Around the world, all who are interested in intergenerational issues look to Wales, whose government has created the role of Future Generations Commissioner, to assess the long-term, intergenerational impact of policy and legislation. Here, the first Commissioner, Sophie Howe, tells us more about her pioneering role, but begins with an impassioned plea for action now to avert the real menace of climate change.
When the history books remember our generation, will they remember us kindly? Or will they look back at us and wonder why we failed to act when we had the chance?
When the media hails each week as “the most dramatic week in British politics”, long-term focus and vision is almost seen as an indulgence. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the ability to get us through the next few months is seemingly the only requirement to be a leader today. But with climate change posing the greatest threat for future generations, we need leaders who are willing to act for the long term.
Urgent requirement: policy for thousands of years
Scientist and futurologist Martin Rees has written: “what happens this century will resonate for thousands of years.” Adding: “This century is the first where one species, ours, is so empowered and dominant that it has the planet’s future in its hands.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report says we have 12 years to avoid climate breakdown. If we fail to act, future generations are unlikely to accept our excuses. We cannot say we did not know.
Especially when emissions graphs show that we have put more carbon into our atmosphere in the last 30 years than at any other time – since Al Gore wrote his first book on global warming, and after the UN first published their 1992 framework convention on climate change. Our generation cannot shirk responsibility and attribute climate change as a consequence of the industrial revolution.
We are quick to point out the mistakes of human past but fail to see our failures in the continuing present. But the IPCC report is a reality check, and future generations will never forgive us for failing to act when we had the chance.
In her no-holds-barred UN address, teenage activist Greta Thunberg called out global leaders, telling them: “You’re not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden, you leave to us children. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
And she’s right. The issue of climate change is an issue of intergenerational injustice and inequality. “Generation Greta” have had enough of democratic systems that render them voiceless and fail to factor their futures into their decisions.
This is personal. It’ll be personal for parents and grandparents across the country. My five children depend on me, and the actions I take. We all owe it to them. They’re a reminder that we all have a duty to leave them more than an empty bank balance and a broken planet.
Intergenerational justice is about prioritising the long-term needs over the short-term gains. In 2015, Wales became one of the first countries worldwide to legislate for future generations, when the National Assembly for Wales passed the ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act.
The Act places a duty on public bodies in Wales to ensure they are carrying out sustainable development. It places a legal duty on the Welsh public sector to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It gives those working in Wales the ambition, permission and legal obligation to improve our social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being.
Of course, climate change is just one of the many challenges facing our future generations. An ageing population, automation, obesity and economic uncertainty form multiple, intersecting crises. Wales is leading the way as one of the first countries to look holistically at how we tackle these issues.
My role as Commissioner is to support and challenge public bodies in their implementation of this ground-breaking legislation.
Projecting the vision beyond Wales
Internationally, our way of doing things is continuing to inspire and impact change. Our membership of the Network of Institutions for Future Generations (NIFG) has been instrumental in developing a methodology of sharing best practice between fellow member countries such as Israel, Hungary, Norway, Finland, New Zealand and Canada.
Professor Jonathan Boston from Victoria University, New Zealand, described our legislation as “remarkable in terms of its breadth, its coverage and ambition. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world at this point.”
Collaborating and sharing the learning with other nations is vital. I was hugely encouraged by New Zealand’s recent unveiling of their well-being budget; and there are also proposals for a Future Generations Well-being Act for England, aimed at ensuring that new policy decisions are gauged against people’s future health and well-being.
When the Well-being of Future Generations Act was passed in Wales, the UN famously said that “what Wales does today, we hope that the world will do tomorrow.” But there is a second part of that quote, that “action more than words is the hope for future generations.”
Action on climate change in Wales
I see it as my role as Commissioner to continue to challenge the Welsh Government on how they are living up to the ambition of the legislation and how we can ensure this goes beyond well-meaning rhetoric and becomes our reality.
For example, in March 2019, they published their plans and proposals for decarbonisation but didn’t include any detail on how these will be funded. It’s simply not enough for a government or a leader to declare a climate emergency. It is through actions that we see real change.
That is why, in June, I published a “10-point plan” for funding the climate emergency. It outlines the things government needs to invest in today in the name of intergenerational justice, with our research showing that £991 million of investment is required in the next budget round.
Making this a reality will require cross-government commitment to allocate funds differently and to spend differently, and it will require every single one of us as individuals to change the way we live and work and play our part in changing behaviours, to reduce our carbon emissions whilst also supporting sustainable employment opportunities, improving our health and reinvigorating our communities and local economies.
If our future generations are willing to go on strike and to make their voices heard for the future, why can’t we? We have a choice: do we want to be the generation that seals the world’s fate or the one that secures its future?