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How will the Well-Being of Future Generations Act account for the institutional void left by the Climate Change Commission for Wales? The case of adaptation.

15 June 2016

Charlotte Ford and Dr Andrew Kythreotis, Cardiff School of Geography and Planning




Arguably, with the new Environment and Well-being of Future Generations Act (WFGA), Welsh Government is now leading the way in terms of legislating for climate change. In terms of climate adaptation, the 2010 climate change strategy and adaptation delivery plan has foregrounded these two pieces of recent legislation, which respectively came into force on 21st March and 1st April 2016. As part of the 2010 Climate Strategy for Wales, the 2010 Adaptation Delivery Plan had three core priorities:

  • Building the climate change adaptation evidence base
  • Mainstreaming climate adaptation
  • Communicating on adaptation

Yet amidst all this exciting legislation, is there evidence that the 2010 priorities are coming to fruition on the ground? The fact that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise in Wales since 2011 means that policy attention to adaptation is more important than ever. Additionally, the national Well-Being indicators for Wales, an important component of the new WFGA to measure on the ground progress, illustrates that climate change, particularly adaptation, may be in for a raw policy deal under the act. Out of 46 indicators, only a modest seven directly relate to climate change (specifically mitigation and carbon sinks, energy and ecosystem issues) and only a meagre one (no.32 flooding) relates to climate adaptation specifically. Political food for thought? Or food for political thought? Added to this we are at a critical time where all governmental structures in Wales have been scrutinised and burdened with stringent financial cuts, particularly around welfare, simultaneous to calls from the public for more innovative economic and social progression in their communities. Resultantly, with limited resources it is making it increasingly difficult for both Welsh Government and Local Authorities in Wales to contemplate long-term mainstreaming of climate adaptation into ‘on the ground’ planning. Yet, the transitional and recurrent costs of administering the new WFGA total over £5 million up to 2020 (p.12). With more money being pumped into the new act during severe times of austerity for local Welsh communities as Welsh Government is financially squeezed by UK central government, the act will be subject to close public scrutiny.

Financial costs aside, there is also the danger that for local authorities, climate adaptation will become another tick box exercise, one where prevalence of instantaneous local economic benefits will take priority over social and environmental issues. The newly formed Public Service Boards (PSBs) will have to demonstrate to the new Future Generations Commissioner (FGC) that they are incorporating future generations in their work. However, what is of more significance for the adaptation purists amongst us is how will the practice of adaptation be framed by PSBs and how will the new FGC ensure adaptation is not just paid lip service by PSBs? The true acid test is not just whether this new statutory relationship between PSBs and the FGC will work in practice, but whether communities – the main intended beneficiaries of the new act – are given the necessary institutional support for adaptation by PSBs.

Hence, there is currently a very challenging economic, social and political backdrop for climate change adaptation policymakers and practitioners in Wales to work with, or against, depending on your viewpoint. From 2007 up to 1st April 2016, the Climate Change Commission for Wales (CCCW) and its various sub-groups had continuously provided impartial and critical advice to Welsh Government, mobilised action and built consensus around climate change issues. In this sense, the CCCW has been instrumental and central to Welsh Government’s efforts in institutionally tackling climate change, something noted by the new FGC at the recent ‘Wales in 2050: Delivering for Future Generations’ event in March 2016. Yet with the ambitious adoption of the WFGA in April and the appointment of the new FGC, there raises a more unrequited vital question:

What political structure(s) will provide an institutional framework for future progress on climate change, particularly adaptation under the WFGA? 

Presently, the cessation of the CCCW signifies that the recent prominent voice for integrating widespread climate adaptation in Wales is no longer extant, although Cynnal Cymru continues to do an array of important work on CCA, and understandably the new FGC will need more time to publically outlay plans for wider national policy progress on climate change. The next key milestone will be in May 2018 when PSBs are obliged to publish well-being plans and a statement of intent for their local area. Only at this stage will we have some indication as to how adaptation is being practically dealt with by PSBs in the communities they serve. As such local authorities are at a critical juncture in assessing how the WFGA will address climate adaptation in Wales. The fact that early adopter authorities are in distinctively different places in terms of how they interpret and integrate the WFGA against their current agendas, the implications for climate adaptation may not bode that well.

The WFGA objectives are straightforward – to improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of Wales through collaborative, integrated and partnership working. Nevertheless, and most importantly, the act statutorily stipulates a long-term thinking rationale that the newly appointed PSBs and related public bodies listed in the act must adhere to. Legislatively it is the first of its kind for Wales, and the act promises to be ‘transformative’ in nature on paper, and in some ways we agree, given this new temporal future dimension that departs from the short-termist outlook of our political election cycles.

But there is a danger of political rhetoric flying around that the ethos of the WFGA is concerned with mainstreaming the principle of sustainable development within all the Well-being goals. However, because climate change adaptation is only intimated in two of the Well-being Goals (‘A resilient Wales’ and ‘A prosperous Wales’), there is a concern that WG’s idea of sustainable development does not fully delineate the relationship between sustainable development and climate change adaptation. For us, there is a danger that WG attention to making progress on climate change adaptation issues will again be subsumed by normative framings of sustainable development, with the act trying to be inclusive of everything for everyone. Whilst this is commendable, the practical realities of climate adaptation and managing climate risk reveal that there are distinct place-based winners and losers in terms of climate impacts e.g. Aberystwyth and Borth. Let’s not lose sight that some places are less equal than others when it comes to planning and responding to climate impacts.

This brings us on to the way that adaptation has been normatively framed through the 2012 and forthcoming 2017 Climate Change Risk Assessments in terms of physical risks, by central government and DEFRA. But what about greater political consideration of the softer side of risk e.g. socio-political risks? This is where the CCCW has arguably been quite effective, particularly the adaptation sub-group, which over the last year conducted a number of workshops aimed at co-producing policy ideas surrounding the development of sectoral adaptation plans for Welsh Government. Potential disbanding of the institutional structures of the CCCW is a political risk in itself that warrants further consideration by the new FGC. It will be a shame not to further utilise the relationships and good work conducted by each sub-group under the CCCWs’ tenure.

At this moment in time, the political momentum for climate adaptation in Wales remains moot given that the institutional structures for climate change under WFGA are uncertain and undecided. There is no concrete clarification of distinct anticipatory aims for climate adaptation in Wales or for the roles of other individuals and/or groups (apart from the FGC) who could support her leadership in promoting the adaptation message in local communities in Wales, or in the higher policy echelons of government.

To conclude, in order to successfully adapt to climate change in Wales there needs to be a resounding realisation amongst our policymakers (in Wales and even more so in Whitehall) that there are many inter-dependencies that exist within different sectors in society. Whilst a mainstreamed systemic approach to tackling climate impacts remains a climate policy panacea, this has to be underpinned by institutional structures that have the experience and developed in the words of Anthony Giddens, the ‘facework commitments’, to support the agency of key individuals mainstreaming the climate adaptation message. Whilst the WFGA represents an exciting new policy tool, the FGC cannot utilise the powers of the act solely on her own to successfully tackle climate impacts faced by our communities. She needs wider buy in and support from communities, climate experts, practitioners and local policymakers, and this is something that the CCCW as a collaborative institution, did provide.


Dr Andrew Kythreotis and Charlotte Ford, School of Geography and Planning and Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University, Cardiff and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Zuckerman Institute for Connective Environmental Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich