Citizens’ assemblies generate decarbonization ideas for local govts in Japan

Courtesy of citizens council for Kawasaki decarbonization
Members of the citizens council for Kawasaki decarbonization discuss possible measures against climate change in Nakahara Ward, Kawasaki, last October.

To gather a wider cross-section of public views on what to do about climate change, some local governments in Japan are trying a new technique: citizens’ assemblies whose members are chosen by lottery.

The assemblies discuss measures against climate change and make policy proposals in a way that is intended to reflect the opinions of citizens from all walks of life. Some local governments that launch such assemblies hope to encourage ordinary people to recognize global warming issues as their own concern.

Last year, the Institute for Dialogue of Environmental Policy, a private group, set up a citizens’ assembly to address the decarbonization of Kawasaki.

“We were able to reflect in proposals a wide range of opinions from people who had knowledge of or interest in climate change as well as those who previously did not,” Masaharu Yagishita, 74, representative director of the institute, said of the assembly.

The institute used a lottery to select members of the assembly. It randomly picked 3,201 people from the city’s electoral rolls and sent out invitations to the assembly’s meetings in March last year.

Of the 247 people who responded, 92 said they wanted to participate or would consider participating. Taking age, gender and place of residence into consideration, the institute selected 75 people, from their late teens to their 70s, the following month.

The purpose of the assembly was to make recommendations to the city government to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A total of six assembly sessions, lasting four hours each and held mainly online, took place from May to October last year. After being briefed by experts on climate change issues and the city government’s efforts, participants had discussions on three topics: movement, living and consumption.

During the sessions, the assembly compiled a list of 77 proposals from the perspective of citizens, submitting it to the city government in November last year. One proposal calls for promoting buses and other public transportation by offering discounted fares, with commercial facilities shouldering part of the cost as recipients of benefits from their customers’ use of public transportation. Another proposal was a campaign to reward families who meet energy conservation targets, and another was reducing the number of vending machines.

These proposals were used as a reference for the city government to devise its basic plan to combat global warming.

Yagishita described the selection of assembly members by lottery as advantageous: “If participation is solicited publicly, participants tend to lean toward those who are environmentally conscious or have particular opinions. For issues like climate change, which will impact people in the future, random selection is more likely to better reflect various opinions [in government measures].”

European origins

Citizens’ assemblies on climate originated in Europe in the late 2010s.

In France, the Citizens’ Convention on Climate, made up of 150 randomly selected people, was launched at the initiative of President Emmanuel Macron in October 2019. The convention presented about 150 recommendations in June 2020. Based on the recommendations, the French government proceeded with measures such as banning short-hop domestic air travel for which alternatives exist and establishing the new criminal offense of environmental destruction.

Hokkaido University and other entities held Japan’s first citizens’ assembly on climate change in Sapporo from November to December 2020. Initially, such activities were seen mainly among private organizations, but recently there have been moves led by government entities.

This fiscal year, the city government of Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, plans to launch a citizens’ assembly of about 30 people to be selected randomly. The assembly is expected to meet about five times from August to December. Its proposals will be reflected in the city’s basic environmental plan. In Tokorozawa, a bedroom community near Tokyo, households account for 30% of carbon dioxide emissions.

“We hope momentum will be raised among citizens to consider climate change as a matter personally relevant to them,” a city government official said.