21 September 2023

“The elites are talking about the end of the world”, said one gilet jaune protestor back in 2018, “while we are talking about the end of the month.” The gathering of more than 290,000 protestors across France highlighted a tension between urgently needed climate policies on the one hand, and social justice on the other. Simply put: policies which hit those on lower incomes hardest can expect to face fierce resistance.

The yellow vests movement was not just a reflection of French political culture. Multiple other countries have experienced similar social backlashes, especially amidst rising costs of living and distrust in politics. As a result, governments increasingly face the challenge of reducing emissions and environmental degradation while at the same time guaranteeing that vulnerable sections of society are on board.

As new forms of participatory platforms and civic technologies have emerged, governments have started including the voice of citizens directly within decision making processes for ecological planning. Experts suggest that the cases of green participatory budgeting around Europe, such as the one recently launched by the City of Lisbon, could constitute a path forward in strengthening local support for the climate transition.

 Waves of green backlashes

Despite the urgent need for climate mitigation, experts suggest that the progress made so far is not nearly enough. A great part of the setback is evidently political, reflecting the growing polarisation of liberal democracies. Governments are in many cases incapable of achieving ample support for climate policy within domestic political arenas. The result has been recurring waves of “green backlashes.”

The most famous example is the yellow vest protests against the raise of fuel taxes in France. The initial demonstrations escalated into recurring uprisings between November 2018 and May 2019.

The 2019 farmers upheavals in the Netherlands also showed striking signs of recurring green backlashes. Causing 1,136km of traffic jams, farmers driving tractors protested over increasing limits on nitrogen emissions.

More recently in the UK, efforts by London mayor Sadiq Khan to expand the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) policy to the entire city has stirred cleavages between city centre environmentalists and workers living on the city’s outskirts. The attempt to reduce vehicles not reaching minimum emission standards sparked protests and vandalism across London. In particular, of the more than 1,900 cameras installed to enforce the policy, more than 300 were deliberately damaged between April and August.

A call for citizen participation

So far, green backlashes have typically originated in rural or peripheral areas. With increased territorial inequalities and ongoing cost of living crises, these political upheavals have questioned the UN member states’ pledge – with the adoption of the 2030 SDG agenda – to ensure “no one will be left behind.”

The yellow vests movement in particular seemed to have marked a turning point to the sustainability discourse and to how climate policy can be implemented in practice. It showed that the international, universal agendas of the climate transition are likely to be contested at the local level, especially in areas with high levels of inequality.

While the protesters initially positioned themselves against the unequal impact of climate taxes, observers suggest that it transformed into an anti-establishment movement with no formal demands. Under fierce police repression, many within the leaderless movement of the yellow vests lost trust in representative institutions, and demands for a new form of government based on direct democracy were widespread.

Mixed Results

President Emmanuel Macron’s response was to implement the grand débat – a nationwide citizen assembly process composed of local meetings, complaint books and online participation platforms. Although it was an innovative experiment in civic engagement, the resulting policy changes were unsatisfactory, and the process failed to represent the whole of the population.

Even when standards of deliberation are met – as demonstrated by the improved deliberative process of the Citizen Convention for Climate in France – there is only mixed evidence to suggest that mini publics improve perceptions of legitimate decision making among the wider public. In fact, some researchers have suggested that in highly polarised contexts, deliberative mini publics may be ineffective in bolstering public approval of policies.

There is still a lot of room for experimentation and research with civic participation models and technologies. This is crucial given the possible consequences of green backlashes. If innovative and unifying political means are not thought through, we might expect the worst scenario: Amidst a cost of living crisis, the economic grievances of the “losers” of environmental policy transform into a regressive populism that slows the green transition even further.

Emerging platforms for green participation

Even if a representative sample reaches consensus through deliberation, decarbonisation policies still hit those on low incomes the hardest. If left unaddressed, this is likely to lead to more and more political backlashes against the short-term costs of climate policies.

Consequently, in order to create momentum for environmental policy, governments are increasingly proposing compensation or investment policies directed at the “losers” of the climate transition. Yet government resources are limited, and climate vulnerabilities or preferences for climate policy are often unknown.

For example, Lisbon City Council has introduced its first-ever ‘green’ PB, with a €5 million budget allocated to support climate change mitigation and adaptation projects chosen by local citizens. The initiative, supported by South Pole and EIT Climate-KIC’s City Finance Lab, sets aside funds for projects with positive climate impacts, such as cycling lanes, tree planting, and water capture. The success of this initiative has the potential for replication in over 1,500 cities worldwide that already run PBs with no specific green focus.

Ensuring climate justice

Critics argue that PB only results in investments in bike lanes and city gardens while the underlying causes of climate change and inequality that contribute to social unrest remain unsolved. There is not much decision making on how taxes are collected, and while it raises people’s voices in public infrastructure, it may encourage austerity in other areas.

Nevertheless, a fundamental principle of many early PBs was to address social and spatial inequalities, whether by allocating urban projects to the poorest regions or compensating areas with greatest climate change and policy vulnerabilities.

As Yves Cabannes, emeritus professor on urban planning explains, “some cities are using different criteria to take into account various indicators of inequity, for instance the number of inhabitants, the level of services, the family income, etc. […] This is the case in Cuenca with its territorial equity index, which includes vulnerability to drought, floods, landslides and frost.”

Cabannes concludes that “PB initiatives sensitive to climate change did not really emerge as an international agenda imperative or in response to international priorities. They tended to appear instead as a citizen and local government response to very precise and immediate climate effects. This largely explains their capacity to adapt to local constraints and vulnerabilities.”

New models

What is clear is that new models are already being thought through and civic technologies are adapting to new needs. For example, researcher Tom Cohen proposes participatory emissions budgeting, where citizens are required “to trade off greenhouse gas emissions with wider policy goals.” He suggests that “it may help citizens to appreciate the nature of the challenge and the role of local government in responding; this may in turn provide authority stakeholders with increased confidence in the scope to implement pro-environmental agendas without meeting significant resistance.”

As the various green backlashes of recent years make clear, territorial inequalities represent a significant factor contributing to the general resistance to climate policy. Therefore, conceptualising and testing green participatory platforms that not only inform policy makers about spatial vulnerabilities, but also shape social policy accordingly, constitutes a crucial step forward.

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