The European Green Deal (EGD) is the most ambitious environmental policy framework in the history of Europe. With this framework, Europe aims to become the first climate-neutral region in the world by 2050. The EGD is accompanied with plans to include citizens in decision making as part of an effort to address low confidence in European governments and distance between European citizens and policymakers. Citizen engagement is now seen as an important tool in efforts to achieve the ambitious goals of the European Green Deal. However, it remains unclear how citizen engagement can be organised in an impactful way and what criteria will be used to ensure meaningful citizen participation.
To clarify these questions, a list with 16 criteria for meaningful citizen engagement has been proposed. A literature review has been completed which surveys eight environmental frameworks and their approaches to meaningful citizen participation and deliberation. These frameworks are ecocentrism, biocentrism, ecomodernism, ecofeminism, environmental pragmatism, environmental citizenship, environmental rights, and environmental justice.
The criteria can be used by policymakers, civil society organisations, and society to ensure that citizen participation is organised in a meaningful way. The 16 criteria, divided into 5 categories, are formulated as follows:
Be aware of power imbalances
When creating spaces for deliberation or participation, it is crucial to be aware of power imbalances and the history of these imbalances. To reach environmental transformations and a sustainable future, unequal societal structures need to change.
- Policymakers should examine who benefits from certain environmental policies, thereby paying attention to current and historical power asymmetries. Environmental policies should include the working class, which can bring about lay-expert knowledge.
- Legislators and policymakers need to consider inequalities (such as racialized groups, gender, or class) in the design of legal frameworks and the implementation of deliberative and participative tools. The values and cultures of people who will be impacted must be considered and represented.
- Civil society actors in the Global North must reflect on their relationship with civil society actors in the Global South. Movements must be built on solidarity and existing structures of oppression should be challenged.
- Alternative spaces for participation that address power imbalances should be created to foster equal participation from structurally excluded groups.
Promoting and ensuring inclusiveness
Participation and deliberation should be inclusive so a wide variety of beliefs, values, and knowledge can be considered. Groups that are often excluded from current policies need to be included, such as women in all their diversity, working class groups, actors in the Global South, and with humans as their representatives. Tokenism should be avoided, meaning that their inclusion should not just be a symbolic effort.
- Policymakers need to ensure a compromise about what most citizens deem acceptable, but sometimes they also need to be aware that finding a middle-ground is not easy. In these cases, they should be prepared to make difficult decisions to achieve environmental objectives.
- Citizens should not be left out because they are unable to reason and debate as strongly as others. Group deliberations should therefore not be the only form of participation.
- While being pragmatic about participation and deliberation on environmental issues is often effective, it is fundamental that the values of citizens are not lost along the way. Therefore, recognizing a plurality of values and beliefs and taking an intersectional approach is fundamental.
- The participation of local and Indigenous groups—especially women—is often hindered by structural barriers. Their participation should be promoted.
Work with and protect nature
People are the only species that are actively engaged in participation and deliberation practices and should therefore reflect on the needs of other species and the environment. The intrinsic value of nature should be regarded.
- We should not view ourselves as the only things of moral considerability. The needs of all species and the environment should be recognized within environmental policy.
- Because non-human organisms, species, and the environment cannot voice their concerns politically, human citizens need to include these voices within deliberation.
Collaborating with bottom-up activism and cultivating environmental citizenship
For environmental movements as well as gender equality, the voice of local and grass-roots groups should be considered.
- Demonstrations are a way for citizens to show that they are unhappy with policy. These and other types of bottom-up activism contribute to political dialogues and can be a trigger of change. Policymakers need to respond to these criticisms.
- International institutions like the United Nations or the European Union should consult with grassroots groups and promote their participation in decisions that affect their environment.
- Decision-makers need to create conditions to foster environmental citizenship and improve the environmental awareness of citizens.
Transitioning to a Green Economy
There are different visions on the desirability of a green economy. Some approaches focus not only on economic growth but also on societal change. Others want to completely move away from economic growth and instead centralize wellbeing and care for people and the planet.
- Transitions are not only driven by politics and the market. Civic and cultural mobilization should become the main advancing agents of change. Societal groups could create new institutional forms or new lay-expert modes of engagement to build new design ecologies.
- The role of the individual citizen needs to be extended beyond that of a consumer of the environment, and they need to be involved in active participation based on collective action. Decision makers should not simply encourage people to purchase green products as a way of public participation, but also engage people in meaningful political action and be open to radical change.
- A conceptualization of well-being that moves away from the current economic focus on growth and instead centers care for people and the planet should be promoted.
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The study that led to the formulation of these 16 criteria is described in an article. This open access paper can be accessed here.