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:
- 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;
- He should set statutory targets rather than the current non-binding ones;
- He should benchmark the current level of emissions in different sectors, by end-user;
- 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;
- 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.
- 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.”
- He refused to set statutory targets for carbon reductions on the basis that the government does not have control over transport and energy spending.
- 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.
- 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.