Election Special 7: Now is not the time to stand still on climate change

Haf Elgar argues that the party manifestos show a lack of ambition on the environment

The four main parties’ Assembly election manifestoes are showing little ambition on environmental issues. Generally they seek to confirm existing policies rather than commit to new promises. But with green house gas emissions increasing and the crisis of climate change deepening, now is the time for Wales to be doing more, not standing still.

The four parties are re-stating commitments to the current emission reduction targets. Yet both Labour and the Conservatives recognise that this isn’t enough, and so when can we expect targets that match what the science demands? The Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru promise ‘carbon budgets’ to assess the effect of all government plans on carbon emissions. As something Friends of the Earth has long campaigned for, we hope to see this in the programme of any incoming government.

The Welsh General Election

This is the seventh in a series of articles we are publishing in the run-up to the National Assembly election next Thursday. Tomorrow we put health under the microscope, when Professor Marcus Longley, Director of the Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care at the University of Glamorgan, asks whether the parties are hiding their heads in the sand in this key policy area.

The Conservatives propose a Climate Change Bill for Wales with long-term and annual targets, a monitoring system and powers for Ministers. Labour goes down a different legislative track, and promises to embed the principle of sustainable development in legislation. We hope this will be strong enough to guarantee people and communities a healthy environment now and in the future.

All four parties’ rhetoric is encouragingly supportive of green jobs, renewable energy, railway electrification and local food production. If the action can match the words, Wales will reap the benefit of the rapidly expanding green economy.

All the manifestos give the greatest attention to energy, ranging from Labour’s commitment to generate twice Wales’ current electricity demand from renewable sources by 2025, to the extremely ambitious Conservative aim to produce 100 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2025. Considering that the EU target is 20 per cent of energy from renewables by 2020 (with the UK agreeing to a 15 per cent target as its contribution), is this another example of the manifesto gremlins at work and confusing ‘energy’ with ‘electricity’?

There’s also still considerable appetite to develop tidal energy, especially the Severn estuary. We hope this means developing modern, environmentally acceptable options such as tidal lagoons, and not resurrecting support for the large Cardiff to Weston barrage dinosaur.

Conservatives and Labour are calling for the devolution of power on energy generation from the current 50MW to 100MW, while Plaid Cymru is asking for devolving all functions in the areas of energy generation in order to make the most of our natural resources.

The ‘Arbed’ home energy efficiency scheme proves its success and popularity, with warm homes or fuel poverty being emphasised by all parties. Housing is responsible for about a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in Wales, and improving the energy efficiency of houses has a positive effect on local job creation and health. It is difficult to say where financial commitments are new or part of the planned Arbed phase 2 or the fuel poverty scheme. However, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour certainly promise additional funding.

There is the odd innovative idea in the middle of the rhetoric. Examples include the ‘Square Meal, Square Mile’ initiative from Plaid Cymru to increase the use of local sustainable food in schools and hospitals, the Liberal Democrat plan to introduce a Wales-wide Oystercard scheme for public transport, and the Conservatives’ ‘Blue Belts’ to prevent development on floodplains from.

However, it’s what’s missing from these hefty documents that can sometimes be surprising. One of the most bizarre is that the Liberal Democrats fail to mention waste policy at all – despite numerous references to wasting public resources. Although the others offer support for recycling, there is no mention of the controversial plans to build massive incinerators to burn waste, despite prominent campaigns opposing them in Merthyr, Cardiff and north Wales. And despite Wales’ pioneering role as one of the first GM-free regions in Europe, none mention keeping Wales GM-free.

Considering the emphasis on energy, it seems strange that only the Liberal Democrats mention nuclear power. Although it’s not a direct Assembly responsibility, the parties haven’t shied away from stating views on other non-devolved issues.

The manifestos may well have had the seal of approval from the parties before the nuclear disaster in Japan. But with last week’s 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, which is still having an impact on farms in north Wales, and a second nuclear plant proposed for Wylfa, it is very strange for parties not to raise concerns about the safety and cost of nuclear.

Haf Elgar is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Cymru.

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