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Why we can’t lose Wales’ leadership on sustainable development


Following the Welsh elections, as the work of forming a new administration and Programme for Government gets underway, WWF-UK Ambassador and former Welsh Government Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing Dr Jane Davidson calls on the next Welsh Government to consider their legacy on sustainable development.

A wind farm off the coast of North East Wales at duskAchieving sustainability requires us to decarbonise our economy and use more renewable energy. Image © Aaron (zipzooka) / Flickr Creative Commons

Eliminating poverty, promoting prosperity, protecting the environment – there are no bigger challenges in the interests of future generations than those the world seeks to address through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (and through the Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions) supported by the 193 countries of the UN General Assembly and signed off by David Cameron on behalf of the UK.

It’s only through radical change by delivering on sustainable development that humans and nature can survive and thrive for mutual benefit. The SDGs are globally important and apply to all countries; signing up to them is just the beginning. They cannot be achieved without a major culture shift in government away from short-term political expediency to a way of making decisions which gives much more regard to the needs of future generations.

Yet despite the importance of this change, as yet, the UK Government has no coherent plans to deliver on the UN SDGs in the UK.

Wales and its political institutions have an additional challenge. Since the first National Assembly in 1999, Wales has had a duty to promote sustainable development, a duty that was dramatically increased last year from promotion to delivery with the passing of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act into law. The new law places a duty on Welsh public bodies – including councils, schools and hospitals – to look after the long-term interests of our children and grandchildren while taking decisions on present day concerns. The new Act is also the focus for how Wales will deliver on the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets.

The Senedd building in Cardiff Bay, seat of the National Assembly for Wales.Last year, members of the National Assembly for Wales passed the pioneering Well-being of Future Generations Act into law. Image © iStock

This does not, however, mean that Welsh leadership on sustainability is a done deal. The intent and spirit of the Act is to drive radical change in how all public services decisions are made – a single shared purpose for Wales. In fact, Welsh Government itself is also accountable under the Act, which presents a huge challenge to civil servants gearing up for a new administration.

Sustainable development is about making sure that we do things differently to avoid landing future generations with problems of our making – be it poor health or an unsafe climate. It means coming up with solutions that improve people’s lives, not just in the short term but also in the long term and in a joined-up way.

Wales’ ambition is a positive example of a country rising to new challenges. So, as the parties discuss forming a Programme for Government, I urge them to think hard about how their plans for the next five years can show real leadership on sustainability. We need a Programme that proudly declares that Wales truly is a country taking a different approach, away from the old ways of short-termism. To make sustainable development real, it must focus on outcomes and the decision-making process

WWF, for whom I am an ambassador, has set out some key tests for the new Welsh Government. These include: making it a national infrastructure priority to take large-scale action to improve the energy efficiency of the entire Welsh housing stock; improving the way we manage our seas by using the ‘ecosystem approach’ legislated-for in the recent Environment (Wales) Act 2016; and developing a plan to make our economy resilient to a changing global context including a more circular economy and providing for a ‘just transition’ to sustainable jobs, while valuing our beautiful natural resources.

A small model home wearing a red, knitted woolen hat and scarf.Improving the energy efficiency of Welsh homes will reduce emissions, create jobs, and tackle fuel poverty. Image © iStock

A shift in public procurement towards Fairtrade goods, and environmentally-certified goods such as MSC fish and FSC timber would show we are starting to take our consumption of global resources more seriously.

The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 means Welsh Ministers now have a statutory requirement to reduce Welsh greenhouse gas emissions. However with no reduction target required to be set until the end of 2018 in, the new Government needs to include detailed policies that set out how they will meet the current commitment of a 40% reduction by 2020.

These are all clear indicators of whether a new Government is integrating sustainability into its delivery.

Just as important as specific policies is the adoption of new thinking in decision-making.

We want to see evidence of this in the development of major collaborative projects, such as the City Regions. They need to be designed to maximise multiple benefits – for society, economy, culture and environment – across all the goals of the Act. Thus they should drive progress for a low-carbon economy, respecting environmental limits and a biodiverse natural environment. They should not fall back into the old ways of justifying environmental damage because economic benefits ‘outweigh’ environmental concerns.

Three children sat on a tree in rolling Welsh mountain landscapeThe challenge for Wales’ new politicians is to deliver a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. © iStock

Around a third of the Assembly are new members. My plea to the next generation of Welsh politicians is this: what legacy would you like to leave your children and grandchildren? Embed the new Act and new thinking in your plans now.

Responsibility for this will rest firmly with the new First Minister who should tear up processes favouring the short term in favour of better decisions treating future generations with more fairness and equity.

This change will require the brave, bold and decisive leadership that Assembly Members showed when passing the legislation, unrivalled anywhere in the world. Welsh politicians, past and present, should be proud they have created this chance to make a nation fit for the future, and provide leadership for the UK and more widely on how to meet our international obligations on SDGs. After all, if as Nikhil Seth from the UN said at the Act’s launch ‘What Wales is doing today, the world will do tomorrow’, the incoming politicians must rise to the challenge of leadership, at home and abroad.

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