This post is by Jonathan Tench, international partnerships and networks adviser at the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.
Try and write about Wales and climate change without referencing coal. It’s impossible to avoid how coal, steel and slate forged modern Wales. Industrial emissions in South Wales account for over a tenth of the UK’s current carbon footprint. But, with this week’s announcement that Wales intends to make coal history, it’s Wales’ future path to net zero that is now unavoidable, due to a unique and world leading law which applies long term planning to protect current and future generations.
What a difference an act makes
In 2015, cross party support delivered the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (Wales), referred to as the act from here on. It enshrines wellbeing goals, aligned to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, into law and places a duty on Welsh public bodies to achieve them. Sophie Howe was appointed as the world’s first ever Future Generations Commissioner, to advise, promote and review progress on the act.
This act has shifted Welsh ministers away from short term, traditional economic development thinking to a longer term and holistic view of wellbeing. Over the past few years, environmental groups and the Future Generations Commissioner have argued that the economic case for a proposal to extend the M4 motorway did not outweigh the social and environmental costs, or the costs that future generations would bear. The first minister concurred and, in 2019, the plan was shelved. Instead, Wales is aiming for its citizens to ditch the car for almost half of all journeys under a new transport strategy that aims to be fit for future generations. Wales aspires to jump from third (yes, third) in the global recycling table, to first. From the planning system to pandemic economic recovery plans, Welsh ministers attribute greener, longer term, policy making to the act.
As UK ministers argue if climate change should factor into their decisions around a coal mine in Cumbria, Welsh law requires its ministers in Cardiff Bay to do just that. There’s still room for improvement, as a cross party Senedd committee found that the Welsh public sector should be going even further to implement and embed the act.
Shifting to a whole of government approach will be the big test
While committed to a 2050 net zero target, Wales has some catching up to do, emissions have fallen by just 31 per cent since 1990, compared to 41 per cent across the UK. The second Welsh carbon budget will need to be published soon after this May’s Senedd elections and should aim for a 37 per cent emission reduction by 2025 to keep on track to the net zero target. More, Wales must accelerate a shift to a comprehensive, whole government strategy for net zero. This will be the biggest test yet for the act.
Wales’ pandemic recovery strategy is a green and wellbeing focused plan for the future. The Future Generations Commissioner recommends that the next Welsh government should go further and do the following: push through land use changes to rapidly expand mixed woodland while protecting and enhancing nature; commit to a ten year plan to retrofit all homes in Wales for energy efficiency; switch Welsh industry and businesses away from fossil fuels to hydrogen, clean electricity and carbon capture and storage; and, finally, support the Welsh public in moving to low carbon vehicles and sustainable consumption habits and diets.
This list involves immediate policy trade-offs, political opportunities and costs. But the act is intended to tilt the balance of these decisions in favour of options which will continue to benefit Wales in 25 years’ time.
The act provides an extra policy lever to get to net zero
Even as the politics of the UK’s four nations diverge, the need to collaborate remains. The South Wales Industrial Cluster will engineer new low carbon solutions financed by the UK government. There will be a competition between the four nations, over which party, or government, has the best plans to get to net zero, and who should take the credit for getting there, or who to blame if we fail. What is clear is that all levers of all the UK’s governments will need to be pulled to do it and Wales has equipped itself with an extra lever through the Well-being for Future Generations Act.
Wales’ main political parties want to see strong UK leadership at COP26 climate summit in Scotland. Wales will head to Glasgow eager to learn how to accelerate our net zero plans. Other countries should observe our progress closely because legislating to embed long term decision making into government is already making a difference here. Future generations depend on other countries following the Welsh example and taking a long-term approach to the climate challenge.
If you’re in Wales, you can add your call for net zero to Climate Cymru which is sending 10,000 Welsh voices to COP26: https://climate.cymru/