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.

11 thoughts on “Putting Wales at the heart of Rio+20

  1. One of the underlying points here is that policy needs to be directed towards adapting to climate change (what is going to happen in the next 40-90 years irrespective of what we do from today) as well as to seeking to mitigate the degree of future climate change.

    Here, we have a great opportunity to cast aside the assumption that baby boomers are a selfish and self-indulgent generation. As one born in 1959, my concern is in seeing a sustainable Wales that will be a healthy place for my children to belong in.

    The wine-growing remark is valid. Parts of north Pembs could well be producing some rather refined pinot (noir as well as blanc) amongst other varieties in the next 30 years.

    Our greatest enemy is pessimism. Nature can be remarkably adaptable, given half a chance. Policy needs to be directed to ensure that at least a half chance can be delivered.

  2. I can but applaud the Welsh Government’s proposed legislation and your own publication which I haven’t had chance to read yet. All of this is clearly going in the right direction and has the ability to confirm Wales’ position as a world leader in ecological policies as it was the first country ever to produce an ecological footprint. Laudable therefore up to now. In my own recent essay (part of a series of three) published here http://www.welshindependence.net/ I argue that it is imperative that we enter into this new paradigm, and that this is getting more urgent every day. This is not anything new, The Club of Rome and others for example from the “enrich list” (http://enrichlist.org/) have been doing this for over 40 years now. Indeed E.F. Schumacher, a fine thinker with close connections in Wales was making the point even earlier.

    “But let’s give credit where credit is due, the Welsh Government is the only national government in the world to use the footprint as an indicator of progress for its overarching Sustainable Development Scheme, Learning to Live Differently. Moreover there is currently consultation on a Natural Environment Framework which follows on from similar crucial work happening internationally like The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project.

    The Welsh Government consultation “aims to increase our understanding of the value of our environment and how it contributes to our well-being. This will help us make better informed, long term decisions for the future of Wales.” If only we could act on those decisions with the appropriate powers.”

    The issue is in the last line of the quotation from the article which I invite you to read in it’s entirety. It is very unlikely that the current U.K. government will give the appropriate powers, nor is it likely in the short term that the overiding political and economic force which the “Financial City of London” will acquiesce. So no matter how radical our policy development could be Wales will not gain the necessary powers to deliver the new paradigm until it reaches an independant country status, with our place on the top table in Europe and elsewhere allowing us to legislate more freely at home, and lobby more effectively within a more federal Europe. This is why some of us are so impatient for the independance debate to start properly so that this necessity can be thrashed out once and for all, and eventually the population offer it’s opinion by some form of enlarged democratic process.

  3. If the green economy eradicates poverty it will be making some people better off. If it does that without making anyone worse off it will have increased GDP. In other words it will have generated economic growth. If the human population continues to increase and there is no economic growth, GDP per head will fall – we will be getting worse off. If you insist, as JO comes close to doing in this piece, that economic growth and ecological sustainability are incompatible then you will doom the poliical prospects for sustainability. If we reduce carbon emissions per £ of output faster than output grows we can have growth and sustainability. The earth is not a closed system. It receives a continuous energy input from the sun so I know of no physical law that says this is impossible. Green growth is politically saleable; increasing green misery is not.

  4. In reply, the physical law which applies here is the second law of thermodynamics this is the underpinning principle of ecological economics, which shows that despite the steady flow of photon drizzle which hits the earth’s biosphere, all other physical resources are finite which is why, to quote Boulding, “in a finite world those who believe in infinite or exponential growth are either fools, or… economists”

  5. I do not believe in infinite exponential growth but I believe in exponential growth for an uncountably finite period of time. The human race and the earth itself do not have an infinite future. I would say those who believe the second law of thermodynamics prevents appropriate growth for a few more centuries at least is either a fool or someone who confuses ecology and religion.

  6. The problem with ‘sustainable decelopment’ is that is based on the concept of catastrophic man made global warming which has now been debunked and disaproved in the way it has been sold to us. As ‘sustainable development’ is based on this, it is therefore also just as misleading and hollow and should not be taken as some unquestionable scientific gospel in the way in which it seems to.In other words sustainable development is a bit of a con

  7. Alun Wyn Griffiths mentions The Club of Rome. This is what the Club of Rome openly declared in their 1991 report titled ‘The first global revolution’ ;

    “The common enemy of humanity is Man. In searching fot a common enemy against whom we can unite, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like, would fit the bill. In their totality and their interactions these phenomena do constitute a common threat which must be confronted by everyone together. But in designating these dangers as the enemy, we fall into the trap, which we have already warned readers about, namely mistaking symptoms for causes. All these dangers are caused by hman intervention In natural processes, and it is only through changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome. The real enemy theri (sic) Is humanity itself”

    Wales needs to wake up to this fast

  8. Of course neither the earth or the human race have an infinite future, but the clues to the ethical problem which flows from this point of view are in the words, “uncountably” (sic), “appropriate” and “religion”. Perhaps we are confusing religion and ethics here? Sure the earth could continue with exponential growth for an unspecific period, the latest Club of Rome report “estmates” this at another 12 years before we hit the tipping point of no return. That doesn’t feel very “appropriate” to me, does it to you? are you prepared “ethically” to leave a note for your great grandchildren saying “sorry, i was part of that generation, we set you up for this, even if we thought we were the most intelligent life form, we w eren’t, hope it’s not as bad as all that, extinction I mean”
    Nobody, fools or otherwise should willingly confuse ethics and religion.

  9. I will repeat the the club of romes mantra “In searching fot a common enemy against whom we can unite, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like, would fit the bill”

    Sustainability is an excellent principle which needs implementing but sustainable development is a way for the 1% to control the 99% economically and in all other ways

  10. I am not sure what point Chris Jones is making but clearly Alun Wynn Griffiths and I disagree. By ‘uncountably’, I meant a lot, an inumerable number of years. By ‘appropriate’ I meant growth achieved with a continuously declining ratio of carbon emissions to each unit of economic activity. Of course global warming is a threat but I regard the Club of Rome estimate of a 12 year tipping point as without solid foundation, risibly alarmist – and counterproductive. How are we going to restrain human reproduction so as to stabilise the population within one generation? Surely we can agree the task is to “green” all the economic processes we undertake as much and as quickly as possible. Growth will occur naturally as long as the population increases and as long as there is technical progress. The trick is not to fight it but to direct it into harmless channels.

  11. You’re not sure what my point is? Let me try and explain it to you then:

    The Club of Rome, one of the worlds biggest international think tanks, stated in their 1991 report that;

    “In searching for a common enemy against whom we can unite, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like, would fit the bill”

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