You can’t have one without the other – the importance of environmental and social wellbeing in Northern Ireland

Jennifer Wallace (Director, Carnegie UK) and Hannah Ormston (Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK).

With COP26 kicking into full swing in Glasgow next week, accelerating action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will almost certainly require leaders and policy makers to commit to both immediate and longer-term interventions.
While it remains to be seen what progress will be made at this conference, any journey to towards net zero carbon emissions must have collective wellbeing at its core.

At Carnegie UK, we define collective wellbeing as comprising Social, Economic, Environmental, and Democratic (SEED) outcomes. To us, wellbeing means everyone having what they need to live well now and in the future. More than health and wealth, it includes having friends and loved ones, the ability to contribute meaningfully to society, and the ability to set our own direction and make choices, including about our climate and environment.

A wellbeing approach to government balances SEED outcomes and provides a mechanism for understanding interlinkages and making trade-offs between the different domains of wellbeing.

Real change at COP26 will only happen once the high-level negotiations are over and the cameras leave, as the focus turns to people and politicians to implement change at a local level every day. This change doesn’t happen quickly but does happen through hard work, dedication and innovation, not necessarily the big bang innovation of technology, but through cultural and relationship changes with and between organisations.

A great example of this is our work with local stakeholders in Northern Ireland since 2014 to embed a wellbeing approach in policy making, both at Executive level through the Programme for Government, and recently with local government and a range of partners as part of our three-year Embedding Wellbeing in NI project.

The current outcomes approach to policy making in Northern Ireland sits in the Programme for Government, developed and agreed by departments and Ministers in five-year cycles, and has the commitment to improve societal wellbeing at its core. However, from our international experience, we know that the Northern Ireland Executive is unique in locating its wellbeing framework solely in this planning.

That is why in our recent report that brought to a close the Embedding Wellbeing in NI project, we called on the NI Executive to protect the wellbeing of future and current generations by placing the wellbeing outcomes and indicators on a statutory footing.

A statutory basis would elevate the outcomes approach from being one of many initiatives to becoming a framework for all aspects of governance in Northern Ireland. Public organisations should have a duty to consider and make progress towards the outcomes, and the outcomes themselves should be subject to high-quality engagement and dialogue with citizens.

We are aware there are multiple calls for a wellbeing law in Northern Ireland – variously referred to as the Wellbeing of Future Generations, Climate Change or a Sustainable Development law. There is also an overlap with other legislative calls on public sector reform. For Carnegie UK, the title of the Bill matters less than the urgent need to solidify the approach through statutory mechanisms.

Environmentally speaking, elevating outcomes and placing on a statutory basis through a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act or similar legislation, would mean that the forthcoming Green Growth, Energy, Clean Air and Environment strategies, not to mention whichever of the two competing Climate Change Bills currently progressing through the Assembly emerges with most support among MLAs, would be required to work in tandem and make progress towards improving environmental outcomes.

The benefits to society are obvious, including on nature and the environment, our economy and the health service. Just think for example of how more sustainable transport and more energy efficient homes could lead to reduced air pollution, with less hospital admissions from heart and respiratory diseases.

And while we have only mentioned here the suite of policy and legislative activity seeking to improve environmental outcomes, the benefits are replicated across the other SEED outcomes.

Protecting future generations has been achieved in Wales through the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which established a Future Generations Commissioner, and in Scotland through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, where the government there have recently announced the appointment of a Future Generations Commissioner.

And earlier this year, Crossbencher Lord John Bird and Conservative MP Simon Fell launched the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill in Westminster. The Private Members’ Bill, if passed into law, would assist the Government in preventing problems, including the climate crisis, poverty and pandemics from happening, and not just deal in emergencies. It would also deliver a new, sustainable vision as we seek to recover from the Covid crisis that prioritises societal wellbeing.

COP26 serves as another reminder that our actions today can lead to positive and meaningful changes in wellbeing for the generations that follow.