Recent developments give reasons to be ambitious about what Wales can do to tackle climate change. In December 2020, the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommended that Wales move to target Net Zero emissions by 2050, above its previous recommendation of a 95% reduction. Environment Minister Lesley Griffiths has committed to putting this target in law.
The Wales Centre for Public Policy have recently released a report on achieving a Just Transition in Wales, highlighting the ways in which decarbonisation can be used to redress existing inequalities and prevent new ones from forming. This will require both cross-cutting work between government departments and initiatives delivered by a range of stakeholders including government agencies, community groups and the private sector, working together or separately. Clarity about outcomes will be critical: Ministers will need to put forth a clear, well-communicated vision of what justice means and how the transition will affect future economic activity.
Getting to Net Zero will be very challenging. Welsh emissions have dropped since 1990 but these have been driven by reduced emissions in power generation and supply, a responsibility largely reserved to the UK Government. In areas where the Welsh Government has more power to act, emissions have reduced much more slowly despite ambitious targets and policy proposals. For instance, emissions in transport have barely changed since 1990 even as vehicles have become more energy-efficient. And while industrial emissions have reduced, the CCC analysis shows this to be the result of reduced demand rather than through widespread rollout of new industrial processes.
In order to hit targets, policy delivery will need to be stepped up, and new policies implemented where necessary. The Welsh Government should make the most of the powers it does have — by helping to finance smaller-scale energy generation such as marine energy projects, for instance.
The CCC recognise that not all emission reductions can (or should) be delivered by government action alone. Behaviour change on the part of individuals and organisations and recalibrating business investment towards low- and zero-carbon technology will also play a large role. Previous CCC research suggests behaviour change alone could drive as much as 60% of emissions reductions, although the exact balance will depend on the policies governments adopt.
As our Just Transitions report argued, the ‘convening power’ of government — the ability of governments to connect and motivate groups of actors to find a common approach to a problem — could be used to promote action. The Welsh Government has previously leveraged this power to good effect: WCPP research has found that co-ordinating stakeholders and forming and deploying formal and informal networks helped to resource and implement Part 2 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014.
Because of the wide range of actors whose efforts will be needed, it will be important to bring people together who may not agree about the solutions, or even the extent of the problem. Rather than getting bogged down in debates about competing visions, it will be more constructive to focus on how differing approaches can lead to more sustainable, and perhaps even complementary, outcomes.
When it comes to energy, a focus on innovative hydrogen fuel cells and small modular nuclear reactors does not need to supplant an expansion in renewable energy capacity. Investigating carbon capture and storage does not need to ignore potential criticisms about relying on these methods to mitigate emissions. There is also room for a debate about how afforestation and land use change can be balanced with continuing sustainable agricultural production that protects communities and cultural heritage.
Recognising where conflict is likely to occur, and having a clear understanding of the trade-offs inherent in policymaking, will also clarify the governance mechanisms that could help to enable the delivery of a Just Transition. Doing so would also clarify when and how competing interests could be balanced, and where different forms of action could be emphasised. This could include recognising areas where the private sector would be better able to mobilise capital investment than the Welsh Government, and vice versa.
At the WCPP, through work on implementing a Just Transition and other aspects of decarbonisation, we are investigating how progress to a low-carbon economy can be facilitated and are aiming to help policymakers and stakeholders across the Welsh public service bring about a cleaner and greener future.