By Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner, Wales

Short-term thinking is deeply embedded in our political and economic structures. From four-year election cycles to quarterly reviews, our buy-now-pay-later society is eroding our connection with – and responsibility for – the future.

Nowhere are the impacts of this short-term thinking more evident than the climate crisis. For years politicians have debated and deliberated on the upfront costs and argued about who should foot the bill, while floods rage, forests burn, and species disappear.

In its recent report (February 2022), the IPCC issued its starkest warning yet of the impacts of this short-termism. It reported that 40% of world populations are now “highly vulnerable” to the effects of climate change, with this vulnerability manifesting as hunger, poverty, displacement, and inequality – and those most affected by the changes are also the least responsible for causing them.

Unless we adjust our mind sets and make dramatic in-roads into reducing carbon emissions and reversing the devastating impacts that we’re having on the planet, this vulnerability is only going to increase.

Crucially, if 40% of the world are “highly vulnerable” today, what are the prospects for future generations in ten, 20, or 30 years’ time? Who is representing their interests? Isn’t their right to well-being as legitimate as our own?

Applying a long-term legislative lens

As the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, it is my job to ensure that the needs of future generations are considered.

Wales was one of the first countries in the world to enshrine in law the needs of future generations through the creation of its Well-being and Future Generations Act. The Act was created seven years ago in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It requires Welsh public bodies to think about the long-term impacts of their decisions, to work better with people, communities, and each other, and to combat deep-rooted societal problems such as poverty, health inequalities, and climate change. 

Since the Act’s implementation, Welsh public policy has been shaped with current as well as future generations in mind. From health to transport, environment to education, we have learnt that successful policies for the present are often those that apply a long-term thought process.

Take, for example, plans by the Welsh Government to build a £1.4bn relief road for the M4 motorway. The proposed 13-mile route was designed to tackle a problem of congestion between London and South Wales. However, the proposal was about the needs of the car and compromised the Welsh Government’s commitment to improving health, protecting nature, and addressing poverty. 

Using the Act guide, the Welsh Government concluded that the money would be better spent on a well-integrated and properly funded public transport system. Problems of congestion and carbon emissions were addressed simultaneously, with transport and environmental and subsequent health benefits not only for present generations of residents of South East Wales, but also for generations to come.

This is just one example of how the Act has shaped Government policy. When the long view is applied, and longer-term environmental, social, and health benefits considered, the optics of decision-making change.

As evidenced by the many other solutions we have developed, Wales is learning that the best policies aren’t single-track in design but woven into much wider holistic changes which can help improve the overall well-being of our polluted planet as well as addressing the needs of jeopardised future generations.

Global collaboration

Just as climate change requires collaboration across borders, so too does protecting the well-being of future generations. The challenges that Wales seeks to overcome through its Well-Being and Future Generations Act are not unique. UN Member States, academics, and the public and private sectors must all join forces if we are to tackle the growing list of environmental and health crises our populations face.

In its Our Common Agenda report, the UN outlines that the world is experiencing a wave of shared global crises (including COVID-19, climate change, and now the invasion of Ukraine). We are being challenged in ways never experienced before. The need to collaborate, to work across borders, and to ensure that the planet we live in is fit for the future is essential.

‘Our Common Agenda’ sets out recommendations on how the shared crises can be overcome. UN Member States are currently reviewing these recommendations – including the need to protect future generations – before they decide which should be given the green light and moved forwards. 

We urge UN Member States to recognise the importance of these recommendations. If approved, they will enable a vital step away from the short-term thinking which has become embedded within both our political and economic systems. It would mark a turning point towards a more long-term vision which can benefit both current and future generations.

The UN Secretary-General’s recommendations last year for a special envoy for Future Generations, a Futures Summit, and a UN Declaration for Future Generations, are a welcome and significant step towards the rest of the world adopting policies akin to those that Wales has implemented.

This June I will attend the UNEP’s Stockholm+50, an international meeting which seeks to accelerate action for a healthy and prosperous planet. My message there will be one of urgency. I will call on international leaders to recognise the SDGs and the wider benefits of long-term thinking. I will share the knowledge I’ve acquired as Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, and learn from the countries who, like us, are already working to protect the rights of their future citizens.

The well-being of current and future generations must be protected. As the IPCC report and countless others before it illustrate, we haven’t got a moment to lose.