A combination of the recession, austerity budgets and government indifference is pushing climate change and the green agenda off the front pages. The clearest signal was given a few months ago by the UK Coalition’s cutting its funding of the Sustainable Development Commission from next March.
Against this background Environment Minister Jane Davidson is struggling to keep the flame of sustainable development alive in Wales ahead of her own departure from political life when she leaves the Assembly next May. She is determined to leave in place a structure that can sustain (that word) the environmental imperative in all its forms at the heart of the Welsh Government’s mission.
Recently she appointed Peter Davies, Chair of the IWA’s West Wales Branch, as the first independent Chair of the Climate Change Commission for Wales. Peter moves seamlessly into that post from being the Welsh voice of the London-based Sustainable Development Commission. With him he brings his Welsh-based staff who will merge with the those working for the Welsh Government sponsored Cynnal Cymru: Sustain Wales to create a new organisation.
How exactly this new regime will operate, especially the character of its arms length relationship with its paymaster the Welsh Government, is still being worked out. The major challenge is translating the Government’s commitment to embed ‘sustainable development’ as the “central organising principle” of all its policies into facts on the ground. The core challenge is the Government’s carbon reduction commitment of 3 per cent year-on year. So far it is only achieving around 1 per cent.
At a stakeholder’s in Cardiff meeting last week to discuss the nuts and bolts of getting the new organisation up and running, Jane Davidson conceded that the agenda was “hugely ambitious”. As she put it, “I don’t know of another country which is attempting to do it.”
A key challenge will be for the Welsh Climate Change Commission – now operating without the support of a pan-UK organisation – to achieve profile and clout. Jane Davidson hinted that one option would be to put it on a par with the offices of the Children’s and Older Peoples Commissions. These have the backing of legislation and a quasi-judicial role that provides power and status. They also have considerable staff resources and budgets – £1.8 million for the Children’s Commissioner and £1.5 million for the Older Peoples Commissioner – and are answerable to the National Assembly rather than the Welsh Government. In contrast the Climate Change Commission has no legal basis, is a smaller operation with a budget of around £500,000, and reports directly to the Welsh Government.
Davidson said the option of giving the Climate Change Commission equivalent status was still on the table, but would require legislation and that would be impossible this side of next year’s election. “We need to put the new arrangements in place before the election,” she said. “I would worry if the decision was left until after the Assembly election. When I took over as Environment Minister it took me a good six to twelve months to get on top of this agenda.”
Peter Davies told the meeting that as well as providing expert advice and providing an independent review and audit of the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Development Scheme, the new Commission had the added, and more difficult role of mobilising the nation as a whole in mitigating and adapting to climate change. This he said, would require:
- Finding the authority to communicate across the silos of government departments.
- Drawing in influences and advice from outside Wales.
- Bring key sectors together and especially involving the business world.
- Creating partnerships with other bodies such as the Wales Audit Office.
- Creating space and resources to undertake specific pieces of research.
A major challenge for the Commission will be communicating its message in terms that people can readily understand. For instance, although obviously connected, sustainable development, tackling climate change, and carbon reduction are not the same things. Moreover, the terminology is calculated to make the eyes glaze over.
Campaigners desperately need to find a vocabulary that connects their green aspirations more imaginatively, not just with the wider public, but with sceptical civil servants in the Department of Economic Development and Transport – who, understandably, remain wedded to the twin causes of carbon-inducing growth and jobs.
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