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Team Wales Tackles Climate Change

climate in wales
Miles Bennington

Miles Bennington

Editor

Our Editor, Miles Bennington, speaks to Welsh Climate Change Minister, Julie James MS, about Climate Change, Biodiversity and how all levels of Government can deliver decarbonisation

Julie James is a Minister in a hurry. That much was clear when I spoke with the Welsh Government Climate Change Minister a few weeks ago. With reference to her “last few years of service” and that “politicians aren’t around for very long”, not to mention impending 2030 targets, she clearly feels the urgency of the climate challenge and the need to leave Wales in a position to hit its targets.

Every question I asked her on the extensive, cross-governmental climate brief was met with a flurry of schemes, declarations and plans dealing with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing biodiversity and adapting to unavoidable climate change.

Minister for the future

Created after a consultation with the Welsh Youth Parliament and beholden to the Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015, James made clear that the climate change brief was one that spans the activities of the Welsh Government and is orientated towards the future. Familiar but welcome initiatives include declaring climate and nature emergencies, prioritising a switch to renewable electricity and championing potential windfalls for Wales, such as floating wind power in the Celtic Sea and opening a government-owned developer that will build wind turbines on the Government’s woodland estate.

The focus on who will benefit from the green industrial revolution to come was a point where James contrasted the actions of the Welsh Government with that of the UK. It is important to her that Welsh taxpayers see the profit from placing renewables on government land and her desire for Welsh producers to be involved in green industry was palpable.

One critique was the UK Government’s approach to developing wind power around the Welsh coast. James is wary of large developments, where multinational firms have dual incentives. They need to bid the highest they can for plots of the ocean on which to site wind farms. At the same time, they need to bid the lowest they can on energy prices to secure a Contract for Difference. Together, James thinks these incentives set up by UK policies will result in energy companies taking their margin out of construction, leaving Welsh suppliers out in the cold.

James was also unimpressed with UK policy in response to the Ukraine crisis.  She said that high fuel prices have, in her words, triggered a “knee-jerk reaction to go back to fossil fuels”. Calling for more investment for Wales, she would like to see a faster energy transition and a plan to ensure continuity of supply.

Trade-offs

Announcements, plans and goals are all very well, but I wanted to push James on some of the trade-offs that decarbonisation will force onto Wales. Like deindustrialisation, decarbonisation will be a wrenching economic change and it’s important that people aren’t left behind. During the course of our conversations, James identified three places the transition will hurt the most; the steel industry, centred on the Port Talbot steelworks; oil refining, based at Pembroke; and coastal places that Wales will not be able to defend as sea levels rise.

For steel and oil refining, she pointed to carbon capture and emissions trading schemes as methods for protecting these industries, at least in the short-term. She also stressed that steel is a required input for building a renewables industry, her gaze ever focussed on keeping jobs in Wales. Her stark analysis for coastal communities – historically built on level terrain and near the mouths of rivers for access to trade – is that some will not be saveable from rising sea levels, though she said that none have been identified for this fate yet.

Some of the hardest trade-offs required will be in the farming industry, which currently accounts for approaching 90% of land use in Wales. The Welsh Government is still putting together their Sustainable Farming Scheme, which will replace EU schemes that ended after Brexit. This scheme, created in consultation with farmers, will emphasise farmers’ roles not only as food producers but as ‘stewards of the countryside’. The Sustainable Farming Scheme will pay farmers to provide “ecosystem services” such as restoring peat bogs and sphagnum moss or planting trees where appropriate.

“Politicians aren’t around for very long; all we can really do is shift the ship of state so it’s going in the right direction.”

Julie James MS, Minister for Climate Change Welsh Government

Final thought

Having been in the Senedd since 2011 and in the Welsh Government since 2014, James has clearly been tempered by governing and has a desire for all levels of Government to work seamlessly together for “Team Wales”. Fluent in the initiatives and forthcoming with praise for local Government, and even the UK Government, where she agrees, James clearly also hopes for a Labour Government that will back more targets with funding than the current Westminster administration. Time will tell whether she will get her wish, but whatever happens at Westminster, it’s clear that the political will for decarbonising the economy is alive and well in Wales.

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