Climate change – our obligations to future generations
What I’ve learnt about climate change since becoming Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, earlier this year, is quite simply frightening. There is no doubt that it’s the greatest challenge facing future generations and action is urgently needed across the public sector to reduce our emissions and its impacts.
Last December I was lucky enough to go to the global UN conference (COP21) where almost 200 nations supported the historic “Paris Agreement” to limit global temperature increase to under 2oC (and as close to 1.5oC as possible). To date the Agreement has been ratified by 100 countries including the US, China, India and the EU but disappointingly not the UK. Together they represent over 55% of global emissions, which means the Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016.
However the most worrying development means that all this progress could be derailed following the US Presidential election result this week, with many saying that Donald Trump will withdraw all commitment to the Paris Agreement believing that climate change is a hoax.
This week, countries are getting together again for COP22 – to discuss how they can accelerate action to deliver these commitments. Wales’ Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths AM, will be going to raise the profile of Wales’ contribution to the international agenda by highlighting their strategic and innovative approach to the United Nations key work streams on climate change, sustainable development and biological diversity. The conference is a major opportunity to showcase how Wales is already putting the UN’s objectives into practice through its legislative programme.
But a recent report by leading experts warn that these targets will be missed and the planet’s average temperature will rise by 2oC by 2050. By the time my eldest child is 50 we will be witnessing the consequences of our collective failure to cut emissions with flooding and storms, droughts and wildfires causing global havoc.
This year has smashed previous temperature records – according to Nasa the first half of 2016 was 1.3oC warmer than the pre-industrial era of the late 19th century (although this figure was inflated by the el Nino effect). Every month for the last 14 has broken the record average global temperature. Weather-related events due to climate change have doubled in number since 1990; reaching the 2oC rise means an additional doubling in the number of weather events, which will impact on infrastructure and services, water resources, food production and human health. Some of the impacts of climate change may be beneficial, while most will not, negatively impacting lives and livelihoods everywhere.
Wales has two new pieces of legislation to support action on climate change – the first is the Well-being of Future Generations Act which requires public bodies across Wales, including Welsh Government, to contribute to seven well-being goals including a more prosperous, resilient and globally responsible Wales. The Environment Act also sets a clear pathway for decarbonisation, which means reducing our emissions by at least 80% by 2050. Welsh Ministers are required to set carbon budgets to help us achieve this. These Acts set a strong framework for action, and we need Welsh Ministers to deliver on these commitments and accelerate action towards a low-carbon economy in Wales.
And Wales does have a long way to go – latest statistics show that we’ve only reduced our emissions by 18% since the base year (1990) compared to 46% reduction achieved in Scotland.
During October people were urged to meet with their Assembly Members, and Members of Parliament, to “Speak Up” about the people, places and things they want to protect from climate change. It was an opportunity for people to tell politicians why they’re concerned about climate change and to call on them to take action as part of a month-long campaign being organised by Stop Climate Chaos Cymru (SCCC).
As well as highlighting the impacts that could be seen in fragile areas such as the Dyfi Biosphere Reserve, communities have been celebrating the positive action taking place to reduce our emissions such as they innovative Radyr Weir Hydro Scheme on the River Taff in Cardiff. This was installed in 2015 to take advantage of the power of the water flowing through the river and will generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of up to 550 homes. About 82% of the world’s energy is produced by burning fossil fuels; however non-fossil fuel electricity generation has now reached 30%.
According to Nasa climate scientist James Hansen “By failing to rein in climate change impacts, the rights of young people alive today and those that will be born in the future are being disregarded. There is also a fundamental failure of governments to manage natural resources and so protect the public trust”. As the guardian of future generations this is something I am incredibly concerned about.
Getting to net zero carbon emissions is achievable through taking action across all sectors – infrastructure, energy, housing, transport, health – addressing climate change can often lead to benefits to the local economy, communities and health. However, the urgency of the challenge means that everyone needs to start to act today – there is reason to hope as long as hope is joined with action.