Tackling the nature and climate emergencies: Is more progress needed to achieve government commitments?

Published 18/09/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

This fifth article in our series on the Welsh Government’s delivery of its Programme for Government (PfG) explores the well-being objective, “Embed our response to the climate and nature emergency in everything we do”.

There are 14 specific commitments beneath this Cabinet-wide objective, which the Welsh Government has given an update on in its PfG annual report. There are also relevant Ministerial commitments.

Browse our full #ProgrammeforGovernment series, published to date.

We discuss the Welsh Government’s mixed success of delivery in some key areas in tackling the nature and climate emergencies.

Commission independent advice that will examine potential pathways to net zero by 2035

Wales currently has a statutory target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Under the Co-operation agreement, the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru commissioned an independent group to explore pathways to achieve net zero by 2035, well ahead of the target date of 2050.

The Net Zero Challenge Group started its work in January 2023, organised around five “challenges” – the first of which is “how could Wales feed itself by 2035?”

While independent advice has been commissioned, the UK Climate Change Committee’s estimates an emissions reduction for Wales of only 81% by 2035. Although the Committee welcomed the group’s ambition, it said “the challenges to achieving their goal to reach Net Zero by 2035 are huge”.

Pursue devolution of powers needed to help reach net zero, including management of the Crown Estate in Wales.

Increasing renewable energy generation will be integral in meeting Wales’ statutory target of net zero by 2050. Our article, Who owns the seabed, and why it matters, examines the Crown Estate’s role in developing Welsh marine renewables. 

The Crown Estate is set to benefit financially from Wales hosting marine renewables. It reports that the value of its marine [renewables] portfolio in Wales increased from £49m to £549m between 2020 and 2021. 

Devolution of the Crown Estate has been raised in the Senedd and the UK Parliament. The First Minister told the Senedd in January the Welsh Government had been talking to the Crown Estate and the UK Government on the matter.

Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts has noted:

…an arrangement similar to Scotland would give Wales a direct say in how the profits from new floating wind farms planned off the Welsh coast would be spent.

The Secretary of State for Wales, David TC Davies MP, recently described devolving the Crown Estate as “very risky for Wales”, given revenue spent by the UK Treasury is invested across the UK. The former Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart MP previously said there was “no public appetite at all in Wales to devolve the Crown Estate”. However a YouGov poll commissioned by Yes Cymru found 75% of Welsh residents polled would support Welsh management of the Crown Estate assets in Wales, with all income accruing to Wales.

The First Minister described the UK Government's appetite for further devolution as "pretty limited", and said there will be "no opportunity" with the current UK Government.

Work towards the establishment of an Environmental Governance Body, a statutory duty and targets to protect and restore biodiversity

Biodiversity targets:

The 2019 State of Nature Report highlighted 17% of 3,902 species in Wales are threatened with extinction, prompting the Senedd to declare a ‘nature emergency’ in 2021.

Species extinction risk assessment in Wales (1970 baseline)

Species extinction risk assessment in Wales. Scaled circles showing out of 3,902 species assessed, 666 species (17%) are threatened with extinction and 73 species (2%) have gone extinct since a 1970 baseline.

Source: The State of Nature Report 2019

The COP15 global biodiversity framework was agreed in December 2022, with an overarching target to protect 30% of terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine areas by 2030. The Welsh Government has committed to drive that ambition through statutory domestic biodiversity targets.

Environmental governance:

Leaving the EU created what stakeholders referred to as, an ‘environmental governance gap’ as EU arrangements for enforcing environmental law no longer apply in the UK.

The other UK nations have now established environmental governance bodies. Failure to do so in Wales prompted stakeholders to say Wales has “the weakest environmental governance structures in western Europe”.

Environmental stakeholders have called on the Welsh Government to urgently bring forward a ‘Nature Positive’ Bill to introduce biodiversity targets and establish an environmental governance body.

The Welsh Government’s 2023-24 Legislative Programme doesn’t include such a Bill. Instead the First Minister committed to bring forward the legislation “this Senedd term”.

The Welsh Government has undertaken a biodiversity 'deep-dive', which reported in October 2022 with recommendations for nature recovery. The Welsh Government aims to publish a White Paper during 2023.

The Welsh Government has established an Interim Environmental Protection Assessor for Wales. The Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure (CCEI) Committee concluded the interim measures “fall significantly short of the fully functioning, well-resourced oversight body that Wales needs”.

The CCEI Committee is disappointed legislation to fulfil this commitment was not prioritised for 2023-24. It said it will be:

…an unforgiveable failure of this Welsh Government if a fully functioning environmental governance body is not established before the end of its term in office.

Legislate to abolish the use of more commonly littered, single use plastics and introduce an extended producer responsibility scheme

Most plastic doesn’t biodegrade, lasts centuries in landfill or the natural environment, and eventually breaks down into microplastics. Plastic waste is the most prevalent form of marine debris.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes place the disposal costs of packaging on its producer. The current producer responsibility system for packaging in the UK doesn’t cover the full disposal costs.

The Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Wales) Act 2023 makes it an offence for a person to supply or offer to supply unnecessary, commonly littered single-use plastic products to consumers. The first phase of the ban is due to come into force this autumn.

Proposals for a UK-wide EPR scheme were jointly consulted on, to move the cost of dealing with packaging waste from households, local taxpayers and councils, onto the packaging producers. The Welsh Government has recently made regulations requiring the collection and reporting of producers' packaging data for the period to December 2023. This data will then be used to calculate fees Welsh producers will pay.

EPR was due to be implemented in a phased manner from 2024 (originally 2023), however this has recently been further delayed to October 2025.

Create a National Forest and harness its economic, cultural, and recreational potential as part of progress towards a sustainable timber industry.

Woodlands have significant environmental, societal and economic benefits, but with just 15% tree cover, Wales is one of the least forested countries in Europe.

The Welsh Government’s target is to plant 43,000 ha of new trees by 2030 (almost 5,000 ha per year), rising to 180,000 ha by 2050 (over 6,000 ha per year) to help reach net zero, consistent with advice from the UK Climate Change Committee.

But Welsh planting rates have been poor: only an average of 428 ha of new trees were planted per year in the decade to March 2022.

The First Minister launched work on the National Forest in March 2020. Since then initiatives have included designation of 14 existing exemplar woodlands and launch of the National Forest status scheme.

The Welsh Government previously said it would consult on a strategy for the National Forest in January 2022. Senedd scrutiny revealed the Welsh Government had moved away from this, preferring to instead target stakeholders directly and establish expert groups.

In 2021 the Deputy Minister for Climate Change led a 'deep-dive' into removing barriers to planting. Recommendations included a new funding scheme and a strategy to coordinate timber supply and construction. The timber strategy is expected by the end of 2023.

Forestry is long term. While progress has been made on the National Forest, the absence of a published National Forest strategy makes it difficult to measure progress against what any long term goals might be.

Introduce a Clean Air Act for Wales, consistent with World Health Organisation guidance and extend the provision of air quality monitoring.

Healthy Air Cymru says air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to public health, second only to smoking, and contributes to the climate and nature emergencies. Breaches of pollutant limits over several years have culminated in the Welsh Government being taken to court

The Welsh Government introduced the Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) (Wales) Bill in March 2023. We’ve published an article on the Bill. The Senedd’s CCEI Committee has undertaken Stage 1 scrutiny and laid its report in July.

While the Programme for Government commits to introducing a Clean Air Act “consistent with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance”, the Bill (as drafted) doesn’t require any air quality targets set to be in line with WHO guidelines.

Many stakeholders highlighted this to the Committee, which recommended:

The Minister should bring forward amendments at Stage 2 to provide that the Welsh Ministers must have regard to the latest World Health Organisation Air Quality Guidelines when setting air quality targets.

Should the Senedd agree the general principles of the Bill it’ll move to Stage 2 of the legislative process. While the Welsh Government is on track to have an Act on the statute book, its impact remains to be seen.

Explore the Programme for Government, its objectives and commitments

Article by Katy Orford, Chloe Corbyn, Lorna Scurlock, Elfyn Henderson and Fran Howorth, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament