The clean, green grass of home: Can Wales be a world leader in sustainability?

By Robyn Evans

As we mark St David’s Day and celebrate the history and heritage of Wales, can the nation that was the cradle of the first Industrial Revolution now build a new and lasting legacy as the leader of a global green revolution?

When establishing his new Welsh Government last year, First Minister Mark Drakeford made a bold commitment to ensuring that the environment and climate change would be at the heart of all decision-making, creating a new ‘super-ministry’ to deal with the climate crisis.

The far-reaching Climate Change Ministry, which brings together transport, planning, housing, and energy for the first time, signals the start of a more integrated approach to climate matters in the Welsh Government. Indeed, Mark Drakeford’s administration is showing encouraging signs that it stands ready to tackle the challenge and embrace the opportunities presented by climate change.

Whilst we hear of green economic recovery ambitions right across the globe, no nation has yet fully grasped the opportunity to lead the world in building a sustainable future. Wales, however, continues to demonstrate that it has great potential to do so. It was the first country to enshrine the Wellbeing of Future Generations into law, the first to appoint a Minister for Climate, and in 2019, the Senedd became the first Parliament in the world to vote in favour of declaring a climate emergency.

With a raft of wide-ranging government policies and proposals set out in its recent Net Zero Plan, there is no denying the ambition is there to tackle the climate crisis and foster a greener and stronger economy in the process. In the same way that it played a leading role in the Industrial Revolution, Wales could forge the way in setting an example to others of what it means to achieve environmental growth. So, where are the key opportunities to make a difference and establish Wales as a global leader in sustainability? 

Circular Economy

Already ranked the third best country for recycling in the world, the Welsh Government has ambitions to make Wales the world number one. Its Circular Economy strategy, which aims to take the next steps on the pathway towards a zero waste, low carbon Wales, has a vital role to play in responding to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and the climate emergency, but also sets out fantastic opportunities for Wales on this agenda. The global economy is looking at the potential of the Circular Economy and Wales is in a prime position to lead here.

The establishment of a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) will be key. Discussions of such a scheme have been rumbling on for many years now but with Welsh Labour making manifesto commitments to abolish the use of more commonly littered, single use plastics, and introduce an extended producer responsibility scheme, there is hope that these policies will be developed with greater urgency.

Speaking in the Senedd last year, Mark Drakeford confirmed that his government intends to bring forward a Welsh DRS, with plans to publish its design and implementation date in early 2022. We are yet to see an announcement, but this holds massive potential for Wales to lead the way in becoming a zero-waste country.  

Green Industry

With its rich industrial heritage, heavy industry still accounts for a large proportion of employment in Wales, particularly in the south. Huge efforts are required to help maintain and grow Welsh industry in a way that is fit for the net zero world – vital work that is being spearheaded by the South Wales Industrial Cluster (SWIC), a consortium of companies pursuing the decarbonisation of industry.  

The scheme aims to develop a net zero industrial zone in South Wales by 2040 through the production and distribution of hydrogen power, cleaner electricity production that uses carbon capture technologies, hydrogen rich natural gas and large industry decarbonisation through fuel switching. Not only will the SWIC help to significantly reduce emissions, it will also open up opportunities for South Wales to become a leader in decarbonised industrial and economic growth, ensuring operations in the region are sustainable for the long term.

Renewable Future

Decarbonisation ambitions must be driven by scaling up of renewable energy generation, and Wales, with its vast natural resources, has the potential to establish itself as a leader here.

Currently producing 25% of all its generated electricity from renewables, the Welsh Government has set out a clearer vision for renewable energy following a recent deep dive review into the subject. It now wants Wales to generate renewable energy to at least fully meet Wales’ energy needs and utilise surplus generation to tackle the nature and climate emergencies.

To achieve this, the government plans to prioritise actions to reduce energy demand and maximise local ownership. It has also identified the importance that the marine energy sector has to play in Wales, which is a prime location for the development and deployment of new innovative technologies. The prospect of a Tidal Lagoon has not yet washed away. As part of a balanced energy policy, Welsh Labour made a manifesto promise to develop a Tidal Lagoon Challenge and support ideas that can make Wales a world centre of emerging tidal technologies.

A commitment to sustainable development has been a distinctive feature of devolution and Wales has the vision to make it happen. The Welsh Government now has a very real opportunity to show genuine leadership on this agenda but in doing so will need to continue to be more ambitious with its devolved powers, ensure collaborative working across the public and private sectors, and focus on developing the skills and sustainable green jobs essential for the future.