Reflections on the Citizens’ Assembly by Leinster Wheeler


I had the pleasure of attending as an observer the Citizen’s Assembly dealing with Climate Change in Malahide on 4th and 5th November. Here are my thoughts of the weekend.

Day 1

The first speaker on transportation was Anne Graham, CEO of the National Transport Authority. She began by pointing out that Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions per person are among the highest of any country in the world and outlined the characteristics of our transport network and the travel mode share. The problem with a speaker from the NTA is that it is dependent on the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport  for funding so is not in a position to criticise its parent body. As a result, the talk was largely a restatement of current policies rather than mapping out a brave new path to the future or highlighting current deficiencies.

The second speaker was Dr. Brian Caulfield, Associate Professor at TCD. He outlined two options aimed at achieving a low carbon transport network – changing how we fuel our transport and reducing our reliance on private vehicles. A future low carbon transport model would see

  • Much greater use of public transport
  • Electrification of our car stock
  • Sustained growth in walking and cycling for lower distance trips
  • In rural areas the use of demand responsive transport

He pointed out that even if we achieve the targets of 25% electric vehicles by 2025 and 50% by 2030 (which is very ambitious) our carbon emissions would still grow by 22% rather than decrease. He pointed out that cars spend 95% of their time parked and when use for short journeys their emission profile is inefficient with cold starts. He went on to describe the change in car ownership models with the advent of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and ‘Netflix for Cars’ ie you only pay for a car when you use one.

The third speaker was Connie Hedegaard the former Danish Minister for Climate and Energy and former EU Commissioner for Climate Action. Unfortunately, at the last moment, she was unable to come to Ireland for personal reasons but sent a message which is available on YouTube. The first part of her talk was about climate change in general while the second half focused on the role of bicycles in Copenhagen.

During a discussion which followed, one of the assembly members suggested that government ministers should have to use public transport for a month. This was warmly welcomed but the Chair stated that unfortunately that message could not be conveyed to government. There was also a suggestion (which I thought had some merit) that subsidies for electric vehicles should be greater for people living in rural areas than in Dublin.

Later sessions dealt with energy and agriculture.


Day 2

The second day began with an address by John Fitzgerald, Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council. He gave a speech which was well received by the audience in which he discussed the scale of the problem and the degree of change that would be required to meet Ireland’s challenge on climate change.

The secretariat and a panel of experts had drawn up a draft Ballot paper which was divided into four sections including one on Transport. Based on feedback from the members, they proposed three questions related to transport on sustainable travel, electric vehicles and public transport.

In the initial draft, there was no text entered for the question on sustainable travel. Text in red proposed a ‘great’ increase in cycling, park and ride and ‘much greater priority’ for them over private cars. The problem was that ‘greatly increased’ or ‘much greater priority’ was not defined.

The second question was in relation to the electric vehicle promotion and referred to year on year increases in taxes on petrol and diesel.

The third question was in relation to expansion of public transport spending over road infrastructure at a ratio of no less than 2:1. This was quite a radical view but the original wording was watered down by the change of ‘road infrastructure’ to ‘new road infrastructure’. The addition of ‘new’ was very significant as most road expenditure is on existing roads rather than ‘new’ roads per se. The wording also referred to public transport with particular attention on rural areas. However, the economic reality is that public transport will always be concentrated on urban areas due to the higher population density.

Overall, I doubt that the motions will cause the mandarins in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to lose any sleep.

Observations on the Process

It felt good to be see democracy in action (even as an observer) where people had come together to come to discuss and reach agreement on topical subjects. The Chair had commented that there was a greater number of observers for this meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly than previous sessions.  One observer present was a representative from the Council of Europe while another had come from Belgium. This brought home to me the international interest in the proceedings of our Citizens’ Assembly. Justice Mary Laffoy was an excellent Chair, but with the benefit of hindsight I had a number of reservations about the process. While the wordings and amendments to wordings were all proposed and accepted by the Assembly, my concern was about the information which was presented to the Assembly.  As someone who believes in the benefits to society of mass cycling, it was disappointing that the two of the three nominated speakers only referred to cycling in passing. The third speaker did devote half of her talk to cycling but it was in terms of the level of cycling in Copenhagen. Rather than ‘experts’, someone locally could point out barriers to cycling in Ireland, to the lack of children cycling to school, to WHO recommendations on levels of spending on walking and cycling and to the financial cost of Ireland failing to achieve climate change targets. I accept that cycling plays only a small part in the prevention of climate change and that not everyone would be exercised by it but I strongly feel that the motion on greatly increased cycle lanes was too bland, too general and too open to interpretation to carry much weight. For a mode of transport which in other countries can carry more than 20% of people, I regret to say that the outcome was disappointing.

Secondly, the experts and their areas of expertise was also open a cause of concern. A member of the Assembly raised the issue of a congestion charge which politicians in London introduced and which Stockholm citizens voted to introduce. One of the panel of experts replied that a congestion charge could not be introduced until public transport and park and ride facilities in Dublin are improved. I very much doubt that people in London or Stockholm were asked for their opinion on public transport before politicians introduced the congestion charge in those cities. While congestion, air pollution and health concerns are among the main drivers for change, it was troubling that  ‘business as usual’ was considered acceptable until however long it might take to bring public transport and park/ride facilities in Ireland up to an ‘acceptable’ level.

Finally, there were thirteen votes on different aspects of climate change. Most of the votes were overwhelmingly carried with more than 90% of citizens in favour which indicated to me that the motions were designed to reflect overwhelming majority opinion rather than gauge where people stood on a contentious issue.

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