Planet Platform

As El Niño threatens to exacerbate climate change this year, Cai Davies offers his perspective on how green transition can become part of the nation-building process in devolved Wales, and concrete ways in which this effort could become as successful as the revival of the Welsh language in the previous century.

This feature is published as part of Aberystwyth University’s Ambassadorship scheme and hosting partnership with Planet.

  Aberystwyth University

Wales is intrinsically tied to the climate crisis. It was a large source of coal for the first industrial revolution, which established England as a global power and left waste heaps all over Wales. This unequal relationship is why Wales should have sympathy for the Third World countries which now suffer the greatest damage of the climate crisis, for which they are least responsible for. This sympathy must manifest not only in direct support for other countries but also in becoming sustainable as fast as possible, which will prevent Welsh emissions from affecting others, and serve as a model for other First World countries to follow.

The time for this is now, as the climate crisis does not proceed evenly, but moves from disaster to disaster. In the coming months the threat of disasters has increased, as on the 1st August 2023 the Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued a statement that: ‘The Bureau's El Niño Alert continues, with El Niño development considered likely in the coming weeks.’ El Niño is an oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon in the South Pacific Ocean that has a globally warming effect. It is part of a natural cycle, but will exacerbate anthropogenic global warming and cause droughts and storms across the world. Even here we are not safe as El Niño has previously increased the wind speed of storms that have hit the Welsh coast. This is why, although specific net zero targets such as 2030 and 2050 are good for checking our progress, our actual target should be, as scientists have been saying, as soon as logistically possible. The latest IPPC synthesis report puts it as: ‘There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.’

In the face of these global problems, and urgent requirements for change, how can Wales work through this crisis and come out stronger as a community and nation? I will explore how becoming sustainable is an important project that should become a core part of Wales’ national identity.

Wales mostly consists of small communities spread out throughout the country. This creates smaller pockets of energy demand that can be met partially or fully by local community-owned power schemes that have smaller footprints that respect the environment. For example, waste heat from industrial parks can be captured in heating schemes and transported to nearby houses, reducing the need for gas. Or, local small hydropower facilities can be built in ways that don’t interrupt river flows. These community schemes can be incredibly effective and empowering, and should be a target of national funding. A focus on the local community level is also important as some of these small Welsh communities, such as Fairbourne and Borth, are acutely threatened by rising sea levels, and need national support to determine their future.

Wales also has a long coast which forms an important part of its culture and industry. I personally have many fond childhood memories of playing on Welsh beaches. Furthermore, the sea off Wales is a hotbed of potential for sustainable development. Firstly, offshore wind farms have already been built off north Wales, and there are more that can be built. Secondly, seaweed farms could also be developed along the coast as a source of food, protection for marine species, and material for bioreactors. Finally, there is the potential for tidal power, which is very reliable as the tides can be predicted and can ‘step in’ when solar and wind power aren’t being generated. Sensitive management is needed to prevent marine destruction, but seaweed and power farms are sources of tax money that can be re-invested into marine conservation. Infrastructure could also be designed as much as possible not to affect the aesthetic experience of, and not to prevent access to, the coastline.

Unlike England, Wales still has large natural areas left uninhabited, which can be restored to increase biodiversity, to benefit indigenous flora and fauna, and provide natural services such as pollination. Wales has already established a good record of this, with projects including the Cors Caron nature reserve near Tregaron, a restored peat bog. Peat bogs are incredibly effective carbon sinks, trapping carbon dioxide in the layers of peat as they slowly form. A boardwalk installed across the bog also provides a way for people to experience and feel the benefit of this restoration. Each restored forest, bog or other native habitat can be counted as a point of pride for Wales, and a place for local communities to build culture and memories around.

I’m confident Wales is full of potential for the green transition, and there are other benefits as well. Empowering local communities with cheap sustainable energy will provide them with green jobs, make operating cheaper for small businesses, and decrease reliance on tourism, which has a distortive and extractive effect on local economies and cultures. Wales would also benefit from better public transport, which is key to reducing emissions by reducing the number of cars on the road. This could mean establishing an electric bus network, and I believe it is also worth considering re-establishing and electrifying old rail routes. To achieve these aims, Wales must reverse austerity, which would also mean less resources being spent on alleviating environmental damage, crime and health problems.

However, it is worth highlighting the nation’s attempts to become sustainable are at risk by the looming presence of Westminster. Recently, the Houses of Parliament partially blocked a new Scottish deposit return scheme where people would be refunded a small amount of the price of recyclable bottles and containers when they returned them to recycling points. Westminster refused to allow glass to be part of the scheme, despite it being the most carbon intensive material to produce, given it would contravene the Internal Market Act. Capital prioritised before the environment, and devolution at the mercy of England again. It’s encouraging that the Welsh Government announced in June that they want to press ahead with a similar glass refund plan despite any opposition from Westminster. However, greater courage will be needed from the devolved government if the fight for more radical measures is to be successful.

This will be worth the struggle, however, as becoming sustainable isn’t just a necessity in the face of the climate crisis, it is a better alternative to the way we live now. This is why, alongside the remarkable progress already made on reclaiming the Welsh language, the environment must also become a national Welsh cause

Aberystwyth: a coastal town vulnerable to climate change, with iconic cultural value, also the site of the Trefechan Bridge protest that launched Cymdeithas yr Iaith sixty years ago. Image © Cai Davies

Aberystwyth: a coastal town vulnerable to climate change, with iconic cultural value, also the site of the Trefechan Bridge protest that launched Cymdeithas yr Iaith sixty years ago. Image © Cai Davies

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