‘Bristol must take urgent action on alarming lack of diversity in climate change decision-making’

New research has found white men dominate key climate discussion in Bristol, which clashes with the city’s commitment to a just transition. Dr Alix Dietzel explains why this matters on the eve of COP26, and what Bristol needs to do.

Illustration: Sophia Checkley

In February 2020, Bristol launched its ambitious One City Climate Strategy, committing to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. The plan for responding to climate change calls for a fair and collaborative approach based upon a just transition – a transition to a zero-carbon future that is green, sustainable, and socially inclusive.

This is important because combating climate change will take huge shifts in behaviour at every scale of society, from the individual to the global, and every sector, from energy to transport to food. No one can be left behind in the response to climate change.

Today, new research funded by the Cabot Institute for the Environment at Bristol University has found that Bristol is committed to just transition, but there is an urgent need to address an alarming lack of diversity in who participates in climate change decision-making. White men dominate the conversation, speaking 66% of the time in the meetings we observed while those from visible ethnic minority backgrounds only spoke 3% of the time. 

This year-long study carried out by myself and Dr Alice Venn focused on six Bristol-based actors engaged in climate policy: two from the public sector (Bristol One City Environment and Economics Board, Bristol Advisory Committee on Climate Change) two from the private sector (Arup, Cycling Works), and two from civil society (Black and Green Ambassadors, Liveable Neighbourhoods). This allowed us to get an insight into decision-making at multiple scales across the city. 

It was important to us to study just transition at the city level because we have become rather weary of state-based climate change politics and were keen to see if the city level showed more promise. Our project sought to find out what happens once a city promises a just transition. How is a just transition being interpreted and how is it being pursued? Who is involved in this process ‘on the ground’? 

We wanted to know: do these actors consider the idea of a just transition in their work? How do they strive to achieve this? Is their decision-making fair and inclusive? What are the barriers and what are the opportunities to just transition? Using a mixture of nine hours of observations and 12 expert interviews, we aimed to inform the development of a more just and inclusive climate policy response in Bristol and beyond.

The research found that participation in climate change decision-making is heavily skewed towards white men, especially in terms of the number of times spoken. White men made up 40% of participants in meetings and spoke 64% of the time, while white women made up 41% of participants in meetings and spoke 33% of the time. By comparison, women of colour made up 14% of participants in meetings and spoke 2% of the time, and men of colour made up 5% of participants in meetings and spoke just 1% of the time.

These issues are now more important than ever, with the UK hosting the crucial COP26 summit in November, which has been described as the last chance for governments around the world to prevent climate disaster. International decision-making at these kinds of summits has been heavily criticised for being deeply exclusionary and unfair. Those from the Global South, particularly indigenous communities, are often either not included in big decisions, or their voices are drowned out by countries in the Global North when it comes to writing final policy outcomes. 

Aside from conversations in Bristol being dominated by white men, our study also found that space and time for meaningful critique of current policy processes was lacking in most meetings. This is problematic, because criticisms must be made if there is any hope of achieving the radical change needed to move forward with the climate targets. 

In addition, it wasn’t quite clear who had ‘ownership’ of the strategy – if just transition is to be achieved, there must be concrete steps laid out on how to get there. At the moment, the strategy is very ambitious, but slightly too vague considering there are only nine years left to make Bristol ‘carbon neutral’ (which means there would be zero emissions in total, by lowering emissions and/or ensuring emissions are offset in the city).

Dr Alix Dietzel and Dr Alice Venn who produced the policy briefing

We weren’t surprised by our findings, because we have seen very similar problems of inclusion and vague policymaking at the global level. But the lack of space for critical engagement was surprising, given that it’s easier to have more informal and creative dialogue at city level compared with global level. 

Going forward, Dr Venn and myself have been invited to work with the One City Office and the Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees to make some recommendations for change. For now, we suggest that the city engages the public on the idea of just transition and invites participation and feedback on its plans. 

Opportunities to hold decision-making bodies accountable should also be provided, such as public forums or complaints procedures. We also urge much better inclusion of ethnic minorities, people who are disabled, people from working-class backgrounds, younger and older people, in light of the disproportionate climate impacts experienced by these groups.

In November, I will be attending COP26 in Glasgow on behalf of the Cabot Institute, which funded our research, to observe and to meet with policymakers to discuss just transition. I expect to see some of the issues we highlighted here play a role, as they always do. 

Negotiations will be exclusionary, especially with some delegations being left out due to Covid, and the decisions made will not be radical or result in immediate systemic changes. However, there is some hope at hand – there is an appetite for a just response to climate change all over the world, especially among younger generations. I hope this will influence the negotiations and start to break down some of the issues that have plagued the climate negotiations for decades.  

Dr Alix Dietzel is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Bristol, SPAIS. She is a climate justice and climate policy expert. You can read the full policy briefing here

The Bristol Cable