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Five Ways of Meaningfully Involving Citizens in Climate Action

Viable Cities

Public participation can play an important part in efforts to achieve climate neutrality. However, in order to achieve the desired effects, engagement needs to be carried out in a way that is meaningful — both for the citizens and the institutions involved. This blog post outlines some of the key considerations for taking citizen participation to the next level in climate action.

Despite renewed attention in recent years, the call for public participation in climate action is not new. From the 1992 Rio Declaration to the 2015 Paris Agreement through to the 2020 European Climate Pact as part of the European Green Deal, giving citizens a voice in climate change-related decision-making has long been recognised and championed by intergovernmental organisations and bodies.

In a similar vein, there is general agreement in academic literature of the benefits of public participation in environmental decision making. These entail increased community acceptance and support for climate measures, surfacing new insights based on local knowledge and expertise, or inducing social learning. Moreover, it has been determined that effective and meaningful participation is crucial to ensuring that policies are designed in a socially just manner that respects the rights of communities and builds resilience. This is echoed in our own work at Democratic Society wherein citizen engagement is a means of empowering citizens to fully participate in and jointly own their climate neutral futures whilst de-risking investment in climate action and de-politicising climate action.

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Notwithstanding the need for public participation in climate action, what remains less clear is the ways in which this can happen. There is a lack of systematic empirical studies on how public participation is actually designed and practiced and with which objectives in mind. Furthermore, where such studies exist, they find that participation — in its current form — often hinders rather than facilitates sustainability outcomes. A year-long study of five municipalities in the southernmost Scania region in Sweden reveals that despite the potential of citizen involvement in climate action, a lack of supportive policies, regulation, and planning tools are a structural barrier to meaningfully engaging citizens in climate change adaptation and planning. Other, more personal, constraints on the part of citizens include a lack of environmental awareness and belief in climate change, place attachment, and perceptions of individual influence and responsibility.

Against this backdrop, and through our work in the Healthy, Clean Cities Deep Demonstration, we have identified several ways in which the above shortcomings can be both addressed and overcome. To begin with, deliberative events such as the UK Climate Assembly demonstrate the active role that citizens can play in decision making and developing a consensus-based approach to tackling difficult issues, such as climate change. In this instance, Assembly Members recommended that the UK’s path to net zero emissions by 2050 must be underpinned by education, choice, fairness and political consensus. This format is seen as one that can help address the dichotomy between experts and citizens and bridge the generational impasse of representative democracy.

Deliberation need not be limited to citizen assemblies or juries. Participatory budgeting wherein members of a community deliberate on the allocation and distribution of public resources has long been recognised as a means of involving citizens in local governance and decision making. Last year, Lisbon became the first city to introduce a ‘green participatory budget’ to support climate change mitigation and adaptation projects, such as cycling lanes, tree planting for street heat reduction, etc., all of which will be chosen by local residents. The impact of this budget is expected to be two-fold: ensure constant annual investments into the city’s low-carbon transition and raise awareness amongst citizens of the benefits of climate change mitigation and adaptation in a manner that corresponds to their needs. Green participatory budgeting has also been put forward as means of a more equal, green post-pandemic recovery in other places.

Constructive dialogue and participatory processes have an equal role to play in empowering citizens and giving them the agency to effectuate change. This is clearly evident in projects such as Järva Dialog where original resistance to an urban regeneration project turned into an inclusive reiterative process of participatory decision making on retrofit. A different picture emerged at the end of the dialogue whereby residents, in particular migrant women, who were previously absent in any local dialogue, felt empowered enough to actively participate in local decision making processes, both inside and outside the project, including voting in local elections.

Citizen science is another means by which citizens can be empowered to recognise that their voice can make a difference. One such project is HackAIR wherein an open platform was co-created together with citizens to foster democratic participation in measuring and understanding air quality, ultimately raising collective awareness on the topic through local dialogue and discussions. In doing so, participants, or citizen researchers, not only reported a change in their individual behaviour — based on an improvement in perceived and practical knowledge on air pollution — but also an increased belief in their own voice. This is consistent with the finding that citizen science has more than a ‘simple learning’ benefit in that it fosters a sense of empowerment to participate in informed decision- and policy making, especially for disadvantaged communities.

Recently, attention has also focussed on harnessing social innovation and local action in tackling climate change. An example of such place-based collective action is the Bee Plan in Genk, Belgium. The showcasing of the documentary ‘More Than Honey’ at an open environmental council meeting turned into a brainstorming session amongst 60 residents on how to improve conditions for bees in the city. This later resulted in the setting up of a ‘Bee Plan’ for the city together with a team of 30 bee ambassadors who became active stewards of bee-friendly public spaces in the city, unlocking further civic action.

In addition to specific interventions, overarching approaches, such as Sydney’s community engagement strategy and Paris’ solidarity-based climate action plan — are examples of more systematic inclusive climate action in practice. In Sydney, a centralised Community Consultation Group ensures that engagement methods are adapted to the target group so that the voices of those who traditionally do not take part in participatory processes are also represented, and that the city is able to deliver projects and policies that have equitable impacts, especially on low-income and traditionally marginalised groups. This in turn creates broad buy-in for ambitious sustainability targets and policies and reduces polarised debates. Similarly, in Paris, the emphasis is placed on reducing social inequality by engaging and empowering all Parisians in the implementation of climate action through initiatives such as participatory budgeting and Climate Volunteer programmes.

There isn’t — nor should there be a one-size-fits-all method for participatory climate action. The above tools, policies, and approaches indicate the different ways in which structural and personal barriers to meaningfully participate in climate action can be overcome, but it is equally important to choose the right method for the right objective. Just as importantly, it is the quality of the process, and not the processes in and of themselves that guarantee better social and environmental outcomes. The plurality of voices and the opportunity to participate equitably is crucial to achieving recognition and redistribution — two important aspects of climate justice. Done well, these processes can help bring about a more inclusive, less divisive form of politics and build a public mandate for climate action.

To conclude, engagement and participation remain vital tools in the climate adaptation toolkit — but clearly, many of the old ways of working with narrow dialogues and one off public meetings are not fit for purpose. In Sweden, the Swedish Association of Local Government and Regions, SKR, have talked about the importance of involvement being viktigt och på riktigt (‘important and for real’). When it comes to climate change engagement is clearly important/viktigt. The challenge is to ensure that it both is for real and is perceived as such by the citizens whom we expect to make drastic changes in response to an unprecedented challenge.



Authors: Edward Andersson and Namita Kambli, Democratic Society.

Viable Cities is a strategic innovation program in Sweden. The mission of the program is to accelerate the transition to climate-neutral and sustainable cities by 2030, with digitalization and citizen engagement as enablers. It is jointly funded by Vinnova, the Swedish Energy Agency and Formas.