Wales could lead the ‘green recovery’ in the wake of Covid – but it has to be done the right way

The 2021 Senedd elections provide Wales with the opportunity to create the future we want – but we must support those most disadvantaged both by the pandemic and the climate crisis

Sophie Howe
Thursday 04 March 2021 07:35
<p>‘The 2021 Senedd elections provide Wales with the opportunity to create the future we want’</p>

‘The 2021 Senedd elections provide Wales with the opportunity to create the future we want’

The pandemic has been devastating, but it has also shown us that governments and societies are able to act decisively to address pressing threats. We need to apply this same force to a true green recovery. Both the UK and Welsh governments have committed to be net zero by 2050 and it will take fundamental changes to get us there: from the way government policy works, to how governments spend their money, and how society acts. 

In Wales, we have the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which means that decisions taken to meet the needs of today shouldn’t compromise future generations’ abilities to meet theirs. We declared a climate emergency in 2019 – and we have a new recovery strategy that puts wellbeing (and our Act) at the centre of how we rebuild the economy.

Wales can lead in this opportunity to “recover better”. But we will all fail if recovery doesn’t include and support those most disadvantaged both by the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. 

According to a World Wildlife Federation report, the net-zero transition could yield between £90bn and £133bn of annual benefits for the UK. Wales TUC findings suggest that almost 60,000 green jobs could be created in Wales over the next two years alone, if we invest properly. 

Yet Covid-19 has highlighted inequalities – such as its disproportionate effect on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities – in mortality rates, but also in employment. The unemployment rate nationally has reached 8.5 per cent for workers in those communities, compared with 4.5 per cent for white workers. 

My new analysis, with the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and Wales TUC, shows that the current skills pipeline in Wales is not prepared or diverse enough for the race to net zero. 

In agriculture, forestry, nature restoration and related trades, about 25 per cent of the workforce is female and 0.76 per cent is of non-white ethnicity. In electric installation, including broadband, electric vehicles and solar panels, 29 per cent of the workforce is female and 6 per cent is of non-white ethnicity.

A rapid transition to a low-carbon economy will require a reshaping of our economic system, in a way that reduces or removes these inequalities, rather than exacerbating them. This “just transition” is a core commitment under the Paris Agreement on climate. 

Like Covid-19, the climate and nature crises are social justice issues that will continue to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable communities, both here in the UK and around the world. 

Ethnic minorities and deprived communities are hardest hit by air pollution, which is linked to many forms of ill health, including higher risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. 

Deprived communities are less likely to live in the greenest areas, yet we know time spent in nature has an impact on indicators such as social contact, cohesion and integration, crime levels and education. They are also more likely to be harder hit by the cost of the climate crisis – for example, as a result of extreme weather damage to homes and livelihoods. 

We need targeted and sustained action to ensure green growth industries provide entry for those furthest from the labour market so that they can enjoy the health and employment benefits of a greener world. 

On 6 May, voters in Wales will head to the polls. The 2021 Senedd elections provide Wales with the opportunity to create the future we want – and it’s a significant election, as 16- and 17-year-olds will be voting for the first time. 

In my Manifesto for the Future, I’m urging political parties to commit to progressive, inclusive and preventive policies for a braver Wales.  Anything short of this and the green and just recovery will fail. 

World leaders talk about this “once in a generation opportunity” – we have to ensure equality of outcome is at the heart of any recovery package. 

This means challenging the structural barriers currently in place for people already disadvantaged, as well as showing a greater understanding and awareness of intersectionality, where some people suffer from multiple levels of disadvantage. 

Welsh Government’s chief economist says unemployment in Wales could peak at around 114,000 people in 2021 – double the pre-crisis level of 55,000. A key area of investment to support our recovery is in skills and employability. 

As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day, we look to governments to keep pace. With both the rising demand and rapidly changing labour market, women, including young women, young Black, Asian and minority ethnic women, disabled women, older women attempting to re-enter work or change sector, need assurance that they’ll have a place in the green recovery that has the potential to change lives, families and communities. 

A genuinely green and just recovery would deliver good, quality livelihoods built around connected communities and a healthy life balance, while improving biodiversity for our children and their children. 

That’s why we need Welsh government to commit to trialing a basic income (a new poll finds a trial is supported by 69 per cent of people in Wales), which could work alongside better-connected community infrastructure, such as walkable, 20-minute neighbourhoods where everyone has access to green spaces. This must be part of a national wellness system, which puts more of a preventative focus on healthcare – for now, and for future generations. 

Young people are increasingly demanding greater action on climate and social justice from our leaders. We owe it to them to listen. 

Sophie Howe is the future generations commissioner for Wales 

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