Confronted by the dispassionate but piercing censure of Greta Thunberg, governments did the previously unimaginable: confessed to the feebleness of their response to the gathering calamity of global climate breakdown and resolved to do better.
Faced with the moral and pragmatic authority of the 16-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee’s demand for decisive action to save the planet, political leaders seemed to repent and, with a penitent’s fervour, expressed a firm purpose of amendment.
With an astounding unanimity, they declared a climate emergency. Following weeks of mass demonstrations by the Extinction Rebellion movement, and the inspirational pressure of Thunberg and the school climate strikes, a wave of politicians signalled their awakening to the real and pressing imperative to slash emissions in order to quell the potential for climate catastrophe.
A month later, the question is: did they mean it?
It was at the beginning of May that, along with dozens of towns and cities, including Cardiff, Manchester and London, the Welsh government and the Senedd, the Scottish government and MPs at Westminster metaphorically clambered aboard the pink cabin-cruiser labelled ‘Tell the truth’ that Extinction Rebellion had hauled into Oxford Circus, helping to bring parts of London to a standstill for 10 days in April.
It’s a month since Welsh rural affairs minister Lesley Griffiths spoke with apparent passion of her hope that the Cardiff government’s declaration of a climate emergency in Wales could “help to trigger a wave of action at home and internationally”.
Saying she believed Wales had the “determination and ingenuity” to deliver a low-carbon economy, she insisted that tackling climate change was not an issue which could be left to individuals or to the free market but was one that required collective action, with the government having a central role in making such action possible.
“Our sustainable development and environmental legislation”, she added, “is already recognised as world-leading, and now we must use that legislation to set a new pace of change.”
All of this was precisely in line with the Welsh government’s commitment to achieving a carbon-neutral public sector by 2030, and to coordinating action to help other areas of the economy make a decisive shift away from fossil fuels.
Of course, words need to be followed up by action. Wales is unlikely to have shown much of an example internationally if, weeks after declaring a climate emergency, it promptly gave the green light to a new motorway.
Which means that Mark Drakeford now faces a momentous moment of truth. The first minister is expected to announce in the Assembly today a long-awaited decision on the appalling proposal to build a 14-mile six-lane motorway through four unique wildlife reserves on the Gwent Levels in the south of Wales, between Magor and Castleton, south of Newport.
This beautiful stretch of fenland, harbouring an immensely rich diversity of bird, insect and plant life, is described as Wales’s Amazon rainforest. Construction of the £1.4bn M4 relief-road would be a direct attack on this irreplaceable and hugely important natural wonderland.
Wildlife would suffer irreparable damage. Smashing through this marvellous landscape would also constitute a devastating betrayal of the Welsh government’s solemn undertaking to steer the country away from fossil fuels, and would fatally undermine its proposals to meet demanding 2020 carbon emissions targets.
This ill-conceived proposal flies in the face of enlightened environmental policy; in terms of transport strategy, it violates a central Welsh government pledge in its 2019 Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales report.
This acknowledges that transport is Wales’s third largest source of greenhouses gases, that they are 99 per cent carbon dioxide and adds: “The most effective way of reducing CO2 emissions in the near-term will be to replace car journeys with those using the existing public transport system and active travel.”
It is now expected that Mark Drakeford will ditch this thoroughly bad scheme once and for all.
By doing so, Wales will send a message to the rest of the world that declaring a climate emergency wasn’t just words – it will be followed up by action.