In too many countries, decision-making on climate change rests solely in the hands of a limited set of policymakers and planners. This is a lost opportunity to build awareness, political commitment and accountability for the kind of transformational change needed to get the world on a more sustainable path.

New WRI research focuses on a group of countries (Canada, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Ireland, South Africa and others) that have initiated national dialogues or other forms of public engagement on climate change, specifically in the context of long-term planning. Our findings highlight the complexity and challenges of negotiating different and sometimes divergent interests, building trust, and enhancing the access of historically marginalized groups, while devising a national strategy that promotes inclusive economic development on an ambitious, low-carbon trajectory. But the experiences of these countries also give reason for optimism—showing how public input is informing strategies and creating space for critical debates on a national vision for a low-carbon future.

Giving the Public a Voice in Crafting Climate Action

Under the international Paris Agreement on climate change, countries are invited to communicate long-term, low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (known as “long-term strategies”). This is one of the biggest opportunities governments have to involve the public in shaping climate action. Because long-ter strategies lay out a vision for an economic transformation, they offer a timely and important venue for public engagement on climate action.

Transformative climate solutions are by necessity wide-ranging and touch all sectors of the economy and diverse geographies. This will invariably create winners and losers across and within societies. And while most studies show economy-wide decarbonization will produce net job growth, the jobs created may require different skills, may be located in different places, and may be created at different times than the jobs lost. Thus, measures like enhanced and targeted social protection programs and job training will be necessary to minimize socioeconomic and community disruption. These programs need to be designed with the input and support of the intended beneficiaries or risk being rejected, misunderstood or underutilized.

For instance, when carbon-intensive industries are interwoven into the social identities of communities, their decline may threaten not only incomes, but also a sense of purpose and self. A deliberative, participatory process may help to reestablish a sense of control for workers who face transitions and dislocation.

Besides directly affected workers, public interest and consumer groups may want to know how climate solutions could affect their daily lives, including the transportation they take to work, the quality of the air they breathe, their energy prices, and job opportunities in new industries. An inclusive process allows stakeholders to learn about a long-term strategy and contribute their ideas so that they can inform specific plans or policies.

Examples from France, Germany and Costa Rica

When France developed its Low-Carbon National Strategy, the country built upon the stakeholder-driven process it used to develop its 2015 Energy Transition for Green Growth Law. (At that time, France institutionalized a multi-stakeholder “Council for the Energy Transition,” which represented social, environmental and consumer protection NGOs, businesses, trade unions, subnational authorities, and members of the National Assembly and Senate.) This process was supported by a citizen advisory committee, an independent steering committee, and a five-year review process facilitated by the multi-stakeholder council allowing stakeholders to monitor and transparently inform the development of national laws.

Surveys of officials from countries that have developed long-term strategies show that the stakeholder engagement process can impact the substance of the strategy. Specifically, in France, it led to greater equity for low-income households, by increasing the strategy’s emphasis on energy efficiency improvements in low-income housing rather than just focusing on low carbon energy sources. However, we know that stakeholder engagement has not always been pursued effectively in every policy context. Look no further than the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests: though rooted in anger over the repeal of France’s wealth tax and other measures viewed to benefit elites, the tinder was sparked by a carbon tax on fuel.

In some cases, targeted stakeholder dialogues can inform the targets and pathways to achieving long-term strategies. In Germany, for instance, a government-appointed committee comprised of representatives of government, industry, trade unions, environmental NGOs and academia were mandated to agree on a phase-out date for coal. The members of the commission visited several mining districts to take up the issue with those who would be directly impacted. After exchanging views, the committee proposed a just transition policy package to the German government, including a phase-out date of 2038 at the latest, with an option to end by 2035. This exercise was in addition to the original stakeholder engagement process to develop Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050, which included several approaches like citizen conferences held in five cities and a public online dialogue.

In Costa Rica, not only were a wide-range of stakeholders engaged in the process to develop the national decarbonization plan, the plan itself spans a broad range of issues, including sustainable development priorities. It’s one of the first long-term strategies to specifically incorporate cross-cutting issues of human rights, gender and a just transition, all driven by the need to ensure the plan represents and addresses all citizens’ concerns. To manage tense discussions, the Costa Rican government involved a professional moderator during the stakeholder process. One of the most contentious issues to emerge after the launch of the plan was when the state-owned oil refinery announced it would prioritize the use of ethanol, despite a focus on zero-emissions electric mobility. Although integrating ethanol into the fuel mix could reduce emissions in the near-term, a lack of evidence about effectiveness and investment costs resulted in strong opposition. The decision has been postponed for a year to collect further technical feedback. This example highlights the reality that not all dialogues will reach consensus easily, and that adequate time is required to negotiate differences and provide evidence and analysis.

Time for National Dialogues on Climate Action

National dialogues and other forms of public engagement offer an opportunity to hear citizens’ concerns, discuss tradeoffs, and explore policies to ensure social protections and job opportunities. They can also strengthen linkages to other national planning processes and strategic goals around gender equality, climate resilience and poverty reduction. When a strategy reflects this feedback, including how it was considered, it builds trust between civil society and government and strengthens everyone’s commitment to implement and achieve climate goals.

Ultimately, the success of a long-term strategy depends on its ability to shape policies and regulations in the near-, medium- and long-term. By building partnership and ownership across diverse constituencies, the process of writing a long-term strategy can help build coalitions of support for implementation over the long-term.

As time goes by, political power and budgetary resources may change and shift. Countries should consider the institutional arrangements (rules, structures, processes) that will help ensure the public stays engaged throughout the design, implementation and potential revision of a long-term strategy. WRI’s analysis of the governance arrangements of long-term strategies highlights the diverse approaches countries have taken to involve stakeholders, as well as strengthen the political and legal foundations for realizing their long-term, low-emissions development visions. Involving the public in long-term strategies comes with challenges, but the alternative—excluding those who are affected—is not viable.