Putting Wales at the heart of Rio+20

John Osmond reports on the Welsh Government’s aspirations to make sustainable development its central organising principle

This is about as inauspicious a time that you could imagine to launch a legislative process to make sustainable development the central organising principle the way to run a government. It is not a good moment to call for limits to growth when social democratic forces across Europe, let alone in Wales, are calling for greater expansion to combat the double-dip recession.

Yet this is precisely what the Welsh Government is bravely attempting to pull off. Last week it launched its consultation document (available here) on the Sustainable Development Bill it will be introducing into the Assembly next year.

Today the IWA, together with WWF Cymru and Cynnal Cymru/Sustain Wales are publishing a book Wales’ Central Organising Principle – Legislating for Sustainable Development that explains why what the Welsh Government is trying to do is so vital. All the contributors agree that unless the world starts taking some real measures now to tackle global warming we are heading for a slow train crash.

If you remain unconvinced about this then I urge you to read a long, but forensic essay in the book by one of Wales’s leading experts on climate change impact, Professor Gareth Wyn Jones. His essay is entitled Overshooting limits: seeking a new paradigm. Certainly, it convinced me that the current widespread response to the fiscal and employment crisis in the Eurozone in the form of calls for more economic growth, describes an addiction that, if we don’t find a way of getting off it, will lead inexorably to catastrophe.

A real problem with all of this is simply getting your head round it. Although some of the most harmful impacts of climate change – such as sea water rise due to melt of the Greenland icecap, leading to flooding of Bangladesh and other low lying areas – may be only 20 or 30 years away, that could be an ice age so far as contemporary politics are concerned.

In his essay Gareth Wyn Jones includes a quotation from Raymond Williams that should spur us on:

“There is wealth only in people and in their land and seas. Uses of wealth which abandon people are so profoundly contradictory that they become a social disaster, on a par with the physical disasters which follow from reckless exploitation of land and seas.”

Another Raymond Williams quotation in the essay, which I particularly like, addresses the sense of hopelessness that so often accompanies climate change debates: “… to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” That should be a motto for the Welsh Government in its efforts to make a mark in the global requirement for measures to mitigate the impact of climate change.

We’ll get a chance to measure the Welsh Government’s determination on Friday when First Minister Carwyn Jones delivers a keynote address to a conference we are organising on Putting Wales at the heart of Rio+20 (details here). The conference examines the practical impact the forthcoming Welsh Government sustainable development legislation will have on delivering the June internatiional summit’s twin goals to:

  • Promote the green economy to eradicate poverty.
  • Put in place institutional frameworks for delivering sustainable development.

Both themes underpin the Welsh Government’s efforts in making sustainable development the central organising principle in its policy development and delivery. The challenge for Carwyn Jones will be to explain what practical contribution he thinks Wales can make when last week’s consultation document was so cautious in its approach. For instance, in describing how a duty in the legislation “to compel organisations delivering public services to act consistently with sustainable development”, the document offers this get out clause (paragraph 74):

“We want to ensure that organisations can be held to account for their performance, but we wish to avoid a system that places unreasonable expectations on decision makers.”

A key part of the legislation will be the placing the Commissioner for Sustainable Futures on a statutory footing, along the lines of the Children’s’ and Older People’s Commissioner. A key question here is how exactly the legislation will set out the role and powers of the Commissioner. A whiff of the Welsh Government’s thinking is provided in paragraph 142 of the consultation:

“We see a role for the new body as an advocate for sustainable development, but we think that to position the new body as an arbitrator of individual grievances against organisations would be the wrong emphasis. We want a significant part of the new body’s role to involve working collaboratively with the organisations delivering public services to encourage sustainable development behaviours. We think that the mutual trust and goodwill needed to bring that about will be better served if the new body has no formal role in adjudicating disputes about operational behaviour.”

The consultation document typifies the attitude of well-meaning governments around the world, which see sustainability as a desirable, but distant objective. As Gareth Wyn Jones puts it in his essay, ‘Oh Lord, make me sustainable but not just yet!’ Of course, as he also states, “This is a sure recipe for overshoot.”

Hilly Wales is not low-lying Bangladesh. Memorably, some years ago, Rhodri Morgan pointed out that there might be desirable changes to Wales’s climate. We might become more of a Mediterranean region with prospects for developing a wine-growing culture. Nevertheless, one way or another the effects of climate change will come knocking at our door, if only in terms of the global economic impact. As some regions of the world disappear beneath the waves the population stress on those that remain will become severe.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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