Climate change: the path to zero emissions

Published 18/05/2021   |   Last Updated 18/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes


This article is part of our 'What's next? Key issues for the Sixth Senedd' collection.

With a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 now in law, does Wales have the commitment, legislation and policy in place to achieve this?

In 2019 the Welsh Government declared a climate emergency. Speaking at the time, the Environment Minister Lesley Griffiths, said:

We hope that the declaration by Welsh Government today can help to trigger a wave of action at home and internationally. From our own communities, businesses and organisations to parliaments and governments around the world.

But what has the declaration meant for the scale and pace of action to tackle climate change? Have emissions reduced across all sectors? And how should recent changes to our climate change legislation be translated into action if we are to meet our ambitious targets?

blue sky with fluffy white clouds

Global context

In late 2015, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) took place in Paris. The meeting was hailed as a make-or-break opportunity to secure an international agreement on approaches to tackling climate change. The subsequent landmark ‘Paris Agreement’ aimed to limit global warming to less than 20C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably keep it below 1.50C.

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, the estimated global emissions for 2030 were not expected to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal. Instead, emissions were expected to reach around 30C above pre-industrial levels. Global climate ambition has subsequently increased, with major economies such as China, Japan and South Korea declaring net-zero objectives, and the new US administration expected to re-join the Paris Agreement.

While Wales, along with the other countries of the UK, is not a signatory to the Paris Agreement, the UK as a whole is. As a significant contributor to UK emissions – particularly in the industry and agriculture sectors - Wales’ contribution is crucial to UK climate leadership and action on the global stage.

The UK will host the next United Nations climate talks – the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) – in Glasgow in November 2021. Originally scheduled for November 2020, COP 26 heralds a key moment in efforts to raise global climate ambition. Countries are expected to resubmit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for emissions reduction to 2030.

A framework for action

The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 marked a step change in Wales’ approach to tackling climate change. Progressing from an annual (non-statutory) target of a 3% year-on-year reduction, the Act placed new duties on the Welsh Government to ensure greenhouse gas emissions reduce. It also introduced a carbon budgeting method to measure progress towards reducing emissions.

The Act set a target for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 and a duty to set interim targets for 2020, 2030 and 2040. Following advice from the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) in April and December 2017, the interim emissions targets and first two carbon budgets were set in regulations in December 2018.

In March 2019, the Welsh Government published Prosperity for All: A low carbon Wales. This low carbon delivery plan set out how Wales aimed to meet the first carbon budget (2016-2020) and the 2020 interim target through 100 policies and proposals across Ministerial portfolios.

In 2019 the CCC advised the Welsh Government to amend its 2050 target and reduce emissions by 95% by that date. The Welsh Government accepted this advice and declared its ambition to achieve net-zero by 2050. Revised advice from the CCC in December 2020 recommended that Wales should set and pursue the more ambitious net-zero by 2050 target.

Net-zero means that total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would be equal to or less than the emissions removed from the environment. This can be achieved by a combination of emission reduction and emission removal.

In February 2021 the Welsh Government laid four further sets of regulations. These:

  • amended the 2050 emissions target to net-zero;
  • increased the 2030 target to 63% (from 45%) and the 2040 target to 89% (from 67%), and;
  • set the third carbon budget (2026-2030).

Progress to date

Emissions of greenhouse gases in Wales have fallen by 31% since 1990. The most recent data shows that Welsh emissions fell by 8% in 2018, and between 2016 and 2018 they reduced by close to 20%. As things stand, it looks like Wales is on track to meet its 2020 emissions target of a 27% reduction against the 1990 baseline, as long as emissions didn’t increase in 2019 and 2020. This won’t be confirmed until the data is available later this year.

The fall in total emissions over recent years has not been distributed evenly across all sectors. Reductions have been dominated by the power sector, which was responsible for 85% of the total reduction in emissions from 2016 to 2018. Emissions from manufacturing and construction (-9%) and fuel supply (-7%) have also fallen, but emissions in all other sectors fell by an average of just 1%. In particular, the slowdown and closure of Aberthaw coal fired power station contributed to 55% of the total fall in emissions between 2016 and 2020.

Emissions from agriculture and land use, land use change and forestry did not change between 2016 and 2018, and have only reduced by 13% since 1990. Emissions from livestock account for 54% of agricultural emissions. Wales reduced its tree planting target from 5,000 hectares per year to 2,000 hectares per year. Trees play a crucial role in removing emissions from the atmosphere. Disappointingly, in 2019, only 80 hectares of trees were planted in Wales. The planting of a National Forest has begun in earnest this year, and the previous Welsh Government hoped that a new sustainable land management approach will help to address emissions from the agricultural sector.

Surface transport is Wales’ third largest source of emissions. Between 2016 and 2018 emissions from surface transport fell by 2%, but emissions in 2018 were still 3% higher than the baseline. The Welsh Government recently published its new transport strategy, focusing on active travel and supporting the transition to electric vehicles. Time will tell whether this marks a shift in our stubbornly high emissions from transport.

Emissions from buildings have also increased since 2014. The rate of installation of new renewable energy capacity has fallen every year since 2015. And between 2016 and 2018 emissions from aviation increased by 29%. But there are glimmers of hope. Waste sector emissions continue to decline, and the new circular economy strategy aims to capitalise on Wales’s progress to date, and its position as third best in the world for recycling.

Are we doing enough?

While there have been some reductions in emissions in recent years, and a renewed commitment from the previous Welsh Government to tackling climate change, there is still much more to be done. The second low carbon delivery plan is due to be published in November 2021, and will set out polices and proposals to meet the second carbon budget. The CCC recommended that the plan should go further, setting out a long-term vision to meet the net-zero goal.

Members of the Sixth Senedd will have a central role in scrutinising the plan and holding the new Welsh Government to account on progress. The CCC has estimated the costs of hitting the targets as being an additional £3 billion per year by 2030 for Wales – so scrutiny of Welsh Government spending on the decarbonisation agenda, and whether it’s delivering on ambition, will also be key.

The CCC highlights that gaps remain – particularly the lack of underlying indicators to measure progress, and lack of a cohesive, economy-wide emissions reduction strategy for 2050. It cautions that Wales is not currently on track to meet an 80% emissions reduction target by 2050, let alone net-zero. The Welsh Government’s next low carbon delivery plan will be crucial in assessing how serious Wales is about tackling the climate crisis.

Article by Chloe Corbyn, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament