The latest in our series of policy features looks at what political parties will be pledging and prioritising for the environment and rural communities.

The increasing urgency of the global climate emergency and the upcoming COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference (which will be held in Glasgow this autumn) means environmental policy will play a bigger role in this Senedd election than ever before.

And between the current parties in government, Welsh Labour and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and main opposition parties, the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru – there is a firm understanding that the next Senedd term could be transformative years for tackling pollution and boosting the nation's renewable energy production.

With much of the emphasis of this election on the post-pandemic recovery, there is a need too for parties to make sure rural areas and Wales' farmers are not left behind.

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Here's what political parties told The National they would do if elected into power in May:

Cleaning up our act

Key to Wales' national and international climate commitments is the need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Lib Dems and the Welsh Tories have all pledged to pass a Clean Air Act to cut pollution and improve health.

The most recent figures, for 2018, show overall air pollution levels in Wales were classed against government targets as being 'low' for 72 per cent of the year (263 days), 'moderate' for 26 per cent of the year (96 days) and high for one per cent of the year (six days).

But even with the national performance generally falling within 'low' levels, Public Health Wales estimates the long-term effects of exposure to air pollution to be the equivalent of between 1,000 and 1,400 deaths per year.

The National Wales: Stock photo of factory chimneys. Picture: Pexels/PixabayStock photo of factory chimneys. Picture: Pexels/Pixabay

Labour said it was committed to hitting international air quality targets and would deploy "nature-based approaches" such as large-scale tree-planting alongside the long-term goal of "positive behaviour change" through its new transport strategy, that aims to make 45 per cent of journeys in Wales made by public transport or active travel (walking and cycling) by 2040.

The Conservatives too called for "all reasonable measures" to boost active travel and less-polluting vehicles, as well as the setting-up of an independent office for environmental protection and climate change.

The nation's current target for reducing carbon emissions is to hit 'net zero' by the year 2050. Welsh Labour says its current government is ahead of the rest of the UK in bringing targets forward for specific sectors – in the next Senedd term, it will set earlier 'net zero' goals for the energy industry and the public sector.

Plaid Cymru said aiming to hit the 2050 target was "not fast enough" and said carbon goals could be hit faster if the Senedd held full responsibility for the nation's energy policy. The party said the current devolution arrangement was "holding Wales back".

A recent report by the independent Climate Change Committee, however, has emphasised the need for a whole-UK approach to hitting carbon targets.

Wales is required by law to contribute to the UK's 2050 'net zero' target and the "credibility" of the UK's future 'carbon budgets' "rests on action in all parts of the UK," the report states. But this doesn't preclude local and regional divergences in policies, the CCC added, and it has set several ambitious goals for the next Welsh governments to hit.

Amid warnings that "the 2020s are a crucial decade," the CCC says Wales must in the next Senedd term make a 37 per cent carbon reduction (compared to 1990 levels) as "an absolute minimum" if it is to reach 'net zero' by 2050.

And reaching 'net zero' will not be cheap: the CCC estimates it will cost an extra £3 billion annually in Wales by 2030, as part of a UK-wide £50 million extra investment over the same period. This is, however, spending that "can, and should, be delivered largely by the private sector," the CCC says, and can over time be "largely offset" by savings in fuel costs.

A greener future also means continuing work to cut waste and improve recycling – something the Welsh Government has pushed hard for since the beginning of devolution. Wales is currently one of the best-recycling nations in the world, and there is the potential to go further, with work under way among the UK's four nations to develop a bottle deposit scheme for incentivising glass reuse.

Harnessing Wales' natural power sources

To meet those carbon targets over the next decades, parties agree Wales will need to increase and diversify its renewable energy capabilities.

Wales' natural resources put it in a strong position to develop the renewable sector: currently, it generates double the energy it consumes and is the fifth-largest exporter of electricity in the world, but only 25 per cent of its present capabilities comes from renewable sources.

The National Wales: File photo of wind turbines. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA WireFile photo of wind turbines. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

Welsh Labour says it has overseen "a steady increase" in the nation's renewable energy generation, with no coal-fired power stations now operating in Wales.

And the party, like its rivals, believes there are big opportunities to harness renewable energy with more projects around Wales.

A Labour spokesman said the Welsh Government was contributing funding to "world-leading research" in Anglesey and Pembrokeshire within the relatively young hydrogen and marine energy industries, which could help wean the country off natural gas – currently the main source of non-renewable energy.

Labour also supports expansion in onshore and offshore wind power which, it said, could "very easily" lead to Wales producing via renewables more than 100 per cent of the nation's current energy consumption "by the end of this decade".

Other parties said they backed tidal power as the future of green energy in Wales. 

Plaid said it would create an 'energy atlas' cataloguing the nation's green energy potential, harnessing the tidal ranges off the coast; and set up a national energy company. The Welsh Conservatives, meanwhile, said it would set up a £150 million investment fund for marine energy projects and fund a tidal power feasibility study.

The Welsh Lib Dems said they would build on tidal projects in Anglesey, making Holyhead a "regional hub" for renewable energy; as well as investing in wind power in Mid Wales and in Port Talbot, where it would make the steel town a manufacturing and port centre for floating offshore wind technology.

Interest in marine power is likely to be welcomed in the Swansea Bay area, where plans for a tidal lagoon project have fallen quiet since the UK government said "cheaper alternatives" existed.

A new iteration of the scheme, Dragon Energy Island, would combine solar and tidal power, but the plans are yet to be taken up by government.

And it the short-term, it appears wind schemes are the most likely to get the green light. Last month, the Crown Estate opened a leasing process for commercial-scale floating wind projects in the Celtic Sea – a move welcomed by government in Cardiff Bay and Westminster.

The scheme will focus on projects of 300MW (megawatts) in scale – that's three times larger than and rights previously awarded to floating wind projects in the UK.

Securing a prosperous future for farmers

Alongside the nation's climate goals, parties say they will work to support farmers following the twin challenges of Brexit and the pandemic.

The nation's farming industry had been affected by "landmark change and turbulent events" during the past Senedd term, according to the National Farmers' Union (NFU Cymru), which said it had set its sights on a "more prosperous" future for Welsh agriculture after May.

"There is no doubt that a flourishing Welsh food and farming sector and thriving rural communities are an integral element of Wales reaching its full potential," said the union's Welsh president, John Davies.

The National Wales: A tractor drills crops into a field. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireA tractor drills crops into a field. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Brexit has forced a change in the way farmers are supported, with Wales, like the rest of the UK, having to devise replacements for the European Union's agricultural schemes.

Ahead of the Senedd election, NFU Cymru reminded parties that Welsh farmers had been "consistently assured" before and after the 2016 referendum that funding for agriculture would be "maintained and protected" after Brexit.

A Welsh Government consultation on a white paper for a new agriculture bill has recently closed, and among its proposals for future payments is a support system rewarding farmers whose environmental output – such as clean air and water – hit targets.

Kate Hovers chairs the Welsh regional committee for the National Sheep Association, which contributed to the consultation on the new plans.

She said it was "essential" that future legislation on sustainable land management rewarded those farmers who had long fostered good environmental practice.

"[Legislation] should not simply incentivise and reward change but should reward those whose change needs to be minimal," she added.

The Farmers' Union of Wales has rejected the government's proposals, saying future laws on support should consider jobs and prosperity, as well as environmental work.

Welsh Labour said its "stricter rules" on environmental impacts would minimise "avoidable" emissions and clean water courses – a "difficult" issue that is "critical to securing the good reputation our farming sector deserves".

The government has designated around 2.3 per cent of the nation's farmland as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs), where that land drains into, and contributes to, polluted water. Farmers in NVZs must follow strict rules on manure storage or could face prosecution.

But the government has now extended the reach of NVZs to cover the entire country. The NFU has called the scheme "blunt and heavy-handed" and says the next government, after May, should instead "work collaboratively" with farmers to address pollution – something the Welsh Conservatives have also called for, while Plaid Cymru has warned the government must "step back" and pause the introduction of the new rules pending a legal challenge by the NFU.

Union chiefs insist the new regulations pose a significant threat to the economic viability of Welsh farming with the whole of Wales classed as an environmental ‘at risk’ zone.

Beyond NVZs, there is broad consensus among the parties that the modernisation of agriculture should be supported financially – the Lib Dems say farmers wanting to diversify "often find themselves facing planning obstacles" and have called for this to be addressed.

They also pledge a "fair deal" to encourage investment and innovation, as well as resolving the internet and phone connectivity issues that continue to affect some rural areas.

Plaid Cymru and the Tories have both pledged to bring in new laws that would safeguard farmers' futures. Plaid calls for a "farming renaissance" that champions family-run businesses and sustainable food production. The Conservatives say they would help the sector invest in new technology such as meat-freezing facilities, allowing farmers to improve the shelf-life of key exports like lamb; as well as driving a "buy Welsh" scheme to strengthen a domestic market for produce.

Labour, meanwhile, said it would work with farmers "to deliver their ambition of the most climate and nature friendly farming sector in the world," combining traditional low-intensity agriculture with "cutting-edge" technological advances,  supported by the nation's colleges and universities.

Hand-in-hand with the calls to support farmers are pledges to strengthen rural communities as part of the wider recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, through better transport and communications links.

When communications regulator Ofcom carried out its annual Connected Nations review last year, it found nearly 45,000 homes in Wales were unable to get "decent" broadband. Of those homes, 90 per cent were in rural areas.

The Welsh Government had supported 750,000 households to access good-quality broadband, Labour said, and piloted the demand-responsive bus transport system Fflecsi. In the next term the party said it would 

The Welsh Lib Dems said it would invest in housing stock and broadband to make rural areas more sustainable and attract jobs, while Plaid has pledged to set up a consultative rural Senedd and champion food tourism as a way to bring in visitors, as well as introducing strict measures to curb the sales of second homes in rural and tourist areas.

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