The Citizen’s Convention on Climate: utopia or step towards change?

Photos credits: IDDRI

In France, the municipal elections on the 28th of June surprisingly brought ecology on the front of the political scene in big cities such as Lyon, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg. In a government practically reluctant to take the climate emergency into consideration and prioritize concrete measures, the elections we witnessed this Sunday sounds as surprising as reassuring in their outcome. This “Green Wave” of ecologists can be seen as the political continuity of the Covid-19 crisis, the delusion of the majority party -La République en Marche- but also of the Citizen’s Convention on Climate. The latter was created by Emmanuel Macron in the context of the Yellow Jackets crisis, to cool down the revendications, uprisings and violences. The press release of the Citizen Jackets collective in April 14, 2019,  underlying the progress of negotiations with the ministry, “recommended the establishment of an independent Citizens Assembly to discuss about participatory democracy (including RIC, referendum of citizen initiative), ecological transition, and tax justice”. On April 25th of 2019, Emmanuel Macron then announced the project of creation of this Citizen Convention for the climate, as well as the creation of the Ecological Defense Council. The Prime Minister, in its mission statement, specified the organization of the convention, the independence of its governance committee and its mandate, and wrote as a purpose:


“Define the structuring measures to succeed, in a spirit of social justice, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990. At the end of this work, it will publicly address to Government and the President of the Republic a report setting out its discussions as well as all the legislative and regulatory measures it will have deemed necessary to achieve the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It may designate, from among the legislative measures, those which it considers to be subject to a referendum”


This participative democracy trial, often criticized to not have a political weight nor future decisional influence, united 150 citizen elected randomly and invited to sit in this assembly during 9 months. As previously stated, it answered to a demand that arose during the Yellow Jackets crisis: more direct democracy, for more representation. Indeed, the ruling class is often accused to come out from the same and long-lasting elitist bubble, giving to citizens a sense of stagnation and disconnection from politics, while that is precisely the field influencing the most their daily life. On Tuesday 30th June, 2020, Stanislas Guérini (Head of La République En Marche party, the presidential one) declared indeed on France Inter about the “Green Wave” of ecologist mayors newly elected during the municipal elections last sunday, and the striking defeat of the presidential party:


“I think that the crisis of politics in France is a crisis of efficiency and daily life politics. We have to be able to change more the daily life of our co-citizens. And the Citizen Convention on Climate is interesting on this point because it asked and interrogated itself on issues that affect our everyday life. Today, we come out from an incredible crisis that modified deeply everyone’s lives, and we have to start from these. The results expressed in millions of euros no longer will be listened”. 


Of course, the issue of representativity of this Convention can be opened. Is an assembly elected randomly under the purpose of embodying “France, in thumbnail format” (according to the CESE, the Economical, Social and Environmental Council) really representative? It would have at least the merit of proposing a democratic and citizen-based alternative, as nuanced as it has practically been by the experts, politicians accompanying and coaching the 150 participants for a ‘constructive’ debate. Some data may be necessary to understand the choice of these 150 persons, and judge of their relevance in terms of representation. They were indeed drawn at random from the electoral lists and telephone subscribers from August 26, 2019. To ensure the best representativeness, the election was carried out according to the methods of selection of representative samples used when carrying out political or economical surveys. The called volunteers who accepted the mission were defrayed of their expenses and received a financial compensation for their working time, as it is for sitting jurors. Here, and fairly, Alexis Feertchak criticizes the representativeness of the citizens of the convention by evoking the “bias of the consent”: the choice of the method can be put into doubt because of the simple reason that the participation in the Convention was not made compulsory. By mixing lots and socio-economic quotas, we would not allow real representativeness, because this Convention was from the beginning presented more like a mission than a citizen duty. As proof, more than a third of the pre-selected people refused to participate in the convention, people who may not have felt legitimate, interested or competent. 


Yet, a supposed factor of representativeness of the Assembly can be its parity: the convention had 51% women and 49% men. The composition of the agreement also represents: 


“6 age groups, in accordance with the age pyramid of the French population […] 6 levels of diplomas, reflecting the structure of the French population. […]. It is specified that “26% of citizens have no diploma or hold a patent level”. Finally, the composition of the agreement represents the diversity of socio-professional categories and types of territories in France, with in particular “five representatives from overseas” (according to the Citizens Jackets in May 2019).


Yet, this notion of “France in miniature” quoted above and appearing on the site of the Convention, is criticized as well by Salvator Juan (professor of sociology at the University of Caen and researcher at the Center for Study and Research on Risks and Vulnerabilities) who considers that the conditions required for a real representativeness of a sample compared to a “mother population can only be acquired, at best, by a truly random selection of a few thousand individuals on an exhaustive basis of the population or, at worse and with acceptable margins of error on the basis of quotas for which a minimum of 800 to 1,000 people are required”. A lot of critics from external experts, journalists and professors pointed out also the governance committee who framed the debates, supposedly composed by members subjected to conflicts of interest in their positions expressed during the Convention. 


Though, despite these critics, the 19th, 20th and 21st of June 2020, the Assembly finally voted for 95% of their 600 pages proposal. The only one to have been refused was the proposal of working time reduced from 35 hours per week to 28 hours per week without change in wage. 


Presided by the economist and ecology specialist Laurence Tubiana (part of the “Citizen Jackets” collective organization that called for the creation), and Thierry Pech ( president of the social-liberal Terra Nova Foundation), the Assembly gave birth of a solid, ample and detailed text of 149 proposals towards sustainability and fight against climate change. 


On Monday 29th June, 2020, Emmanuel Macron has announced accepting 146 of the 149 proposals. The ones refused were: reducing the speed on highways from 130 km/h to 110 km/h to help reducing emissions, modifying the preamble of the Constitution to include ecology (the argument being that environmental protection cannot be placed above public liberties), and the 4% tax on dividends (so as not to risk slowing investments, a key topic for a president that has showed himself as an ally of finance and start-ups). 


As we can find on the official website of the Government related to the future of all these proposals of the Convention: “The President of the Republic is committed to quickly implementing all of the proposals of the Citizen Climate Convention: certain proposals falling within the regulatory field will go to the Ecological Defense Council before the end of July; others will be integrated into the recovery plan submitted to Parliament at the end of the summer; most of the proposals will be the subject of a specific “multi-measure” bill in September”. 


In our series “Unlocking the locked, and the possible”, we search and analyse the alternatives, the solutions, the utopias existing to tackle global issues, in a fast-moving world threatened by the effects of climate change. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, the need of refreshing ideas has made itself felt, in France and globally. “The health crisis has revealed the sad truth, the leaders are not prepared for the ‘world of tomorrow’, the dominant model no longer works“, declared Anne-Catherine Husson, CEO of Novethic, a company specializing in sustainable finance. And the evidence is that the impulsions for meeting this world of tomorrow and relaunching the economy will not come from the highest pic of the pyramide, continues Mrs. Husson: “In the automobile sector, we are into absurdity. While there are 400,000 unsold cars in dealerships, Renault’s recovery plan focuses on the production of new models and does not evoke mobility, sustainability, car sharing.


Could then this impulsion come from the citizens themselves, as symbolic as the citizen representativeness actually is? Let’s examine some of the Convention proposals. 


Grouped into six sections (Institutions, housing, food, consumption, travel, production and work), these proposals, made public on June 26, 2020 have a wide scope for action. 


Among the 149 final ones, the Citizens’ Convention wishes to submit two measures to the referendum to the population: the modification of article 1 of the Constitution aimed at strengthening France’s responsibility in environmental matters (addition of a new third paragraph to article 1: “The Republic guarantees the preservation of biodiversity, the environment and the fight against climate change”), and the criminalization of the crime of ecocide (addition of a new second paragraph to the preamble: “The reconciliation of the rights, freedoms and principles which result therefrom cannot jeopardize the preservation of the environment, the common heritage of humanity”).


Related to housing, the participants propose to constraint the proprietaries to renovate houses globally until 2040 (putting mandatory for example the change/withdrawal of oil and gas boiler), and deploying a progressive system of subventions and helps for the poorest. Energy is also a key topic in housing: among the proposals are to be found new constraints to force the public spaces and buildings to reduce their consumption, as well as to encourage individuals to reduce their energy consumption. In particular, encouraging the use of heating and air conditioning in housing, spaces open to the public and tertiary buildings. Related to the artificialisation of lands, they propose to define a restrictive maximum number of hectares that can be artificialized, taking measures to stop commercial zones created in peri-urban area, protecting natural areas, agricultural spaces and forests. 


Alimentation is a particularly long chapter of the final proposals: guaranteeing a sustainable alimentation will pass by granting a bonus for educational and catering establishments to enable them to achieve the objectives of the Egalim law (law for the balance of trade relations in the agricultural and food sector, and a healthy, sustainable and accessible food for all). It is proposed also to set up a control body to ensure the proper implementation of this Egalim law; create a “collective catering observatory”; promote products from short, local circuits and at low environmental cost; extend the list of products eligible for the 50% bio defined by law to farmers in transition to organic, and to products with low environmental cost. Globally speaking and in agriculture, the proposals set the goal of 50% of farms in agroecology in 2040. Has to be increased as well the general tax on polluting activities (TGAP) on nitrogenous fertilizers, as has to be reduced the use of pesticides in general, with a reduction in the use of plant protection products by 50% by 2025 and the ban of the most harmful pesticides to the environment in 2035. 

Fishing is also subjected to sustainability: the Convention propose to improve knowledge of fish to better define quotas and avoid overfishing, strengthen controls on the prohibition of deep-sea fishing, develop sustainable aquaculture farms that respect the environment, protect ocean capacity to store carbon, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fishing and shipping by continuing to modernize the boat fleet. 

They also propose to re-negotiate some treaties such as CETA and to include the ‘principle of precaution’ and a respect of the Paris Agreement clause in the future commercial treaties. 

Information about alimentation is underlined; for this reason, a reform of the labels was brought, proposing to delete all the private one and uniting the bio into one unique label regulated. And this information has obviously to pass by the education from the early childhood: it has thus been proposed to modify the Code of Education to axe it more towards sustainability and environment knowledge, making it a transversale mission for teachers to sensibilize and educate on these priority topics. Inform consumers of the degree of processing of products, in particular via mandatory labeling and the establishment of an agro-food ethical charter, ban the import of products that use processing aids prohibited by the European Union, tax ultra-processed products with a high carbon footprint and low nutritional intake, and put in place food checks for the poorest to use in cooperative or for organic products, figure also in the proposals for a better alimentation. 


What about mobility, a challenging but strongly relevant theme to work on from a sustainable approach? The Convention wants to encourage the use of soft or shared means of transport, particularly for commuting, by generalizing the sustainable mobility package, as well as to reduce incentives to use the car by reforming the income tax kilometer allowance system. Already existing but used at a low level for their lack of pragmatism, the proposals include the pushing towards the creation and imagination of relay parking lots. A measure that could complete the ban of city centers for vehicles that emit the most greenhouse gases, which could then use public transports to reach these central points, letting the car in a relay. Another way of transportation, increasing particularly at a global scale during the Covid-19 crisis, is the bike: a proposal is thus to increase the amounts of the Bicycle Fund from 50 to 200 million euros per year to finance cycle paths. Others ideas are to generalize the development of lanes reserved for shared vehicles and public transport on motorways and expressways, reduce train tickets prices to make them attractive, and develop an investment plan to modernize infrastructure, rolling stock and stations to make them multimodal hubs. 

Related specifically to cars and their emissions, the Convention propose to increase the bonus for low-emission vehicles and strongly reinforce the penalty on polluting vehicles so as to introduce weight as one of the criteria to be taken into account. A strong and efficient measure could be to prohibit from 2025 the marketing of new highly emitting vehicles, old vehicles being able to continue to circulate, and offer zero-rate loans, with the guarantee of the State, for the purchase of a low-emission vehicle. 

Of course, the first target in terms of mobility remains the flights traffic. The Convention has proposed few but solid ideas in the sense of limiting the noxious effects of its attractivity and large-scale use and deployment. We could then witness a gradual disappearance of domestic (internal to France) flights by 2025, insofar as there is a low-carbon alternative to this flight of less than 4 hours accessible financially by citizens, as well as a total shutdown of airport constructions and expansions, if these measures would be accepted by the legislative branch. 


Production is a key issue to modify as well, in a clear and structuring way. The Convention , in that spirit, has proposed to increase product longevity so as to reduce design pollution, enforce the law on the prohibition of planned obsolescence, and make mandatory the possibility of repairing manufactured products that are sold in France. On recycling, they bring the compulsory recycling of all plastic objects from 2023, and the elimination of all single-use plastics from the same year. They also proposed to tighten and apply regulations on waste management, and to put in 2025 the exigence for all support for innovation to be part of an exit from a carbon-based model. 


This is of course only a sample of the details composing the 600 pages of proposals delivered this Saturday to the Government, and accepted in their majority by the President. It remains to follow the continuity of their existence, which I hope will be bright in the Parliament, and show the possibility of application of citizen-based political experience. Experience that could become long-lasting existence, at all scales of decision-making. Indeed, more and more villages and cities experience the model of ‘participative democracy’, as the example of the city of Kingersheim and its “house of citizenship” and “council of representativeness” that question the existence itself of a true model of democracy in the current French politics, finding alternative solutions to make the “democratic utopia”, a reality. 


Grab the Kairos, design the future. 


The website of the Citizen Convention for the Climate:


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