Greater investment in Wales’ natural ecosystems can ensure we meet our climate targets as well as maximise additional social and economic benefits, writes Alex Phillips.
2021 is a critical year for the Welsh environment.
The climate and nature emergency are escalating, and time is running out for all of us to respond.
National governments remain at the centre of that response. Not only through their own action, but for the critical role they play in regulating change across the economy and supporting wider behavioural change.
It’s hardly original to claim we are in unusual times, with both the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit renegotiations continuing to dominate the domestic agenda for the foreseeable future.
But in the mists of these predicaments the wider world is continuing to move forward, with this year seeing two major conferences (Biodiversity COP 15 in China & Climate COP 26 in Scotland) in which global leaders aim to reaffirm and strengthen their commitments to tacking biodiversity loss and climate change for the next decade.
While Wales does not have its own seat at the negotiation table, our Government hasn’t been shy in putting forward the scale of action it would like to see at those conferences.
“The Welsh Government has reduced Natural Resources Wales’ budget by 35% in real terms since it was established in 2013.”
We’ve seen this in practice in recent years through the development of the Nature Based Climate Action Memorandum of Understanding, and being a signatory to the recent Edinburgh Declaration – which sets out how sub Nation-State governments like ours stand ready to play their part in the response to biodiversity loss.
The preferences among many, including our own Environment Minister Lesley Griffiths MS, is for this process to end up a reformed set of biodiversity targets which can then be translated down to a Wales level to drive domestic action – much like how previous global commitments on climate change worked their way down to Wales recently setting itself the target of being Net Zero by 2050.
Senedd Members are due to vote on this new Net Zero target on 9 March. As this is very likely to be agreed, the question then becomes how we achieve it, and what Wales will look like by the time we get there?
To help the Welsh Government with this task, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recently set out its preferred pathway for Wales.
This detailed assessment sets out how delivery can be budgeted across the decades and includes some bespoke targets in a limited number of specific areas.
As the next Government develops its Low Carbon Delivery Plan we expect this pathway to be the baseline for action while more is added to ensure we are also tackling the nature crisis on the road to net-zero.
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It’s impossible to get perfect figures for how much this will cost, but the Government’s own analysis suggests a best estimate partial recourse cost for the delivery of Net Zero to be around £14.1bn between now and 2050.
This cost is not one governments will cover alone given the scale of action required across the economy. However, the Government’s desire to be ambitious suggests that spending is going to have to be substantially increased quickly if we are going to get ahead.
That’s obviously very difficult in Wales as the environment has traditionally, and often understandably, struggled for investment relative to other Government priorities.
For example, recent research by UncheckedUK found that the Welsh Government has reduced Natural Resources Wales’ budget by 35% in real terms since it was established in 2013. Over the same period its responsibilities have also increased.
This means that the capacity for the environment sector to respond is hampered, with revenues needing to increase to allow the necessary capital expenditure, rather than the expectation that capital funds can be made use of immediately.
“Habitat creation and restoration is about more than just carbon. It’s also about biodiversity as well.”
As steps get underway to address these issues it’s vital that once revenue streams are rebalanced, the new resources get spent in the right places to create the necessary change.
As a result, WWF Cymru has repeatedly called for greater investment in Wales’ carbon-rich habitats as these offer us the best opportunities to lock away carbon and create the healthy ecosystem necessary for threatened plants and animals to recover.
When we talk about these carbon-rich habits we mean peatland, saltmarsh, seagrass and woodland as these are the habitat types with greatest potential in Wales, and are also so often under threat from pollution, agricultural intensification and insensitive development.
This approach is in general supported by the Climate Change Committee, who have recently advised the Welsh Government to step up its investment in woodland creation and peatland restoration as part of its preferred Net Zero pathway.
This would require a substantial increase in investment over historic norms and one which will have to be achieved quickly if we are going to meet our ambitions.
As we await the Welsh Government’s detailed delivery proposals, it’s worth reiterating the case that habitat creation and restoration is about more than just carbon. It’s also about biodiversity (or nature) as well.
“Given the new Net Zero target, Wales can’t afford for five years to pass without action taking place.”
This means that it’s essential that the response to the nature emergency is not compromised by the urgency to respond to the climate one. In other words, we need to look for win-win scenarios.
Efforts to ensure this balance have increasingly been at the forefront of environmental management discussions for several years.
While there is general agreement that nature-based solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss are at the heart of the answer, what that means in practice is sometimes lost.
From WWF Cymru’s perspective this means that carbon-rich habitat investment should seek diversity as well as outright carbon-storage potential.
Therefore, when we call for greater investment in these habitats we are talking about saltmarsh and seagrass alongside woodland and peatland.
While a hectare of saltmarsh or seagrass doesn’t store as much carbon as a hectare of woodland or peatland, it nonetheless offers a chance to create and restore additional key habitats which have been damaged or destroyed by current/historic human practices.
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Doing so makes Welsh nature more resilient to climate change and adds additional social and economic benefits from tourism to flood defence.
Diversity also results in less pressure being placed on specific sectors, such as the agricultural industry, where land use change must occur for net zero to be achieved.
We argue this is of particular importance in Wales given our geography and the range of existing pressures on the farming sector which have been exacerbated by Brexit and Covid-19.
We need to ensure that our efforts are sufficiently diverse to ensure that all of Wales is part of the solution and that everyone has equity in the new Wales we are seeking to create.
This is the only way to achieve the sustainable management of Wales’ natural resources in a way which meets our targets and build support across the whole of Wales.
Success will not be decided on how MSs vote on 9 March, instead it will be down to whether the next Welsh Government, in whatever political form it takes, is willing to embrace such an approach in the next Low Carbon Action Plan.
Given the new Net Zero target, Wales can’t afford for five years to pass without action taking place at the scale and pace required to tackle the climate and nature emergency.
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