Jessica McQuade says that Wales is in danger of falling behind on its commitments to tackle climate change.
Climate change policy in Wales is at a cross roads.
John Griffiths, as the Minister in charge, returns to his former cabinet position with the responsibility to resolve two conflicting issues.
On one hand, the Welsh Government has committed to a ‘refresh’ of the 2010 Climate Change Strategy, having recognised the need to do more to meet the target of cutting emissions by 40% by 2020, as well as the seriousness of the warnings given by the International Panel on Climate Change.
Yet the flipside to this is that the same Government has shown very little progress in explaining how it will deliver on its climate commitments.
Climate change can be a tricky policy area. Welsh Government has limited powers when it comes to tackling some of the big sources of greenhouse gas emissions, such as energy and transport. It is probably also an uphill struggle to convince fellow Ministers that climate change needs to be integrated into the government priorities of economic development, tackling poverty and health.
There is little evidence to suggest that this integration of climate change impacts into government policy and programmes has been achieved.
A recent example is ‘Towards Sustainable Growth: An Action Plan for the Food and Drink Industry 2014-2020’ – where there is no obvious analysis of the emissions impact.
Other recent Government decisions to go ahead with a new M4 motorway and roll back on energy efficiency requirements for new buildings seem to raise questions about its claimed commitment to tackle climate change.
Together with the Climate Change Commission for Wales and the coalition of organisations that make up Stop Climate Chaos Cymru, we are calling on the Welsh Government to show leadership and strengthen its governance.
The key ways identified to do this are: have statutory emission reduction targets for Wales and develop an action plan for how its policies and programmes will get to those targets.
These are practical solutions that have already found favour in the UK’s other devolved nations.
On the legislation front, both Scotland and Northern Ireland are ahead of Wales.
Through the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 Scotland has recognised that a key way to drive action on emission reduction is provide a clear political statement of intent.
Northern Ireland is currently considering a Climate Change Bill. Should this happen, Wales will be the only UK devolved nation not to have statutory climate change targets.
Using legislation to push environmental action has already proven successful in Wales. The plastic bag charge led the rest of UK and was innovative and popular. Legislation is also an important tool for implementing the waste strategy, an environmental policy that Welsh Government is rightly proud of for achieving its intended results.
So we now have the right conditions for Wales to pass its own climate law. The IPCC has called for urgent action from governments if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. The Welsh Government says it wants to act and meet its targets – but a stronger approach is needed to actually deliver. We have precedents in Scotland and potentially Northern Ireland. Wales has a track record in successful environmental legislation. And Ministers have the golden opportunity to legislate through the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill and the Environment Bill.
It is surely now or never if this Government is to show how serious it is about tackling the climate question.
The Welsh Government has put forward arguments against statutory targets. The main one is that Wales does not have the necessary powers over big emitters, such as energy and transport.
Whilst there is some rationale for this position over the 40% by 2020 target, it is not a wholly convincing one for other targets.
The 2010 Climate Change Strategy outlines the 3% annual reduction target which was largely designed for emission reduction within policy areas which are devolved to Wales.
Why not, therefore, have a statutory target for areas over which the Welsh Government has power?
Wales has legal competency to set such statutory emission reduction targets within the bounds of its devolved authority. Therefore, it makes practical and political sense for Wales to follow the lead of Scotland and Northern Ireland in giving legislative expression to that policy ambition.
These targets will need to be supported with a package of measures, such as:
- Developing an action plan every 5 years to achieve these targets
- A requirement for an emission impact assessment on large scale infrastructure and strategies
- A duty on the public sector to contribute to these targets
- Measuring the emissions impact of annual budgets
Within this package, the action plan stands out as vital. In Scotland, this has played a key role in ‘mainstreaming’ action on climate change throughout Government and also providing accountability and transparency.
For Wales, this action plan would also need to outline the impact of UK Government decisions on progress towards the Welsh Government’s emissions targets. This is especially for the 40% reduction by 2020 which is heavily impacted by UK energy policy. This analysis would provide greater clarity of Wales’ limitations and opportunities.
With an anticipated ‘Refresh’ statement and a new Minister, the challenge is amplified. We hope to see Welsh Government’s ‘refresh’ statement providing a commitment to statutory targets in forthcoming legislation and clear plan to accelerate action not just a high level statement of intention. Without this commitment to delivery on its political ambition, Wales is in real danger of being a laggard not a leader.