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Wales is slipping behind on climate change action – can this government close the ambition gap?

 

As we launch a new animation all about climate change and why the Welsh Government needs to act urgently and decisively to tackle it, my colleague Jessica McQuade, who is WWF Cymru’s Policy and Advocacy Officer, asks if the new Government can close what she calls the ‘ambition gap’ on climate action.

Over the past three years I have written a number of times about how the Welsh Government needs to demonstrate serious, fast and fair emission reduction.

The Government has consistently set its ambition at international conferences and said the right things. After a lot of pressure from our sector, it even created a statutory obligation to reduce emissions.

But the statistics on emission reduction and evidence of Government action—through a substantive emission abatement policy or the genuine integration of emission reduction in other government business and portfolios other than Environment—tell a very different story.

The National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory’s latest statistics show the difference between Wales and Scotland. Wales has reduced its emissions by 18% from the base year compared to Scotland’s 46%.

So in this blog, and in the context of a new Welsh Government and its statutory obligations on sustainable development, I offer an update on this dichotomy between intention and delivery, providing a view on what we need to see from the new government to help address this ‘ambition gap’.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act

A view of the Senedd building in Cardiff BayThe Welsh Government needs to act now to tackle climate change. © iStock

The Well-being of Future Generations and Environment Acts set a statutory framework for moving towards being a sustainable nation. Each of them presents risks and challenges which need to be careful navigated if they are to deliver on their purpose: transformational change to the way government does business.

The original intention of the Well-being of Future Generations Act was to put sustainable development at the heart of decision-making. Through its goals and principles, it correctly reflects the globally-recognised definition of sustainable development. That is, for the well-being of current generations, and even more so for future ones, we need to manage and protect the environmental resources that enable people to prosper.

One of the clearest red alerts for unsustainable development is high greenhouse gas emissions. There can be no doubt that the effect of climate change is starting to be felt here in Wales, and around the world. The Committee on Climate Change recently highlighted that climate change poses considerable risks in Wales – from its impacts on marine ecosystems, farming and forestry through to business sites and rail infrastructure.

And WWF’s biennial Living Planet Report, due to be published later this month, will highlight the effect climate change is having on species and people around the world.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act is a big piece of law covering a considerable range of policy areas. What’s more, as a governance framework that provides a direction of travel, the risk is that addressing environmental issues, including tackling climate change, at the scale required to secure the well-being of future generations will be inadequate. Similarly, there is a risk that Government simply doesn’t understand the scale of action required to meet the environmental aspects of the Act.

The challenge: keeping the environment on the agenda

Three differently coloured terraced houses in WalesA high proportion of the 20,000 new homes the Welsh Government wants to build should be low-energy homes. © Alexander Baxevanis / Creative Commons

The challenge now is to make sure that the environment isn’t lost in the narrative around the Act, and that the Government understands why it is so vital in supporting its other objectives. There can be no doubting people’s right to good healthcare, an affordable home, and a strong economy. The true test of how the Welsh Government uses the Act is when environmental issues including tackling climate change are integrated in all these considerations. Put simply, living in cold homes has a negative effect on people’s health, so the Department of Health, Well-being and Sport could give budget for energy efficiency measures which would, in turn, help reduce emissions from the residential sector.

The Welsh economy has high-emitting industries within it which, as we’ve seen recently, are at the mercy of global markets and present a certain risk to job security. These industries, too, negatively affect health due to air pollution. That’s why the Welsh Government’s economic strategy should act as a transition plan to a low-carbon economy.

The 20,000 new homes the Government intends to build should be low-carbon and energy-efficient. Indeed, any government serious about the well-being of future generations would not commit to building homes that are unfit for the future.

As others have said, the Programme for Government does not offer enough detail to determine if this is the approach the Government plans to take. We hope the four forthcoming strategies flowing from the Programme for Government will set out more detail on green growth and skills development, renewable energy, and tackling climate change. They must also integrate emission reduction as a priority that cuts across other programmes and portfolios.

Another key test of this Government’s commitment will be how and where it spends its money, especially in the context of the UK’s impending exit from the EU. So WWF Cymru will be evaluating tow what extent the draft Budget enables greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

We will also look at the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. The government’s infrastructure plan should provide for low-carbon developments as the main bulk of capital expenditure, such as increased spending on public transport and home energy efficiency.

The Environment Act

Two men installing PV panelsThe legal target for emission reduction in Wales is 80% by 2050 – but Ministers don’t have to set interim targets and plans until halfway through this Assembly term! © Centre for Alternative Technology / Creative Commons

The Environment Act requires at least an 80% reduction in Welsh emissions by 2050, with interim targets and budgets set along this path. Reasonable enough, you might think. But in actual fact, the Welsh Ministers aren’t required to set budgets, targets or plans until late 2018/19. That will be halfway through the Fifth Assembly!

As a consequence, we run the risk of having a government in danger of providing no detail and undertaking no substantial emission reduction during most of its term of office. That’s why we and others are calling on the Government to maintain its commitment to a 40% reduction by 2020. The strategies underpinning the Programme for Government must give detail and plans on how it will meet this target.

The First Minister said he wants to lead a transparent, more accountable, and collaborative government. So we expect to see this delivered in climate policy.

Until we get a plan from this Government on how it will meet the 40% by 2020 target, we will continue to campaign on the same issue. The new Welsh Government promised more this time around, and that is what we need and expect.

WWF Cymru is a member of Stop Climate Chaos Cymru. Throughout October, Stop Climate Chaos Cymru is running ‘Speak Up’ events for the public and AMs to talk about climate action. To find our more and sign up to an event, visit www.stopclimatechaoscymru.org.

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