April 2, 2023

Safeguarding Australian Climate Policy: A Lesson from Wales

By Gwynn MacCarrick and Michelle Malonely

The Labor Government’s recent attempts to revamp a safeguard mechanism to meet Australia’s climate targets looks a bit like a threat to revive the decade-long climate wars they promised to end. By hanging their climate policy off one key lever – the safeguard mechanism – the Government risks polarising the debate and ignoring the many, multi-faceted solutions that make up good climate policy. 

What we need is to take our climate future out of politics and into long term strategic implementation, using the Welsh model for future generations. A climate resilient strategy is possible in Australia, if we learn from the experience of countries, such as Wales, where a transformative policy platform has proven to be a ‘game changer’ in the political landscape.

​​In 2016, the Welsh embarked on a novel approach to public policy decision making​, by​​ ​legislating for a commissioner for the future​. ​Wales established the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and a Future Generations Commissioner​, a statutory role that sits across the whole of government to review public policy from a future oriented perspective. Here, instead of political point scoring, the decisions of policymakers are based on principles that serve Wales and its people, decades into the future.​​
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This initiative represents ​a real mechanism – one of ​systems change​. It takes ​challenges like climate change, cost of living, health, and clean energy out of the political arena and into the realm of strategic long-term planning​. ​This model, if applied in an Australian context, would have the potential to future proof policy making relating to climate change and ensure that public bodies think about the future impacts of the climate policies that are implemented today.

The difference between this kind of approach, and what’s happening locally with the safeguard mechanism is a gaping chasm, that reveals just how much we need to shift our thinking to make real change.

While the Australian government has secured support in Parliament to reform the safeguard mechanism, it doesn’t go far enough. The Greens vow to fight any new fossil fuel project. The outcome is little more than a ceasefire in the so-called climate wars. This leaves Australia in an ambiguous position on climate policy that can only be resolved by the courts. Without forward thinking and coherent policies that inform how to address our contributions to climate breakdown, we will see a rise in the frequency of climate litigants seeking answers from the courts.

In Wales, decisions are guided by a central overriding formula, that public bodies must consider the future needs of generations yet to come. Put simply, if a decision made today, kicks the can down the road for another generation to suffer the effects, then it does not pass the test. With a Welsh lens, the answer to new fossil fuel developments would be a firm no. However, under Australian laws there are no guardrails. Australian environmental laws do not expressly require public authorities to consider the impact of carbon emissions, although the courts are starting to show some leadership in this regard.

As it stands, there is no certainty, no genuine hard cap, no clear pathway to carbon reduction. There is only political grandstanding resulting in perceived win-wins. Australia is no closer to a robust climate resilient strategy. If we really want to dig into the current situation, even the very term ​“​safeguard mechanism​”​ is a misnomer. In its original form, it was introduced to stop Australia’s largest emitters from increasing their emissions and wiping out the carbon offsets paid for by taxpayers. Now we are told, that in circumstances where major fossil fuel companies cannot achieve the cuts to emissions, the government would look to amend the rule. No limits on carbon offsets, also means that companies can theoretically operate as normal and buy credits to cover their excess emissions, over the cap. So, compliance is discretionary and hard caps are, in practice, ambit limits. What the net benefit for future reduction of carbon emissions will be, continues to remains unclear.

​​​Without one eye on the future, Australian cannot make a just transition to a net zero emission target. We can – and really must – learn from the very best examples of policy making around the world of anticipatory governance and strategic foresight. This is something that policy makers ​should​ do as a reflex, but because of the demands of politics and election cycles, big policy ideas are reduced to nearsighted objectives.
​​​Next month,​ EveryGen group at Griffith University’s Policy Innovation Hub ​is hosting a ​visit of the world’s first Commissioner for Future Generations from Wales​,​ Sophie Howe. Howe, who has just completed her ​six​​-​year term, is coming to Australia to share her insights and speak about her legacy. ​ ​​We should all hope ​Australian policy makers​​ sit up and take notice, perhaps even organise to meet with Howe and gain a valuable perspective. ​ ​​

The outgoing Welsh Commissioner for Future Generations, Ms Sophie Howe, is visiting Australia 17–28 April 2023. Details about the Commissioner’s speaking events can be found here at EveryGen.

Dr Gwynn MacCarrick is a member of the EveryGen Group and a Research Fellow with the Policy Innovation Hub, Griffith University.

Dr Michelle Maloney is the National Convenor of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance and New Economy Network Australia, and will be hosting a webinar by the former Future Generations Commissioner on 21 April 2023.

EveryGen, a multi-disciplinary group of experts convened by the Policy Innovation Hub at Griffith University, will co-host the visit of Wales first Future Generations Commissioner. A key objective of the visit is to gain insights into the Welsh model of transformative change, and to engage with their experience in embedding intergenerational equity into the DNA of Welsh public policy and whether this has application for Australia.