IWA Analysis: Turning rhetoric to reality: this decade’s race to net zero

Joe Rossiter unpacks the UK Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) report on Wales’ net zero progress and what it means for the crucial decade ahead

Joe Rossiter unpacks the UK Climate Change Committee’s report on Wales’ net zero progress and what it means for the crucial decade ahead

Last week the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee (henceforth CCC) published its first report in three years on Wales’ progress towards becoming net zero by 2050. Against the worrying global backdrop of a world now likely to breach 1.5 degrees of warming, with catastrophic implications, the report brings us back down to what Wales can do to play its role in alleviating a climate breakdown.

The Committee, established as part of the Climate Change Act (2008), is there to advise the governments of the UK on their respective roles in meeting their net zero commitments. As such, it occupies a unique position to hold policymakers’ feet to the collective fire to design interventions and pathways that will make a dent in our carbon emissions. The committee is formed with practitioners with practical and academic expertise which  bring interventions back to a scientific basis, providing a dose of clarity and reality about what is being achieved that is much needed.

The report makes for mixed reading for policymakers in Wales.

First, the good news. The CCC recognises the progress that Welsh Government have made in some areas, for instance on establishing ambitious emission reduction targets, creating a green skills programme, a world-leading road building policy and achieving a 34% reduction in industrial sector emissions.

It’s important to take the time to acknowledge these successful policies. The road building policy in particular represents a step change. Welsh Government’s approach, which includes cancelling a number of road building projects, introduces a higher bar for investment in road building, taking into consideration the environmental impact of new infrastructure. 

Wales’ progress to net zero is too slow, but areas with significant policy powers devolved to Wales are part of this problem, and not separate from it. 

This is tangible policy action which will have a long term impact on Wales’ ability to limit transport emissions in the future. Whilst this and the decision to reduce speed limits are politically highly contentious, they are steps in the right direction. However, this policy stick needs to be accompanied by an equally large carrot, namely, investment in the alternatives to private car transport: public transport, active travel and reducing the need to travel. It is notable that the Welsh Government have committed almost four times as much funding per head to active travel as the UK Government, but it is still not enough on its own to create sustained behavioural change. More investment is needed.

The CCC report outlines that Wales hit its first set of emissions targets (derived from its Carbon Budget 1 2016-20), reducing emissions to an average of 28% below 1990 levels. However, the CCC also recognises that Wales was substantially aided in meeting its first set of targets by the closure of Wales’ last coal-fired power station, Aberthaw, in 2019. This is a one-off carbon emissions bump that cannot be replicated. More importantly,  it also covers up a multitude of sins, which I’ll come on to.

Whilst the first set of targets were hit, the CCC highlights that Wales is not on track to meet its next set of targets, which will get increasingly difficult to hit. The pathway to net zero gets increasingly challenging as emissions targets are larger and the ‘easy win’ policies are no longer an option. Bold political choices need to be made to get the nation back on track.

These challenges are diffuse, but they are well-known. Wales has the least energy efficient housing-stock in Europe, a food system that doesn’t sustainably meet the needs of the nation, and an overly centralised energy system which was built for the last century’s needs. These challenges require system-wide thinking and change, not tinkering around the edges.

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Additionally, as the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales clearly articulate, the impact of climate change on our communities is already perceptible, so it’s not just mitigation of climate change that must be the focus, but also adapting our communities for the new climate reality. In recent years, flooding getting worse has brought the need to ensure that our communities are flood resilient on the agenda. This is particularly pertinent for a nation whose capital is at severe risk from sea level rise, and indeed the Senedd has a front row seat to this particular risk, with Cardiff Bay slated to be underwater by 2050. 

Wales is notably off track in numerous areas: woodland and peatland restoration and the transport, agriculture and land use sectors are clear headlines here. For all these areas, the policy levers sit within Wales. It is in these areas that the CCC report states are contributing to Wales’ slow progress, meaning that we must accelerate progress, not put off difficult decisions until later on.

Too many of the hard decisions are being put off to the future and still seen as somebody else’s problem.

We need to focus on what we control. And that is what this UKCCC report does. It missiles through the clutter to establish some transparency on  Welsh Government’s record. In doing so, the report also highlights how many of the responsibilities to meet emissions reductions, notably with agriculture emissions, are in Wales’ gift. Despite this, Welsh Government is not currently planning to make any agriculture sector emissions reductions in the next carbon budget. This, as the CCC rightly highlights, puts more pressure on reductions that are under reserved responsibility. The report is therefore helpful in signalling that Wales’ progress to net zero is too slow but also that, significantly, areas with significant policy powers devolved to Wales are part of this problem, and not separate from it. 

This is the crux of it: too many of the hard decisions are being put off to the future and still seen as somebody else’s problem. We can’t afford to play politics with the climate: it’s a zero-sum game where we all lose. Instead all areas of government need to step up and take ownership of their ability to reduce our emissions and we, as citizens and civil society, need to hold them accountable. This involves us championing policies which take us closer to hitting our net zero ambitions – but also challenging constructively when they don’t go far enough.

There are areas for hope that we can act to accelerate our progress. I come back to the much-misunderstood road building policy mentioned previously. Such a bold action is necessary and shows there is a willingness to take the tough decisions that will make a dent in the nation’s emissions. This example also displays the key role of political leadership in achieving dial-shifting change. Deputy Minister Lee Waters has made his priorities clear, involving experts (the road building policy follows a Wales-wide independent roads review process) and sticking to his convictions. Importantly, the Deputy Minister has stood up to challenge, both inside and outside the Senedd, to make the case for the policy intervention. In a space where poor leadership is often the norm, credit where credit is due to the Deputy Minister.  It must be said that Lee Waters was formerly of the IWA parish, but we need to see more of this going forward, and at an increasing rate, it’s not a one-and-done activity. We need similar dial-shifting on other issues, like agriculture.

What next?

Welsh Government Climate Change Minister Julie James, in her response to the CCC report on BBC Politics Wales, declared that it wasn’t a ‘wake up call’. She acknowledged the elements of praise in the report, but reflected that Wales could be doing better, responding that the report was helpful in framing the challenge ahead. This is a sensible response to constructive external critique.

So what do we do now with the knowledge that what we are doing currently isn’t enough?

The Welsh Government’s Cooperation Agreement with Plaid Cymru has seen the creation of the Net Zero Wales 2035 Challenge Group, which brings together independent experts to identify ways to accelerate Wales’ net zero transition to 2035. The group, chaired by Jane Davidson, has identified a set of five challenges which, if handled correctly, can help us get to net zero by 2035. They are food, energy, decarbonising homes and workplaces, connecting people and places, and education and jobs.

The establishment of the Net Zero Challenge Group is to be applauded as in principle it should catalyse ideas that can lead to transformative change and can help raise our collective ambition. A bit like what we did with Re-energising Wales. Critically, though, the pathways put forward by the group need to be taken on and owned by the political parties of Wales going into the next Senedd election. At the very least they will expand the Overton window on what we in Wales are capable of achieving within our devolved powers. 

It is clear that we must accelerate our action. But speeding up interventions does not happen on its own.

The IWA’s Re-energising Wales project displayed what Wales should be doing right now to speed up a net zero transition, whilst detailing the economic impact such a stimulus could have, from steps to get ahead in marine energy, to working towards homes as power stations. The recommendations made in the report, although now four years old, remain there to be picked up. Whilst some of them have not been taken on, it is clear that political parties in Wales now correctly identify renewables as a key economic driver. That some recommendations haven’t been endorsed suggests we have a way to go in order to actually implement transformative ideas that are already there.

The IWA will continue to provide insight and recommendations on how we can speed up Wales’ transition to a successful, fairer and greener economy. We welcome the CCC report that helps to situate Wales’ progress on the ground against its decarbonisation goals.

More than anything, the report displays what many in civil society in Wales will report: that there is a distinct gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to emissions reductions in Wales. This delivery gap needs to begin to close, and close fast.

Up to now Wales has been good at diagnosing the problems and challenges it faces when it comes to reaching net zero. It now needs to implement a cure. We are good at setting ambitious targets, we are good at articulating what needs to happen. In this decade we must deliver on it.

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Joe Rossiter is the IWA's Co-Director, responsible for the organisation's policy and external affairs.

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