Sarah Jenkinson writes that Wales has the knowledge and the potential to lead the UK on climate change.
This week was supposed to be when the UK hosted the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), a meeting of government officials from around the world to discuss how we protect people and our planet from the climate emergency.
2020 was going to be the ‘global stocktake’, when countries evaluate their performance on the commitments they made in the Paris Agreement and whether they can be doing more (the answer for most countries will inevitably be yes).
It has been postponed to 2021 as governments continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, but a conversation has still been happening here in Wales, with the Welsh Government’s Wales Climate Week.
Wales has always been at the forefront of innovation, from being an integral part of the Industrial Revolution, to now focusing on sustainability with innovative legislation like the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015, a world-first that makes government legally obliged to improve Wales’ environment, social, cultural, and economic well-being.
The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) near Machynlleth shares a similar story. We were founded on a disused slate quarry in the 1970s, with the purpose of finding ways of living without reliance on fossil fuels.
After nearly 50 years of living and working with nature, and a decade of researching how we can reach zero carbon emissions, and the area is barely recognisable by how green and thriving it is (Iolo Williams is currently presenting BBC Autumnwatch from here as one of its locations), and for decades it has been innovating and training others how to create a more sustainable world while living in harmony with people and nature.
To explore the changes needed to rise to the climate emergency, CAT has been carrying out detailed Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) research for the last 13 years. Our latest report, ‘Rising to the Climate Emergency’, uses hourly data over 10 years to model a zero carbon end-point for the UK.
“Almost all existing UK housing stock – 26 million homes – needs to be retrofitted if Britain is to become a net-zero carbon country.”
Sharing this work through free to download reports and training provides technically robust evidence for how the UK is able to achieve net zero carbon emissions using only proven, existing technology.
CAT’s ZCB Hub and Innovation Lab has already been providing local authorities, businesses, institutions and community groups with the confidence, skills and understanding to help achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
Furthermore, if we maximise the co-benefits in wellbeing, nature restoration, reducing fuel poverty and creating new jobs; we can do this while living healthy, happy, comfortable lives with a clear sense of common purpose. Our research shows we have the technologies for a zero carbon future – what’s essential now is teaching the skills.
As the world grapples with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate and ecological crises continue unabated. There is a massive need in Wales, the UK and the wider world to skill up at speed and scale.
An IPPR report in July 2019 called for a ‘21st century skills system’ for Wales to tackle a number of approaching challenges, including automation and an ageing population.
What’s more, the UK Government’s official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), this year told the government that enabling measures to increase relevant skills are urgently required, especially in areas such as industry, buildings and agriculture.
One of the biggest challenges is improving people’s homes: almost all existing UK housing stock – 26 million homes – needs to be retrofitted if Britain is to become a net-zero carbon country. This means not only insulation and draught-proofing, but also more efficient heating systems such as heat pumps, that can be powered by 100% green electricity.
A report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Nottingham Trent University says a UK-wide programme has to happen to achieve that by 2050 – but we don’t have enough people with the skills to do that.
“We know Wales can take sustainability seriously – in 2018-19 it had the highest recycling rate in the world.”
This is why CAT has plans to train the country’s future retrofitters at a renewable energy and construction skills hub, as well as ‘training the trainer’ programmes to pass on that essential knowledge.
At the start of this year, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change also reported that land use – including agriculture, forestry and peatland – accounted for 12% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.
Our latest report shows that through dietary change, food waste reduction and improved agricultural practices we could provide a healthy, sustainable diet for the whole UK population, while bringing down greenhouse gas emissions by 57% on 2017 levels.
CAT’s own vegetable garden – cultivated using compost on what was once a brownfield site – has been a thriving example of one way it can be done, providing for the on-site restaurant for years, while our MSc course in Sustainable Food and Natural Resources helps graduates explore solutions that could help address the impacts of food production.
On that, there is a growing appetite for sustainability education: this year business schools around the world have reported increased interest in sustainability courses, and at CAT we now have over 600 Masters students, with this year’s intake marking a record-high in numbers.
Many graduates have gone on to start sustainable businesses, both in Wales and further afield, like renewable energy consultancy Dulas Engineering, based in Machynlleth but seeing through installations and projects in the UK and around the world.
Though the Covid-19 pandemic presents many more challenges, that doesn’t mean climate work is on hold. The ‘Building Back Better’ mantra has been wholly taken up in Wales, where places like the Menai Science Park on Anglesey are encouraging their partners to do so, and the Welsh leaders in construction were meeting with the Government on the issue as early as July.
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Wales Climate Week is happening completely online, and since earlier this year CAT has also responded with webinars and one-session courses online to teach people at home.
We know Wales can take sustainability seriously – in 2018-19 it had the highest recycling rate in the world – while CAT put forward its first Zero Carbon Britain report in 2007, long before carbon targets were adopted for the Paris Agreement.
Not only has the Welsh Government, but the vast majority of Welsh councils have already declared a climate emergency. In 2019, the Welsh Government’s delivery plan, ‘Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales’, not only set out skills as a key theme, but also identified it as something that could benefit the wage levels and productivity of the nation as a whole. The idea that sustainability, and better quality of life go hand-in-hand is something that everyone in Wales can get behind.
One of the encouraging things Wales Climate Week shows us is so many people in Wales already know how to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergency, and so many also have the vision to make it happen, providing skills for the rest of the UK, and even the world.
So let’s train our nation and get to work.
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Photo by Centre for Alternative Technology