Wales can do better on climate change

Anne Meikle says it’s time we faced up to the reality of Wales’ progress on sustainable development

On the afternoon that I met the Environment Minister, John Griffiths in November last year, at the launch of the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Development Bill White Paper in Blaenafon, he left for Doha to attend the international climate change negotiations.

The Minister told the Guardian, that the Bill would be “a legal first”. This isn’t the first time the Welsh Government has made impressive-sounding claims about their record on the world stage. After the Rio+20 conference in June, 2012, John Griffiths, speaking about the Bill said:

“It is clear that smaller countries, like Wales, can show a lead and set examples in how to create sustainable places and practices. In Wales, we now have the opportunity to further demonstrate this by creating our own ground breaking legislation on Sustainable Development.”

He was echoing the First Minister Carwyn Jones, who said that his Government “will set Wales apart as a sustainable nation, leading from the front”. This narrative – of Wales taking a leading role on sustainable development – was also part of the Welsh Labour manifesto which got them elected in 2011 and featured prominently in the Programme for Government, which stated their intention “To become a ‘One Planet Nation’, putting sustainable development at the heart of government” and with a core commitment to living within environmental limits.

These fine words have led to high praise and expectation. In June, Jonathon Porritt wrote:

“At the moment it’s Wales that provides a bright light in these gloomy times. In Cardiff the devolved administration, led by First Minister Carwyn Jones, is clearly still committed to the idea of sustainable government.”

So what did the Welsh Government actually unveil at that event in Blaenafon? Was it a White Paper which offered a ‘ground breaking’ plan for legislation which will make Wales a leading light on sustainable development? Having now had time to analyse it, the answer, sadly, is still ‘not yet’. To be ‘ground breaking’ Wales must go further than what we’ve already seen in the UK. In practice, this means that the Welsh Government’s duty on sustainable development must be stronger than duties in existing UK legislation.

There are quite a few examples in the UK already of duties that require bodies to “have regard to” sustainable development. We even have some which “promote” or require the “achievement” of sustainable development. Yet the Welsh Government’s white paper is still proposing something far too weak to be considered ‘ground breaking’. The wording is far from clear, but it seems to propose that:

“…the consideration of the effect on the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of Wales will be a fundamental requirement of the duty, so that decisions are informed by an appreciation of the likely effects on each and the integration between them.”

Everyone knows that considering something is a long way removed from actually doing something. You may consider the impacts of your Government’s policies and actions, but choose to ignore them. Therefore, in our view, ‘considering’ is way too weak a verb to make ground breaking, world- leading legislation.

Overall, the Welsh Government’s White Paper doesn’t simply fall short of what campaigners have been hoping for from the Sustainable Development Bill – it actually falls short of their own ambition. In his interview with the Guardian John Griffiths said:

“Wales will become the first country in the world to make it legally binding for all public bodies…. to take account of the environment and social issues when they make a decision.”

Simply ‘taking account’ of environmental issues is a long way from the ambition voiced in the Labour manifesto and by the Programme for Government. Making Wales a One Planet nation and meeting the aspiration of ‘Living within environmental limits’ will take much more action than ‘considering’ these matters.

Carwyn Jones’ Government cannot deliver the ‘One Planet Wales’ to which they aspire, or put sustainable development at the heart of government, unless they make a renewed effort to substantially strengthen this bill. In June this year, Jonathon Porritt warned that “despite the laudable aims behind Wales’ Sustainable Development Bill, there is now a serious risk that it could be watered down by nervous civil servants and lawyers who are under pressure from backward-looking elements in government, industry, and the public sector”.

This is exactly what I fear we’re seeing with the white paper. A wide range of environmental and third sector organisations in Wales, believes that the duty must be worded as:

“Welsh ministers and public sector bodies, will exercise their duties, powers and functions with the objective of achieving sustainable development.”

That would meet the Government’s promises and be worthy of international praise and be genuinely ground breaking. Let’s hope that the Cabinet stands together and delivers on their promise in 2013.

Anne Meikle is Head of WWF Cymru.

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