Anne Meikle says the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Development Bill, due to be published this autumn, must be strengthened
At the 1992 Earth Summit, the powerful idea of sustainable development came to global prominence for the first time. 178 governments were joined by many other organisations, who all agreed that everyone needed to take action so that we lived within the environmental limits of the planet and reduced poverty and injustice.
Twenty years on, following major summits such as Johannesburg 2002 and the recent Rio+20 – what have we achieved?
As Gordon James described here yesterday, we are facing a major climate crisis. This year WWF’s Living Planet Report showed that we are consuming 50 per cent more natural resources than our planet can sustainably produce. 2.7 billion people live in areas that experience severe water shortages for at least one month of the year and moreover, over the past 40 years the biological health of the planet has declined by 30 per cent – as measured by the Living Planet Index which tracks trends in animal species.
However, despite the grim figures and the disappointing deal reached at Rio+20, there are also many reasons for optimism.
Around the world, people, companies, organisations and governments are simply getting on with delivering sustainable development. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is working to transform the energy system, phasing out nuclear power and moving strongly toward renewables. The President of Mexico recently won passage of a climate change law, which will substantially cut emissions. In the Congo basin, countries are collaborating to control the illegal timber trade.
There is progress in Wales as well. WWF Cymru’s recent report What can an Earth Summit do for Wales? revealed a ‘golden thread’ of sustainability which can be traced back to Rio in 1992. It runs through the work of local councils on Agenda 21, Wales becoming the first Fair Trade nation and Assembly Members unanimously backing a 40 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Since 1992 we’ve come a long way. Who’d have thought 20 years ago that today we’d be recycling half of our waste, or be the first part of Britain to introduce a 5p levy on single use carrier bags?
I’m sure that without the Earth Summits, we wouldn’t be where we are today in terms of sustainability. Without them, I don’t believe the Welsh Government would have its duty to create a Sustainable Development Scheme. Above all, we wouldn’t have the huge opportunity that is within our grasp over the next few months, the production of a world leading Sustainable Development Bill. Wales has a cultural heritage from these events.
However, now the Welsh Government must close the ‘delivery gap’ highlighted in our report. It must go beyond the warm words on sustainability and actually deliver sustainable development in everything it does. This will only happen with a Sustainable Development Bill which is much stronger than the Welsh Government’s current proposals.
Wednesday’s article by Sustainable Futures Commissioner Peter Davies (here) is evidence that Rio+20 inspired him with ideas and challenges. However, what I really hope is that the Environment Minister John Griffiths was equally inspired by the Summit. He needs to share that inspiration with his cabinet colleagues and get some real commitments from them on delivering differently in the future.
The Minister and the Commissioner can be in no doubt now of the scale of change needed to ensure a decent future on this planet. The Summit also recognised the major role of ‘regional’ governments such as Wales in delivering this future.
WWF Cymru believes that the Sustainable Development Bill could make a big difference, if the Welsh Government gets it right. A strong bill will reflect the impact of Wales beyond our borders and our reliance on resources from overseas.
To achieve this, we need to see substantial changes to the current proposals. We want a much stronger duty, which requires ministers and the devolved public sector to deliver sustainable development. We need a clear definition of sustainable development which recognises environmental limits, and a powerful, independent Sustainable Development Commissioner.
After Rio+20, Wales is poised to show the world how to really deliver sustainable development in everything we do. I’m hopeful that the summit has inspired the Minister to live up to his government’s promise and deliver a sustainable nation through a ground breaking, world leading piece of legislation.