Wales and climate change

How has the climate changed in Wales?

We are used to hearing about climate records being broken as our planet continues to be warmed by human activity. When we look at the average temperature of the Earth, 2020 was the warmest year on record, jointly with 2016 . In fact, 2020 ended the hottest decade since pre-industrial times. The average temperature of the Earth is now 1.2°C warmer than the pre-industrial average. Moreover, relatively small increases in average temperature have been accompanied by rises in the number of extreme heatwave days. July 2019 was the hottest month recorded on Earth since records began 140 years ago. It is not just summer temperatures that are changing across the globe. The most recent climate science, shared in the 6th report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Research in August 2021, found that climate change is affecting every region on Earth now, in multiple ways. These include more frequent hot and cold events and more intense rainfall.

Whilst studying the average climate change of Earth is important, we don’t physically experience the global temperate average of our planet. What we experience in our daily lives is climate change in the place where we live, and whilst that can be highly variable from year to year, here in the UK we are also starting to break climate records. May 2020 was the sunniest May on record (the records of how sunny it was go back to 1957) but it wasn’t just a bit sunnier, it was a lot sunnier. When weather records get broken now, they tend to get broken by a lot because our climate is becoming more extreme. The UK May sun record was beaten in 2020 by 70 hours!

The mean temperature in Wales went up by about 0.7°C between 1914 and 2006, by 2021 this has increased to an overall temperature change of +0.8 °C. Climate warming in Wales has been slightly greater in the autumn and summer, than in the spring and winter. Our winters are becoming wetter and our summer drier, but climate change means more extremes of every kind, both hot and cold spells and extremely wet and dry weather.

The temperature change from 1961 to 2006 was +1.3° Celsius in Wales. There were 22 fewer days with air frost, our summers became 6% drier and our winters 27% wetter (see the UK Climate Projects report here for further information). Across the UK, 2020 was the 5th wettest year, and the wettest February on record. Globally, 2020 was joint hottest year on record (along with 2016), here it was our 3rd warmest year (since records began in the UK in 1884)

Around the UK sea level has risen by 16.5cm since the beginning of the 20th century and the rise is getting faster. Sea level around the UK, including in Wales, is now rising by about 3mm per year. Whilst this doesn’t sound like a lot this is likely accumulate to around 1.12m of sea level rise by the end of the century (2100). Here in Wales the impacts are being felt severely. In north Wales, Gwynedd council have stated that residents in Fairbourne will have to leave their homes within the next few decades because it will no longer be possible to defend them against sea level rise and storms. This will make Wales home to the first community in the UK to be decommissioned and moved due to climate change.

How can Wales reduce its greenhouse gas emissions?

Greenhouse gases in Wales, as for the rest of the UK come from several different sources. These are primarily:

  • from the burning of fossil fuels (oil and gas) to run vehicles, heat buildings, produce electricity, and for energy use in industry,
  • from industrial and agricultural processes,
  • from changes in land use such as deforestation,
  • from waste disposal and leaks.

The Welsh Government declared a climate emergency in 2019 and has committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 95% by 2050. But, the UK Climate Change Committee has recommended that Wales set a more ambitious target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Wales is a small nation but, with an industrial and agricultural heritage we produce significant greenhouse emissions. Within the UK Wales contributes a high share of emissions from industry and manufacturing because we are home to a high proportion of the UK’s gas power generation capacity and some heavily emitting industries such as iron and steel. This means that a large proportion of Welsh industrial greenhouse gas emissions comes from just a few places, known as ‘point sources’, in Wales.

When the last coal-fired power station shut in March 2020 (the Aberthaw power plant in South Wales) our emissions fell by a huge amount. Aberthaw alone was responsible for 11% of Welsh greenhouse gas emissions between 2016 and 2018.  Whilst Wales’ history of coal mining and production is an important part of our heritage, producing electricity using coal is highly inefficient and contributes to large greenhouse gas emissions. As Wales moves towards producing more power from renewable sources such as solar, wind and tidal, our greenhouse gas emissions will fall.

In 2018, Wales emitted about 39 mega tons of CO2 which is about the same as Ireland and Denmark, who both have larger populations than Wales. As a whole, the UK emits about 370 mega tonnes of CO2 per year.

The good news is that Wales has done a lot to start reducing its emissions and they have fallen by 31% since 1990 but we need to make far more emissions reductions if we are to meet our climate change targets. These emissions reductions have been dominated by changes in the energy producing sector, but what about other emissions sources? Manufacturing, agriculture and transport emissions have hardly changed at all, falling by only about 1% between 2016 and 2018.

Wales’ manufacturing emissions largely come from the iron and steel industries. These are huge contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions in Wales, industry contributes about 30% of Welsh emissions (29% in 2016, 36% in 2018 due to reductions in emissions from energy generation). So why is this? Steel and iron production releases a huge amount of CO2. Iron ore, which comes from the ground and is the raw material for steel, contains iron, which we want to extract to make steel, and oxygen, which we need to remove. Therefore, some kind of fossil fuel, usually coal, is used, because it supplies the carbon which combines with the oxygen in the ore. The result is huge amounts of carbon dioxide. This process is a good example of how humans enhance the carbon cycle to cause climate change. Coal locks carbon up in the ground where it does not cause climate change. Industrial processes like steel making release that carbon into the atmosphere, in the form of carbon dioxide, where it enhances the greenhouse effect.

So how can Wales reduce emissions from iron and steel making?

Scientists are researching this all over Wales! They are looking at how to produce carbon-neutral iron and steel by 2040. Changes to the industrial process could involve converting blast furnaces to run on hydrogen instead of coal, capturing carbon dioxide from industrial stacks and using it for something else and recycling and reusing more scrap steel than we do currently. You can read more about emissions and Wales’ steel industry here.

Transport is Wales’ third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Wales is making Active Travel Schemes, bike lanes and pedestrian friendly areas, to encourage more active travel and less dependence on cars. Despite such initiatives, transport emissions (not including aviation) in Wales haven’t really reduced, despite how much more efficient cars are now. This is because of the vastly increased amount of car travel. The total distance travelled by cars in Wales increased by 13% since 2008. We drive about 31 Billion car kilometres per year across Wales!

Emissions from agriculture in Wales were around 5.2 mega tons of CO2 in 2018 and have increased by 13% in the last decades, contributing to a total of 12% of welsh greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. But where do all these agricultural greenhouse gas emissions come from? Some emissions come from burning fossil fuels in farm machinery, but this is quite small, a large part of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in Wales comes from methane from animals who, as ruminants, produce it as a biproduct of their digestion, from waste and manure decomposing, which releases greenhouses gases, and from fertiliser application and soil processes which release another greenhouse gas; nitrous oxide. One problem is that methane is 21 times more active as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is 300 times more active! So reducing the emissions of these powerful greenhouses gases from agriculture in Wales is critical to us meeting our climate change targets.

Wales was aiming to bring its emissions from agriculture down 17% lower than 1990 levels by 2020 and will aim for agricultural emissions to be 28% lower than 1990 levels by 2030, but we have a long way to go and changing our agricultural practices to reduce emissions is not an easy thing to do in Wales. Sheep farming is an important part of Welsh heritage and transitioning to low carbon agriculture will not be easy. The UK Climate Change Committee has suggested that the number of sheep and cattle in the UK should be reduced by between a fifth and a half as they are the species contributing the most to agricultural emissions. The recommendations are for the UK to reduce beef and lamb pasture in the UK by between 20-50% per cent. With 10 million sheep in wales, 1/3 of the UK total sheep population, this will have a huge impact on the landscape in wales.

Other recommendations are for Wales to have planted or restored 43,000 hectares of woodland by 2030. We need to plant trees soon so that they grow and start removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The CCC also recommends a further 56,000 hectares of agricultural land in Wales are converted to growing bioenergy and forestry products by 2050, that peatland is restored as is it an excellent carbon storage landscape and that low carbon farming practices are widely adopted across Wales. Around 40% of the emissions reductions needed in Wales over the next 30 years are in areas such as agriculture and land use, buildings, heat, transport and waste management, in which decision-making power is devolved to the Welsh Government.

Who pays for meeting the costs of net zero?

There are major costs associated with the transition to a low carbon economy needed to meet our climate targets. The UK Climate Change Committee and the Treasury’s Net Zero Review have both drawn attention to the need to ensure climate policies deliver a fair transition that distributes the costs of the transition to net zero. For example, higher income houses tend to use more carbon overall, but lower income houses tend to use more carbon relative to their income and thus are likely to be unfairly impacted as the price of carbon goes up if a fair system of transition to low carbon is not introduced. Our communities will also be exposed to the transition to net zero via changes in the labour market. These changes have the potential to impact lower income households more severely as employment areas such as skilled trade, plant and machine working tend to be more carbon intensive and tend to also be associated with lower income workers.

It is crucial for Wales to make ambitious legislation to meet our climate targets, but doing this whilst protecting our heritage, livelihoods and ensuring some sections of society do not bear the brunt of transition costs is a huge challenge.  This is why we always need to keep in mind that changes must take place across all sections of society to transition to a low carbon economy fairly.

The good news is that low carbon businesses are thriving in Wales. The Welsh economy is estimated to consist of 9,000 businesses, employing 13,000 people and generating £2.4 billion turnover (2016 figures). Maintaining a fair and just system of moving to a low carbon economy are complex social and economic challenges and Wales is looking at them through its Carbon Budgets and pathway to net zero plans.

So, is wales going to hit its emissions reductions targets?

The Climate Change Committee has found that, unfortunately, Wales is not yet on target to meet its emissions reductions targets. As of summer 2019, Wales had only reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 14% on 1990 levels. A 100% reduction in this emission level, which is what is needed to achieve net zero, is a long way off! Wales needs to legislate a net zero target of 2050, and the policies and systems needed to underpin it, as soon as possible.

One of the important things we hope will happen at COP26 is that countries will make more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (emissions reductions targets). At the moment the emissions reductions targets from around the world would result in about 2.7°C degrees of warming by the end of the century. Far more ambitious reductions are needed to bring us back down to 1.5°C to 2.0°C degrees of warming.

What kind of climate future will Wales have?

The UK Meteorological Office is responsible for publishing forecasts for what UK countries can expect their climate to look like in the future. These reports are called the ‘UK Climate Projections and the last one was published in 2018. You can explore it here. One problem is that our climate future will depend upon the choices we make now. If we reduce emissions by a lot our future temperature will be lower, and we do not know what decisions governments will make regarding emissions ‘scenarios’. For this reason, all climate projections have ‘low, medium, and high’ estimates for future temperatures and we don’t know which path we will end up on.

If we reduce emissions by a lot, we can expect our climate future to follow the ‘low emissions’ pathways and if we do not reduce emissions by a lot, we can expect our temperature future to follow the ‘high emissions’ pathway. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the COP26 meeting will refer to these likely future emissions scenarios as the ‘RPG’s which stands for Representative Concentration Pathways.  So, Wales’ climate future depends on the decisions taken by the world’s governments at meetings like COP26 and the decisions that we all make in our daily lives.

It is important to remember that, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, there would still be decades and decades of warming to come because there is already so much more greenhouse gas in the atmosphere from our past activities since the start of the industrial revolution. Scientists refer to this as the warming that is ‘baked in’ to the climate system already. We have to look millions of years back through Earth’s history to find a time when there was as much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere as there is now.

The most recent UK Climate Projects, taking the ‘medium emissions scenarios’ tell us that Wales can expect a significantly warmer climate by the end of the century. The average annual temperature in Wales could be 3-4°C warmer, with the fastest warming taking place between 2050 and 2100. We can expect about 2 °C of warming in the winter. We also expect extreme climate events to become more common in Wales.

Climate change has made the chance of a heatwave in the UK 30 times more likely. We can expect about one in every ten summers to be hot at the moment but, under future emissions that could become every other summer being hot, or very hot. Hotter summers mean a heightened risk of drought (even in Wales), more wildfires, violent thunderstorms and changes which would have a big impact on farming.

We can expect climate changes in other times of the year as well, with upland areas in Wales likely to experience wetter winters and coastal areas to experience more frequent flooding. Depending on which emissions pathway we end up on, the seas around Wales could be between 29cm and 113cm higher in 2100 than they are now, winters could be up to 30% wetter and summers between 30 and 60% drier. Those are huge changes and they would impact industries from tourism to agriculture to the health sector. Extreme weather poses a threat to human health. More than 70,000 excess deaths were caused by the 2003 heatwave in Europe. Around the world, between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heatwaves increased by around 125 million.

What do the UK Climate Projections suggest Wales climate future looks like?

The UK Climate Projections give us a set of ‘likelihoods’ for Wales’ future climate, that are summarised in the table below.

*Calculated using the BBC’s ‘What Will Climate Change Look Like Near Me’ tool which is based on the UK Climate Projections. North, South and Mid Wales postcodes were used as Llangollen train station (North), Swansea’s Morriston Hospital (South) and Newtown Library (Mid) respectively. The data is measured in 12km-square (7.5-mile-square) grids across the UK. The results for each postcode represent an average for the grids closest to that postcode and the ‘medium emissions’ scenarios. You can explore the online future climate tool yourself here.

Whilst it is quite hard to give regionally accurate forecasts, because we do not have 100s of years of climate data from across Wales, these predictions can give us an idea of what Wales’ climate future will involve; warmer conditions, drier summers and wetter winters are most likely. Wales’ climate future is also likely to follow the UK average closely (summarised from here and here).

  • The UK average annual temperature has risen about 1.2°C above the preindustrial temperatures so far. With 0.8°C of this warming taking place from 1961 to 1990. In the future we think the rate of warming will accelerate in the second half of the century.

  • On most emissions pathways (either high or low) we can expected about an additional 0.6°C of warming by the mid-2050s. This means, in total, by the time we reach net zero in 2050 we will have at least a total of about 1.8°C degrees of post-industrial human-caused warming.

  • If the world’s governments choose to follow the lowest greenhouse gas emissions pathways we might bring this down to around 1.7 °C of total warming (so 0.7°C on top of the current warming) by the mid-2080s

  • If the world’s governments stay on the current greenhouse gas emissions pathway we can expect to experience an additional 1.9°C of warming on top of current warming, giving a total warming of about 3.1°C by the mid-2080s.

  • If the world’s governments fail to reduce emissions and we end up on the highest emissions pathways (it is important to note that this is probably unlikely) we are likely to experience 3 °C of additional warming on top of current, to give about 4.2°C of total warming by the mid-2080s.

  • In terms of extreme rainfall events, the UK is likely to experience a 20% increase in extreme rainfall events if we achieve the lowest emissions pathway and between a 50% to 70% increase in extreme rainfall events if we end up on the highest emissions pathway.

  • What about heatwaves? The chance of the UK experiencing heatwaves like 2018 would be about 50/50 each year by 2100 if we achieve the lowest emissions pathways, and there would be about a 90% of the UK experiencing a heatwave like the 2018 one, every summer, by 2100 if we failed to reduce emissions and followed the highest emissions pathways.

Thank you for taking the time to visit S4’s COP26 page and don’t forget you can get in touch if you have any questions!