Citizen Voices: Overcoming climate issues as a community; reflections on the Wandsworth Air Quality Citizens Assembly

To bring power back and win against climate change, citizens can lead the way, one climate jury at a time. In our latest blog, by Samuel Augustine, we spoke with Wandsworth citizens to share their experience in participating in a local climate jury on air quality.

Saturday 9th September was officially declared the hottest day of 2023. October has seen more unseasonable weather, with massive flooding from Storm Babet and Ciarán in November. Weather related records seem to tumble all the time, with climate change being widely blamed. Yet politicians seem to struggle to take the radical action many citizens want. The Rosefield Oil plant was recently approved, the UK energy efficiency task force ended after only six months, and net zero targets were rewritten, weakening energy efficiency standards and delayed the phasing out of diesel cars. When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, over the last 4 years around 50% of those polled consistently say we aren’t spending enough.  

At Shared Future we believe participatory democracy can play a vital role in bringing citizen voices into decision making processes. Where there is decreasing trust in the current government to take action on climate change, we are left worrying about its impacts; 64% of us according to recent polling to be exact. It is no longer enough to wait every few years at the voting booth to have citizens’ concerns heard and demand urgent action. 

Where citizens feel dis-enabled from issues that negatively affect them, citizen assemblies are a democratic tool that connects government and the community to co-create policy change. Everyday people can come together to deliberate on complex issues, being informed on climate policies like flooding, retrofitting homes, restoring green spaces or the divestment from fossil fuels. A recent example comes from the Wandsworth Air Quality Climate Assembly. Launched in early 2023, the London Borough of Wandsworth invited 50 people to take part in a deliberative process facilitated by Shared Future. The assembly members were posed the following question:

“How can we all tackle poor air quality across Wandsworth in a way that improves our health and addresses climate change?” 

They took part in a range of detailed conversations with each other, and in question-and-answer sessions with ‘commentator’s with knowledge and experience of issues around air quality. Assembly members collaborated in writing a statement and voted on a wide range of recommendations that were submitted to the council and launched in June 2023.

We feel the process can be best described by those who took part. Below are reflections from individuals who either facilitated or joined the Wandsworth climate assembly. Firstly, we asked Shared Future facilitator Jenny Willis for her thoughts on what most personally impacted her from helping residents tackle this complex topic. 

Shared Future Facilitator Jenny Willis

 

It was seeing the assembly members respond to the information given and thinking through what they could do themselves to reduce the harms they faced, even if just simple things like standing further away from a polluting bus.

 

Then going a step further and thinking about Wandsworth as a community, thinking together as a community and finding ways to act on a collective level. You can see people first respond individually, but then start to be aware of their collective voice, and how we can take this on outside of just ourselves. It was inspiring to see that awareness of being ‘in community’ being formed.

“Quite a lot of people are scared when confronted with big issues over which they have little control.”

Whilst air quality was the prominent topic in this jury, if you live in London climate change is constantly in the background. People see it discussed all over the media, but I find people really welcome getting under the skin of an issue, getting a different perspective and a better understanding about how it all connects with where they live. 

Air pollution is such a big issue, most people initially avoid or switch off from it. But after a while of being involved, they are also grateful to have a route from ‘knowing it’s a problem’ to ‘knowing action can be taken’. Our processes can make a big issue seem more manageable.” 

We also asked a number of participants what they had learned, and what had changed for them.

Assembly Member James

 

I really enjoyed the whole process – growing and learning with the other participants.

 

When I received the invitation in the post for the citizens assembly, I was curious about the Air quality in my local area and thought that Wandsworth was one of the “greener” boroughs. 

Being a part of the Air Quality Citizens Assembly really opened mine and many of the participants’ eyes. I liked that before offering our recommendations, we learned so much from the experts who came in to speak with us.

There were also a variety of activities that we all took part in, which allowed us to think critically about our recommendations, considering whether they are feasible and the positives and negatives that may arise from implementing a recommendation. Everyone who took part were of varying ages and backgrounds, giving a diverse range of opinions. 

Being able to bounce ideas off each other was definitely one of my favourite parts of participating. We were able to review each other’s recommendations and rework them before entering them into the online questionnaire for the public to have their say which recommendations they believed would be beneficial. 

I was guilty like many others of not knowing the extent of pollutants within the air. Initially I believed that Co2 emissions were one of the main air pollutants globally. However, after listening to the experts who participated in the Air quality citizens assembly it opened my eyes to other pollutants such as PM2.5 from dust pollution, which are the micro particles which can penetrate and corrode lung function and can even affect the respiratory function of unborn children. Which can lead to asthma as well as other limiting respiratory functions.

During the assembly I also learnt about PM10’s, which is another form of particle pollutant which can damage the lung surface and cause lung tissue damage. The main sources of PM10’s in London were broken down for us by Commentator Maria Vaz from The Wandsworth Council’s Air Quality team as follows: 

Road transport dust 30%, Construction 24%, Wood Burning 18%, Commercial cooking 16% and Domestic power 10%

This opened my eyes to air pollutants not only being linked to emissions, but also from other sources that many in the community may not consider. My concerns around air quality have changed and I now feel better informed about the different types of pollutants and its effects. Knowing the effects of long-term exposure has forced me to think about the ways in which I can reduce my exposure, such as purchasing an air purifier, avoiding walking next to busy high streets if possible and taking more care in my fitness to assist in healthier lungs.

I know myself, and I’m sure many others who took part, are sharing our learnings on air quality and the severity of the situation with our families and friends. I look forward to seeing how Wandsworth Council plans to implement the Committee’s recommendations in the coming months. 

Assembly Member Annanya

 

“As a Londoner, I want to make changes that positively impact my immediate environment without curtailing my freedoms.” 

 

I am lucky to live in Wandsworth with access to the river walk and open spaces yet be close to central London. 

I sold my petrol car this year and now drive an eco-friendlier model, which is also more economical to run. I prefer to use local services and shops where possible, which also supports local business. It’s great that more shops are opening in Putney which gives us more choice as well! 

Making small home improvements can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve had LED bulbs for some years now but unfortunately, solar and battery energy is not that easy to acquire and requires an investment. I think the jury is still out on heat pumps, but technology is changing rapidly so I try to read the news to stay up to date. 

Assembly Member Ellis

 

“It was amazing to see that there were so many people from within the borough in attendance who were passionate about either improving air quality or learning more about air quality.” 

 

The sources of pollution aren’t always quite as obvious as we think. Yes, vehicles and transit are a big cause, but so is commercial cooking, building & domestic/commercial heating. 

The fact that air quality can be measured through gas and/or particle matter was super important as was the impact that poor air quality can have on those exposed the most (often those from already under supported backgrounds).

The council is full of incredibly knowledgeable and passionate people who have a lot of experience working within air quality. The decisions made are backed up by robust data, with ideas supported by professors, academics, and experts. There is constant monitoring done on air quality and numerous initiatives to make us all healthier and happier already. 

I gained an awful lot more information about what is already happening both in Wandsworth and across London to address air pollution. After being fortunate enough to take part in the public consultation, attend & speak at a council meeting to share the recommendations made by the assembly and speak on a public webinar about it, I feel like I’ve seen first-hand that the council takes democracy seriously. 

On top of this, I have made some great friends and connected with people I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. I’m now even more informed to keep having those conversations with people I meet about the importance of good air quality and ways that we can all live healthy lives. 

Coming together as a community and participating in assemblies helps citizens to think and act differently responding to climate issues. It empowers those to use their shared perspectives and life experiences to strengthen their voice in local decision making processes. For the assembly members like above, the impact of their participation is clear. Since the completion of the climate assembly, Wandsworth council has launched the Air Quality Action Plan, where 48 out of the 53 recommendations proposed by its members will be implemented or partially implemented over the next 5 years. For the multitude of overwhelming challenges climate change brings, citizen voices can overcome them. Let’s participate and tackle these challenges, one citizen assembly at a time.