportionately”.

Deliberative democracy requires the courage to do things differently

The climate emergency is our single most important intergenerational responsibility. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has provided countries with the opportunity to “build back better”. The OECD Green Recovery Database, which tracks recovery measures in OECD, EU and key emerging economies, shows however that only 21% of funds allocated so far by governments go towards environmentally positive measures. This means that the balance either has no environmental dimension, or worse reverses progress. If we are serious about transitioning towards a carbon neutral economy, we must do much better than this. National green recovery spending plans combined with bottom-up action can help to ensure we truly build back better towards a greener future.

True deliberative democracy can harness insights from diverse groups of citizens to propose workable green solutions for their community, city, region or country. A strengthened vision and courage to do things differently will allow us to share this important intergenerational responsibility, and embrace a more inclusive society that emerges as a result.

On 16-18 November, the 2021 OECD Green Growth and Sustainable Development Forum will focus on rethinking the built environment and transport for a resilient sustainable future, in the context of a green recovery after the pandemic. It will bring together speakers from all levels of government, businesses, NGOs and civil societies, including people working at grassroots level in real collaboration with their local citizens and experts to reshape their cities, communities and transport systems from the bottom-up.

3 Comments on “Deliberative democracy: A bottom up approach to helping solve the climate crisis

  1. Honestly, I completely share your position regarding the ecological situation in our world because, unfortunately, it is truly deplorable in many ways. It is an indisputable fact that millions suffer from the negative effects of air pollution because this situation is so widespread nowadays. But what frustrates me the most is that very few countries are on track to meet their Paris Agreement objectives. From my point of view, it is essential to strive for taking all necessary measures to implement these goals because, otherwise, we can never change our reality where a lot of people suffer from an unfavorable climate situation. From my point of view, the government has to contribute to improving the climate crisis in a really effective way, attaching great importance to it and being engaged in it.


    • Thank you Marina. I completely agree. Unfortunately the coal, oil & gaz industry lobbies are SO powerful that many governments are struggling to give the climate crisis the ressources and emergency attention it sorely needs. Faced with this frustrating reality, we as citizens do have the possibility and power to change our own way of living, and furthermore can form local groups and communities to make positive changes and serve as examples… Ultimately we need to make an ecological, sustainable way of life more attractive and rewarding than the throw-away, hyper-consumerist lifestlye we’ve been sold so far. The choices we make are an example to those around us.


  2. Our new “normal” has gotten so bad to the point of not being able to feel the difference even if we make a change. I really hope people will wake up and make changes even if it’s for the future generations.


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