David Thorpe says that the Welsh Government’s commitment to climate change is weak.

July 5th, 2014

Wales has had opportunities to shine on the world stage by showing leadership on climate change beyond that being shown in England by the Westminster government. However, I’m extremely pessimistic that it is possible for national leaders, whose agendas are all short-term, whose interests are local and subject to lobbying from special interest groups, to have the courage or capacity to show the required level of leadership.

Despite 26 years of international negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere has been steadily rising from 350ppm to 400ppm.

The basis for extreme pessimism was confirmed for me recently. I had been invited to give evidence to the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister in Wales about progress made to date in implementing the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy for Wales. In particular, how actions to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change are being implemented by all departments of the Welsh Government and how this work is being co-ordinated and monitored.

Wales as a nation has a non-binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3% per year to 40% of 1990 levels by 2020 in policy areas of over which it has control (some powers are not devolved but still held in London, such as control over transport spending and energy generation). This compares to the UK overall target of 34% reduction by 2020. Additionally, Wales is almost unique in the world by having the duty of government to take due account of sustainable development written into its constitution.

These facts alone would lead one to suppose that Wales was serious about tackling climate change. But let me tell you what happened in those meeting and committee rooms of the Welsh Government offices in Cardiff Bay on the afternoon of Thursday 26 June.

The first half of the event consisted of three members of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister quizzing members of the Climate Change Commission for Wales on what they thought the Committee should be asking Carwyn Jones .

The Commission’s members represents a huge body of expert opinion from other organisations such as the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, Sustrans, the Federation of Small Businesses, National Resources Wales, WWF, the One Planet Council, and even young people represented by the youth parliament known as Funky Dragon.

There was no shortage of extremely sound advice given to the Committee members. The key points were as follows:

  1. The First Minister should take overall responsibility for the climate change agenda, which he currently does not have, in order to show leadership and make sure that all government departments work together to achieve the targets;
  2. He should set statutory targets rather than the current non-binding ones;
  3. He should benchmark the current level of emissions in different sectors, by end-user;
  4. He should quantify by default the climate change impacts of all new developments as part of their impact assessment. In particular, reference was made to a proposed £1.5 billion new extension to the M4 around Newport;
  5. He should create a programme of action that would detail how the different sectors would act to reduce overall emissions, which currently does not exist.

There were many other excellent suggestions about land use, transport, education, planning, building regulations and renewable energy. If they were all put in place, Wales would be a beacon of low carbon sustainable development.

What happened? Well the first thing to note is that the Committee scrutinises the First Minister on many topics and few of its members are experts on climate change. The second is that as officials, they lack the passion and commitment that the Commission on Climate Change members have. They cannot respond to the First Minister’s rebuttals with knowledgeable counter-arguments or with the necessary level of emotion. Urbane mandarins, their language is couched in measured and leisured terms.

Carwyn Jones, a consummate legal brain, was easily able to evade refute dodge every suggestion without censure.

  1. He refused to take ultimate responsibility and show leadership on climate change as a cross-cutting topic because, he said, “there are many cross-cutting topics and I can’t take responsibility for all of them. I leave climate change for others.”
  2. He refused to set statutory targets for carbon reductions on the basis that the government does not have control over transport and energy spending.
  3. On the question of the M4 relief road he trotted out the line that cars in traffic jams will emit more greenhouse gases than having them freely moving. Yet, as Paul Pearson pointed out that evening, the consultancy document on the project never even calculated the total comparative carbon budgets for the options under consideration.
  4. On the question of why building regulations for the energy efficiency of new homes are being watered down, he said it was because Wales needed more new houses and the big building firms had told him that it was too expensive to make them low or zero carbon. Yet I know several developers who can build affordable zero carbon homes – but clearly Mr.Jones is not aware of them and nor were the members of the Committee.

Carwyn Jones is no different from virtually every other leader of a nation state in the world, as the history of climate change negotiations shows. The fear of missing short-term other targets for housing, jobs and the economy, makes them ignore the bigger picture. They do not have expert advisers on hand – or refuse to give sufficient weight to their advice – to help them understand the multiple economic as well as social and environmental benefits of taking the requisite actions. Instead they respond to the demands of industry lobbyists and a public largely unaware of the issues and potentials.

So, is it possible for the world to act to reduce and turnaround the seemingly inexorable growth of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?

Increasingly there are calls from the business sector and leaders of cities for action, but for my part, I fear all this will result in action that is too small and too late. Barring a miracle, within a few hundred years sea level will have risen by up to 3 metres, the ice caps will have melted, the equatorial areas of the planet will be uninhabitable, and humanity will have suffered a population collapse. I do hope I am wrong.

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David Thorpe is an author who has written extensively on climate change and sustainable development.

3 Responses to:“Welsh Government is NOT ‘serious’ about climate change”

  1. Victor Martin Hunt says:

    I think that it is reasonable to hear from the First Minister of Wales his response to this article. Climate change is an area that impacts on all of us on this planet. Maybe the writer should gain the opinions of the other party political leaders also.

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  2. Rhydgaled says:

    Of course the Welsh Government is NOT ‘serious’ about climate change, it is obvious. Why else would they support the most environmentally damaging form of transport, aviation, in the form of an air link between north and south Wales? There is something to be said for trying to unite the nation, but improving the rail and bus options would be far more appropriate.

    Perhaps even worse than subsidising the air link is the Welsh Government’s support for road bypass projects, such as the M4 ‘Black Route’. These make private motoring faster and hence make the public transport alternatives, which do not benifit from the construction of new roads, even less attractive. The recently openned A477 St Clears to Red Roses scheme for example means buses from Pembroke to Carmarthen would have a choice of taking a slower route through the bypassed settlements or using the bypass and being unable to pick up passengers from those villiages.

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  3. Howell Morgan says:

    The Welsh Government was created in 1999 to meet the aspirations of welsh people for a limited amount of home rule,however it was always going to have a difficult remit due to its internal contradictions. The major problems in a)welsh economy)educational attainments of working class children,c)very poor health of a substantial proportion of population,c)need to satisfy a vocal minority regarding welsh language would be challenging enough,however the balancing of a)sustainability,b)economic growth is seemingly unsolvable.In order to create anything there needs to be acceptance that consequences will follow and in my personal opinion the vast majority of south walians would accept the need for M4 relief road as outlined by Ms Hart in recent days. Why do we always have to seen to doing things by half measures when bold decisions are needed as in this particular case. We are not some lonely and isolated Island,but a western fringe at side of economic powerhouse that seems to be powering ahead with infrastructure developments that will further widen the wealth between English and Welsh people. With regard to the subsidies given to flights between Cardiff and North Wales it would be surely ‘gesture politics’ to close it down on environmental grounds,when at the same time the jewel in crown,i.e Airbus is producing wings for aeroplanes that will transport millions of people around the world. Now to shut that plant down on environmental grounds would be REALLY something that the green lobbies would probably applaud??. The problem is that there is need to produce the aeroplanes,and if work not carried in north wales then I am sure the jobs would be taken up elsewhere,and in particular by Boeing in the USA.The whole economy now requires people to move where work is located and hence the huge movement of young and talented people from wales,however family links need to be maintained and on a personal level travel by car is practical and economic,rather than by public transport.Oher than bothering politicians with a)unrealistic,b)unaffordable,c)impractical suggestions.??. Do you know any one who has come back from USA where GM food is readily available and they have suffered from eating such food??.

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