Where does the recovery begin? Thoughts from Cynnal Cymru

Where does the recovery begin? Thoughts from Cynnal Cymru

Many have noted that, if there is any silver lining to the global Covid-19 pandemic, it has been the way it has legitimised the desire for a radical re-haul of Welsh society to better meet the needs of current and future generations. The invitations to share ideas and work towards a better future have come from citizens and government alike. As a membership organisation that exists to accelerate progress towards sustainable development, the opportunities to ‘build back better’ – and avert the impending climate and ecological catastrophes – are things that the Cynnal Cymru team has been thinking about for a long while. When asked to decide on our top actions for the green recovery, we prioritised the following for government, public bodies, anchor institutions, organisations and thought-leaders everywhere. As our last point emphasises, this list is not exhaustive and is designed to sit alongside the asks from other expert fora to ensure that the recovery is not just green but restorative and just.

1. Make the emergency real

We echo the calls of Extinction Rebellion for public bodies to ‘tell the truth’. The scale of the climate and nature emergencies is hard to comprehend even for those of us working in the sector. The Future Generations Report calls for Wales to be an eco-literate country. We endorse this, particularly as there is now extensive evidence that peer-education of Carbon Literacy results in tangible individual and organisational change. Cynnal is currently pioneering development of a similar Eco-literacy course designed to make the science behind both these emergencies understandable and relatable to everyday actions. It provides learners with the tools to identify and implement actions they can take to protect and enhance natural systems and the confidence to help others understand and feel motivated to do so also. However, this sense of literacy cannot come just from the bottom. It needs to be exemplified from the top so that citizens feel that their actions have been validated and there is a collective will and effort.

Government, public bodies and other leading actors need to be bold in reiterating the scale of these challenges and ensuring that every action and investment is viewed through a climate and ecological resilience lens. This requires frequent, clear and consistent communication on a par with – and with the same level of urgency as – Covid-19 messaging and visibility.

2. Define and measure progress

There are many demands to build back better and there is robust research from CAT and others that a shifting of investment towards the well-being economy will meet multiple goals. The Well-being of Future Generations Act and Welsh Government’s recent membership of the Well-Being Economy Governmental Alliance, together with movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Citizens Cymru and WCVA’s recent think-pieces, provide the political, legislative and ‘people’s’ mandate to do this. Frequent reference is made to Wales’s pioneering WFG Act but work on how we measure if we are actually delivering well-being better since 2015 seems to have stalled. The Carnegie Trust recently published a series of blog posts on Wellbeing around the World with several posts on effectively measuring improvements in Wellbeing.

There is an urgent need to bring the national Well-Being Indicators back into public prominence and to use the literature on effective measurement of Wellbeing to set Milestones against these so that the public has a clear sense of direction as to where Wales is heading and a mechanism by which politicians can be held accountable.

3. Enforce the conservation hierarchy

In line with point 1, we urge a radical re-education of public bodies and others as to the benefits of mature green infrastructure and designated sites and the redirection of resource towards protecting, restoring and maintaining what exists before creating new. This particularly applies to the messaging around Wales’s national forest. Progress reports and campaigns must not just focus on creation of the new, as there is a danger that this will suggest that mature tree loss and new tree planting is replacing like for like.

Progress reports that instead focus on protecting and enhancing our national forest therefore may be more effective in reinforcing understanding of the benefits that existing mature trees provide and the cost-savings that are lost when they are removed. Before approving removal of mature trees, decision-makers must factor in the costs of:

loss of immediate ecosystem services 

planting and maintenance of compensatory planting up and until the point where this planting provides an equivalent level of ecosystem services plus

the costs of reduced ecosystem services provided by new planting in the interim

This could be done by implementing the recommendations in the Woodland Trust Manifesto:

I-tree reports for every urban area, showing the full lifetime value and benefits of existing trees, especially mature trees.

Update and improve tree protection legislation as part of a new Welsh Planning Act.

Stop council planning committees allowing developers to remove healthy mature trees.

Strengthen planning regulatory oversight to protect green space and irreplaceable habitat such as ancient woodland and veteran trees 

This would also support the recommendation in the Future Generations 2020 Report that Welsh Government work with Public Services Boards to deliver 20% tree canopy cover in every town and city in Wales by 2030.

4. Build capacity of community organisations

A voluntary contribution of 1% of profits for the planet has been suggested for private businesses and is a growing global movement. This contribution need not be financial but could also be in pro bono support.

The Skyline Project aimed to demonstrate the viability of communities managing local assets e.g. NRW woodlands to generate an income. We contributed to that project. The same principle has come up during our management of the Sylfaen project – three of the six project beneficiaries are aiming to manage local green resources for the dual outcomes of biodiversity and profit. We have found that a core missing element in this concept is that communities lack the governance skills to set up and run a suitable vehicle.

Dwr Cymru have piloted the idea that corporations and private companies can contribute to their CSR outcomes by not just sending workers on litter picks etc. but by donating time of senior managers such as finance, HR and marketing to help communities set up Community Interest Companies, Co-operatives etc. that are robust, accountable and effective. When such vehicles exist, with ongoing support from responsible businesses, then they have a better chance of successfully managing local natural assets and it helps avoid burn-out of trustees or volunteers taking responsibility for high-level and very time-consuming decisions, on top of other responsibilities.

We are suggesting that there is a nationwide, systematic programme to link larger private companies with community initiatives with the specific goal of managing natural assets to generate income, skills and biodiversity.

This could be complemented by requirements in public sector contracts to allow staff up to 2 days/month of employer-supported volunteering and/or time to share insights and learning via Community of Practice mechanisms.

5. Promote shared responsibility

In line with the Polluter Pays principle, we suggest structured mechanisms by which those that minimise or negate pollution don’t pay. It is not always obvious how and where the costs of pollution are met e.g. in cleaning drinking water or cleaning up litter. If it is possible to identify areas of higher or lower pollution prevalence, can these areas be rewarded either with lower charges or a proportion of the cost-saving to be allocated as a community pot. This would require a structured programme by which ‘the offer’ is well-publicised to areas or communities and there is timely and transparent measuring and reporting.

We also recommend exploring non-monetary currencies here such as time-credits whereby those that formally or informally volunteer for the environment can have this contribution to cost-savings recognised e.g. through reductions in Council Tax, the option to donate an hour of an expert’s time to a chosen charity (linked to 4. above) or another mechanism. There concepts may sound challenging but there are many skilled individuals that could help devise suitable mechanisms – no one organisation, public body or government needs to figure this out alone.

6. Set the ambition for Wales to be known as the ‘country of green careers’

With rises in unemployment predicted, particularly among the young, there is an opportunity to implement career pathways and a skills and training framework for conservation managers, woodland rangers, and enforcement officers to ensure there is the capacity and expertise to build ecosystem resilience.

There is a growing proliferation of apps to engage the public as citizen scientists to manage invasive species, report environmental crime, record iconic wildlife etc. It is time to also build capacity within regulatory bodies, industry and the utility companies to capitalise on this interest and to benefit from the cost-savings that would be enabled.

An investment in green jobs and career paths will show commitment to tackling the next crisis (point 1) as well as contributing significantly to the prevention agenda and the green economy. The TUC has written more about the need to ensure any new ‘green’ jobs are also fair jobs in this recently published report ‘A green recovery and a just transition’.

7. Understand the ‘disconnect’

We are drawn to nature but the litter in beauty spots, camping detritus in woodlands and sensitive flora trampled by walkers or mountain bikers suggest that we do not (know how to) tread lightly. Understanding what is behind this tendency – to be drawn to nature but then not care about trashing it – could help to address it, perhaps using insights from the  Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation  or other behaviour change expertise at other universities.

We also believe that our other suggestions – such as Eco-Literacy, the reframing of the natural environment as a credible, accessible future career prospect; and an increased presence of wardens, rangers, conservation managers etc – could lead to not only greater experience of nature but a cultural shift in thinking about how we value it.

8. Enable access

In line with a More Equal Wales, any strategy needs to ensure that there is equal access to the benefits that nature provides across our communities. We note the recent geospatial research by the University of Warwick, Newcastle University and the University of Sheffield suggesting that living within 300m of urban green space is associated with greater happiness, a sense of worth and life satisfaction, reiterated by the recommendation in the Future Generations report 2020 that there are standards to ensure people can access natural green space within 300 m of their home. Again this could link with the green jobs recovery for wardens, horticulturalists, local growers, natural play workers and therapists, social prescribing etc.

9. Cast a fresh eye on existing technology and innovation

In the search for new ideas, existing – and potentially scalable – innovations risk being overlooked. As CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain Report makes clear, ‘we already have the tools and technology needed to efficiently power the UK with 100% renewable energy, to feed ourselves sustainably and so to play our part in leaving a safe and habitable climate for our children and future generations.’

There is a wealth of information already within our institutions, networks and public bodies that may not be badged as a ‘sustainable and environmentally sound post-global pandemic recovery response’ but could nonetheless yield the same desired outcomes.

Examples of product innovation from Cynnal Cymru’s membership include BIPVCo’s thin-film solar cells or  BSB International’s Fire Dragon eco-friendly solid fuel – produced in Llanelli from 100% UK sourced ethanol. At the same time, we have many examples from members working in accordance with the ways of working in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, from Grasshopper Communications and its work to involve and engage communities to the housing associations coming together to accelerate decarbonisation of the social housing sector and the work of organisations like Dŵr Cymru and Wales and West Utilities to embody the stakeholder economy, for example with regard to vulnerable customers.

10. Create a more just society

Whilst a rapid transition to living within environmental limits and restoring healthy ecosystems will go a long way towards delivering sustainable development, we will only succeed if we also seek to recognise and integrate social and global justice. We know from our partners and members, and from our own work as the Living Wage accrediting body for Wales, that issues around social mobility, Fair Work, poverty and systemic discrimination also need to be addressed. This is as much a part of the ‘green’ as any other recovery package and links to other expert sectors, work programmes and strategies are essential to ensuring that our gains in one area are not undone by losses in another.

For several years now, the Sustainable Academy Awards have highlighted some of the most innovative projects and organisations in Wales accelerating progress towards a more sustainable future. The 2019 winners show that there are people in Wales that are already taking action to simultaneously tackle environmental issues and create a more just society

Next steps

We exist to accelerate progress on sustainable development in Wales so we are conscious that we need to back our words with action. Some of our next steps on the green recovery are:

Finishing the creation of an eco-literacy course and getting it out to consultation

Consulting with stakeholders about how to best measure progress and developing our advice

Linking the green recovery discussions to the Foundational Economy

Supporting decarbonisation of the social housing sector through the CLCC and involvement in Communities of Practice

Supporting the development of community led environmental organisations

Continuing to highlight the work of our members and Awards winners who are already ushering in the practical, intellectual, technological and cultural shifts for a sustainable green and just recovery.