Article by Chloe Corbyn, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
With leading scientists warning of the potentially catastrophic impacts of our changing climate, does Wales have the commitment, legislation and policy framework to act?
We know that climate change is happening. Global temperatures have been progressively rising for over a century, accelerating in recent decades, and are now the highest on record. The effects of climate change can be seen worldwide, including flooding and droughts, and they often disproportionately affect poorer countries.
The need for action
If urgent action is not taken to cut carbon emissions, climate experts such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict global temperature rises of more than 4C this century. The IPCC further suggests that there is over 95% certainty that human influence is the dominant factor in global warming since the mid-twentieth century. Climate change and sustainable development are becoming increasingly interlinked. During 2015 and 2016, there have been landmark international agreements on sustainable development and climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) held its 21st annual conference of the parties (COP) in Paris at the end of 2015. The key outcome of the conference was an agreement between the 197 states parties on limiting rising global temperatures. Using the temperature in pre-industrial times as a baseline, any change should be ‘well below’ 2C.The conference further agreed to ‘endeavour to limit’ the change even more to 1.5C. The Paris Agreement also set a long-term collective goal for near net-zero emissions in the second half of the century. Wales has an important role to play in helping the wider UK meet these targets. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, agreed in 2015, set an ambitious and transformative agenda for sustainable development over the next 15 years. Of the 17 sustainable development goals, 13 directly involve taking action on climate change. In Wales, the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 embed climate change action and sustainable development principles across government and the wider public sector. Through these Acts, Wales is committed to putting sustainability, environmental resilience and global responsibility at the heart of all decision making.
Wales’s performance to date
The then Welsh Government published the Climate Change Strategy for Wales in 2010, setting out key climate change targets. These included a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 3% year-on-year from 2011 in devolved areas, and to achieve at least a 40% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Progress against the 3% annual reduction target has been steady, with estimates for 2014 showing that emissions are likely to decrease further in comparison with those for 2013. Progress against the target of a 40% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 has been less positive. Between 2012 and 2013, these emissions rose by 10%. This was primarily attributed to changes in industrial and energy processes, particularly the reopening of a blast furnace at the Port Talbot steel works and a shift from natural gas to coal use in power stations. The increase in Wales was significantly higher than the other parts of the UK. The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 defines the different types of Welsh emissions. To meet its 2020 target, emissions in Wales will need to reduce by a further 28% between 2014 and 2020. This requires significant further action, as well as steps to mitigate climate change risks and to deliver against the long-term commitment to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050, as set out in the Environment (Wales) Act 2016.
A new approach
The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 marks a step change in Wales’s approach to tackling and measuring climate change. Progressing from the annual (non-statutory) target of a 3% year-on-year reduction, the Act places new duties on the Welsh Government to ensure greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. It also introduces a new carbon budgeting method to measure progress towards reducing emissions, and restricts the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted over a given period. Duties contained in the Act include:
- the Welsh Government must ensure that the net Welsh emissions for the year 2050 are at least 80% lower than the baseline (1990 or 1995), with the Welsh Government able to increase this target;
- by the end of 2018, the Welsh Government must set interim emissions targets for 2020, 2030 and 2040;
- for each five-year budgetary period the Welsh Government must set a maximum total amount for net Welsh emissions (a carbon budget); and
- the Welsh Government will be required to take into account international agreements to limit increases in global average temperatures.
The Act also states that the Welsh Government may establish an advisory body on climate change. This body can advise on interim targets, on carbon budgets and on any action needed to address shortfalls in achieving these targets and budgets. Combined with the reinforced commitment to sustainable development and environmental well-being set out in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, the new approach could allow Wales to lead the way in developing an innovative, visionary and holistic approach to tackling climate change and its impacts. However, action and responsibility on climate change cannot be limited to ministerial portfolios on the environment; the whole government, businesses, the wider public and third sectors and citizens have a part to play. There are further questions about how the Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015) will deliver carbon reduction at a local and national level. The Act requires public bodies to work to achieve all 7 of its well-being goals, which may present challenges in marrying the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales with delivering on climate change commitments. The new Welsh Government will also have to consider how to embed a consistent message and understanding of the action required across all its work.
- Environment (Wales) Act 2016
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Fifth Assessment Report (2013-2014)
- United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (website)
- UNFCC, Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015)
- Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015
- Welsh Government, Climate Change Strategy for Wales (2010)