For a summit billed as being on the cutting-edge of delivering a global solution to climate change, modern technology is not so useful to delegates at COP26.

Amidst the end of the first week of negotiations – largely overshadowed by political corruption in Westminster and angry young people outside the conference venue – frantic Welsh Government press officers are trying to put me through to Julie James. Wales’ Climate Change Minister, somewhere in the same room at Glasgow, is nowhere on my screen. And I have only been spared half an hour for an audience.

The National Wales: Julie James MS is the Minister for Climate ChangeJulie James MS is the Minister for Climate Change

Eventually, with luck, she appears. (I look at the clock; less than 25 minutes to go.) So, how is the conference? At that point, “really busy” and “really interesting”, of course. Immediately I sense that James is channelling Mark Drakeford’s unique positivity about solving the climate crisis – the First Minister said upon his visit to Glasgow that “a sense of hope for people for the future” would be needed to inspire change – by revelling in Wales’ role at the table, however big or small, in tackling global challenges.

For example, she says during our conversation that there is no point having a “council of doom” and that young people across Wales need to be part of a “global revolution” to build a greener planet. One of the big opportunities at COP26 is that there is a chance to showcase “some of the really great things” done in Wales in terms of environmental policies and programmes, the Minister emphasises, whether it’s to do with coastal defence strategies or the delivery of sustainable housing.

This enthusiasm is of little surprise to close observers of Welsh politics. Tackling climate change is, after all, one of Mark Drakeford’s priorities as First Minister. He has told me as much, and since declaring a ‘climate emergency’ in 2019, the Welsh Government has been ambitious and radical – in tone, at least. Over recent weeks, that has meant calling for a “decade of action” and starting a “journey” towards a net zero economy by the middle of the century.

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It’s all very inspiring and headline-grabbing, including the comments by James earlier this month that buying fruit and vegetables out of season should be seen as a luxury in future, or her deputy Lee Waters’ statement that people should eat less meat to combat climate change. To back the talk, the Welsh Government also published its all-Wales plan, Working together to reach net zero, at the end of October, detailing how it would tackle the nation’s carbon footprint.

And criticism has come its way. BBC Wales’ environmental correspondent pointed out that while the plan pulled together 123 policies and proposals, very few are new announcements. Environmental policy experts, notably Professor Calvin Jones from Cardiff University, took to social media upon publication to claim that the document contained a “ragbag of localised best practice, minor pilots, grand but hollow schemes and irrelevant pledges.” On the fence? Maybe not.

I wonder whether some of the comments, like those from Professor Jones, are right. “No, I think they aren't fair criticisms,” comes the firm response. “It's not a standalone document for a start. We've got a whole suite of other documents that go with it… It's already a pretty substantial document. Also, we've got all the other bands that go with it… I think Calvin Jones likes a sound bite, but he doesn't always get it right. I actually don’t appreciate his language sometimes too; I want to put that on record,” she chuckles. A lesson for the Professor there, then.

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Though it’s good to have people “holding your feet to the fire”, James adds that there is no “silver bullet or a big announcement” that can tackle climate change, either. I still can’t help feeling, however, that the Welsh Government are getting slightly ahead of themselves.

Take the target for no-one in Wales to use a gas boiler after 2030, for instance: just over eight years away, but even Waters admits that the technology and the skills to implement this policy at scale isn't there, yet. On this point, James says Wales is in a process of “trialling different technologies in different houses and buildings so that we can roll out a programme.” In short, “it’s all about setting up the pipeline so that these things can happen.” There is, I am told, no “big bang.”

Point taken. But, surely, the positivity and ambition must only go so far? Wales is by no means a polluter on the scale of, say, China or Russia, yet we have a huge amount to do better and plenty to be worried about. For the Minister, the critical thing is about “changing small things” every day. What about the big things, like monstrously high-polluting Welsh industries like manufacturing, such as what we have with the Port Talbot steelworks? The solution is not to shut plants down and export the carbon footprint to another nation, but to “decarbonise that industry as much as possible.”

“This is about mitigation and adaptation, as well,” she goes on. “This is also about the carbon sequestration, the nature-based solutions that we can put in place and then we can also export across the world… It's also about global justice and a fair transition, isn't it?” I nod, obviously. “You know, we degraded our country; we deforested it, to farm. We can't tell the ‘Global South’ that they can't do that. We have to show the way back from that.”

On the subject of justice, I add, what about bringing it closer to home? Much has been made of the Welsh Government’s edict to put a stop to all new road building projects across the country. One particular decision, to scrap a new £17m bypass road in Llanbedr, Gwynedd, has been blasted as “hypocrisy” by local politician Mabon ap Gwynfor, Plaid Cymru MS for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. Speaking to The National earlier this month, ap Gwynfor said that Welsh Labour’s support for works on the so-called “Heads of the Valleys” road in the south conflicts with their strong words on the climate crisis.

“These are difficult decisions. Nobody's pretending they're not difficult,” the Minister tells me. “But one of the things that Mabon said was that we only did it in north Wales. I’d like to remind him that there’s a thing called the M4 Relief Road that caused a little bit of controversy; and we didn’t build that, as well. The idea that we’re only doing it in one part of Wales is clearly nonsense. I’ll put that on the table.”

That’s not all. James goes on to say that Gwynedd Council and Plaid Cymru have the opportunity to be in the “vanguard of climate change, industrial green economic development.” Or, on the other hand, she says “they can cling to the 1970s way of doing economic development by paving half the countryside in order to get people to arrive.” And then comes a challenge: “You tell me which of those is likely to achieve Net Zero faster – because Plaid Cymru also wants to do that. You cannot have your cake and eat it.”

READ MORE: Plaid Cymru call for Welsh Green Bonds to fund decarbonisation

Since May, the Welsh Labour Government has struck a definite note of confidence – bullishness bordering on aggression, even – across various policy areas, most notably devolution. This self-assurance is no surprise for a party that has been in power for over two decades. Is that the best way to operate on an issue like climate change, though? When you so often need compromise and concession to reach common goals?

“Politicians going ‘blah, blah, blah’. I’m not doing blah, blah, blah. We’re stopping the roads being built. That’s not blah, blah, blah. And then what you get is a lot of blah, blah, blah back.” I am waiting for the next iteration, before James transitions back to herself. “Well, let’s have that conversation. But if we just carry on paving Wales, that is not going to lead to the best place for the climate. We have to have green economic development. We have to have green jobs. The young people of Wales have to have decent jobs, invested in a green future. That is not about construction of roads: that is about a different way to work, a different way to live, a different kind-of industry.”

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I wonder what aspect of climate change in Wales worries her most. “Flooding, but not just in coastal areas, river basin flooding,” is the first response. But the Minister also adds that it isn’t just about flood protection, but defending a “way of life that goes with it.” And then I hear about the “big issue of coal tip safety”; which, regardless of the arguments over who foots the bill, the Minister says people who live in the shadow of them need to be “absolutely protected.” More widely, it’s about how we use our land, too, working with farmers “to make sure that they're growing again… And also foresting, using their hedgerows properly for the right kinds of biodiversity.”

Together, in short, “we can really do some good stuff.” She goes on to tell me that the people of Wales also want to deal with climate change right now, “up above 70-80 percent of them.” But what about the capacity for change in political circles? Since I interviewed the Minister, Dr Neal Hockley from Bangor University said that net zero targets could only be met with better communication between the Welsh and UK governments. James has a parting shot at Boris Johnson, criticising the Prime Minister’s use of sporting analogies when characterising the fight against climate change – “it wouldn't have been my way of handling it” – but before I can probe further, the Minister calls time.

The National Wales: Greta Thunberg dismissed Cop26 as ‘greenwash festival of empty promises’. Photo: PAGreta Thunberg dismissed Cop26 as ‘greenwash festival of empty promises’. Photo: PA

She notes her press officer has helpfully said our 30 minutes is over. One more question, I plead! Has she met Greta Thunberg at COP26? No, apparently. (Great, there goes the headline, I think.) But what would she say to her if she did meet the environmental activist? “I really hope that in Wales, she doesn’t think that we’re doing blah, blah, blah.”

Alas, by the end of the conference, it looks James still hasn’t met the Swedish sensation. For now, we’ll have to wait for her verdict on the Welsh Government’s latest progress on the climate crisis. At least I’ve got my headline. 

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