Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)

TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001

RT HON JOHN PRESCOTT, MP, RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MP, MR DAVID PROUT, MR PETER BETTS, MR DAN OSGOOD AND MS GABRIELLE EDWARDS

  20. Just to interrupt you, are you saying that it was not so much the content, the issue, so much as the view of the negotiations that was taken by the French Presidency which led to the collapse, that another person might have taken a different view in forcing it through on the same content?
  (Mr Meacher) I think that is possible. The point I was making that John cannot make is we would not have been in a position to make these judgements about should we have had the agreement, could we have got it. We were inches away and if he had not taken that initiative—something John is very good at—of knocking people's heads together and forcing them to come to an agreement to settle matters or to say "we cannot make an agreement", that would not have been done. It desperately needed doing and it is only John Prescott, in my experience, at these international negotiations who has the determination and skill, for which he is so often not given the credit, for doing this.
  (Mr Prescott) That was absolutely correct, of course.

  21. Everybody is sucking up to everybody else this afternoon.
  (Mr Prescott) It is very kind of Michael but he did play quite a crucial part in the whole negotiation. We act as a team. I would like to record in front of your Committee the skill of the civil servants who were absolutely superb.

  22. That is taken as read, you are full of praise for the civil servants.
  (Mr Prescott) At Kyoto it was the skill of our people who negotiated that agreement and it was the skill of our people that put this package together. Sometimes they get a lot of knocking and we get a lot of the praise saying "we are up there", but without their back-up, and they were really superb—

  23. I fully recognise all of that and great credit to everyone concerned, including the civil servants obviously. What we are trying to get at here is what was the nature of the content.
  (Mr Prescott) There was one contentious point that was very important in the process. We were able to say to the EU when we met that the Umbrella Group had agreed that sinks, which was always the concern about developing countries, could not be used as part of the contribution to the target. The Europeans were set against that and said "we do not want that". We got the Umbrella Group to agree that was the proposition. The Europeans were quite staggered at that but when they got awkward and they wanted more the Americans and the Umbrella Group withdrew from it. That was what kept the attention of the Europeans. We were able to say to the Europeans "look, you said they would never do that and this is in this agreement" and then people started walking away from it when it got difficult. To be fair about Mme Voynet, she did go round the table and a number of the other European countries who did not understand the agreement, were not actually involved and just came in, and said "I am sorry, we do not have enough information". My main concern was this was one window and it would be lost. To be fair, we have not mentioned the next window where we hoped to try to get over it again at Oslo, which got cancelled. Frankly that was a failure of political courage and political will again.

Mr Jones

  24. I asked in my earlier question whether the Americans accept some of the science behind the causes of global warming. Whatever the uncertainties amongst them, the uncertainties that exist over the effectiveness or otherwise of sinks is rather greater. Was it the uncertainty about the effectiveness of sinks that was behind some of the European Ministers' problems?
  (Mr Prescott) Yes, that was part of it but it was connected to the ceiling. Michael was very much involved in that negotiation.
  (Mr Meacher) You are absolutely right that there is great doubt about sinks.

  25. There is some evidence that some so-called sinks may actually contribute towards carbon dioxide rather than reduce it.
  (Mr Meacher) Oh, they do. I was about to say that trees sequestrate carbon, there is absolutely no question about that. The problem is, and as one gets older one learns this, when they are young or middle aged they absorb carbon but as they get older they yield it up. If they burn they no longer sequestrate it but you get a double-whammy because it all goes up in smoke and CO2 into the atmosphere. There is also the real problem about sinks, to make a distinction between what is the sequestration effect of a forest being there where it happens naturally, as a natural phenomenon, and how much human agency adds to this. The view that we took was that countries should get credits for the amount of increased sequestration which takes place as a result of things from human management as opposed to the simple existence of a natural phenomenon. There was no agreement about any of these matters, certainly how you calculate the latter, we simply do not know how that is done and we need a lot more experience. That was why we said that sinks should not ideally be included in the Clean Development Mechanism in developing countries, that we needed experience up to the first commitment period of 2008-12, we could review it perhaps in 2005 or 2008, and use that scientific knowledge and we may be able to incorporate in a reliable, quantifiable way how much those sinks should contribute to targets but we should not do that immediately.

  26. How confident can you be, given the uncertainties of science about the sinks, that you do not achieve an agreement based around targets which actually do not deliver anything at all or maybe deliver the reverse of what you want?
  (Mr Meacher) Indeed, that is exactly the point. 5.2 per cent of Annex 1 emissions might save in the order of a quarter of a billion tonnes of carbon a year. If we allow in sinks in developed countries it could well add something like a billion tonnes, which was agreed under the Kyoto Protocol, and if we allow it in the CDM possibly another 0.8 billion tonnes. To be fair, I mentioned a quarter of a billion tonnes but between a quarter and a billion tonnes depending on certain conditions. Even on the most optimistic scenario, if we allowed sinks in unqualified there could be a doubling of the level of CO2 emissions actually permitted under the Kyoto Protocol, which would be an absolute nonsense. That is why we have to treat this with enormous care. The American view was not necessarily to disagree with us scientifically, they have never challenged us on any of these figures, it was simply that they have a problem on the Hill, they have a problem in the Mid West, they want to get a lot of credits from changes in land usage in the Prairies and they want to use their forests to the full in order to minimise any impact on their domestic economy. That is politically an easier way of trying to reach their targets. Since they are probably now 20/25 points above their Kyoto target, and they are supposed to be seven points below it, anything that gives them an easy way of achieving the target is clearly desirable. It is not a difference about science, it is about political accommodation to an embarrassing external target.

  27. Is it your view that we do need to secure a political deal on sinks before we can move forward on anything else?
  (Mr Meacher) Absolutely.
  (Mr Prescott) Do not forget the important point about that, which some of our European colleagues sometimes want to forget, is that Kyoto was agreed and, yes, they are targets but they were based on a technology and science we were not too sure about as to how you could measure targets and emission trading. In the period of time in between Kyoto and the COP6 and moving to agreement all of this had to be worked out but it was a pretty new area. It has not necessarily got the preciseness and it does not help with the targets but they are an inevitable part of it and it is consistent, I think, with your criticism of targets that you made in your last Environmental Report. It is good to have targets to measure against but sometimes the things on which they are based are not all that accurate although it was part and parcel of putting Kyoto together.

Mr Chaytor

  28. If I can just step back a moment to the question of the deal that you are both saying was informally agreed by all the European Union Member States.
  (Mr Prescott) The leaders of them.

  29. The leaders, sure.
  (Mr Prescott) Because the French, the Swedish, the British, the Germans, the Commission, they were all in that room and they then took it back to the full European Group and that was when it all began to fall apart.

  30. So the leadership agreed what was on the table but they wanted more time?
  (Mr Prescott) They would take it to the Group. But in between arriving there and at the Group they said there was not enough information.

  31. Has that view ever been published in written form? Can you tell us exactly what was agreed there? I followed the reporting of the conference with interest but nowhere did I read what the sticking points were. What I understand from what you have said this afternoon is that there was an agreement over supplementarity and the original sticking point of 50 per cent was relaxed to become a form of words that was "a significant proportion" and there was an agreement that sinks could not be used in developing countries. Were those the two points that were negotiated with the Umbrella Group and were they agreed by the leaders of the European Group or were there other points? Does this exist in a written form somewhere? If not, would it be possible for the Committee to have a note about exactly what was agreed because that would inform our understanding of what is likely to happen in the future.
  (Mr Prescott) We could give you a note of what that negotiating position was at that moment. Do remember, it was the full conference that made the decisions. There was an executive group that was set up to negotiate it but they had come to the end of the road and they could not get any agreement, hence the reason could we get the real people who were going to have to make decisions on some kind of agreement. We put forward negotiating positions on what we thought of each one of the positions and the Americans particularly, on behalf of the Umbrella Group, had theirs. We can give you a statement at that point in time when we brought in the leaders, the French, the Germans came in, and listened to what we had to say. They then went back to their group to study and to consider our group, and we went back as well. In the meantime, when it got difficult and we said, "We want more information than this" or, "Let's negotiate again", at that late date, you either accept or reject. As the discussions went on and the President called us back to ask how far we had got, people began to change their positions. The Americans began to say, "We did not quite mean that", because otherwise they would be outflanked. There comes a time in any negotiation when that is it. You can either accept it or reject it. If you accept some and you want to build on it again, it becomes very difficult. We can give you a paper which we took into the Europe group, giving our judgments of what was on the table, which was a paper given to us by the Americans and the Umbrella Group. We thrashed through those bits but quite properly we then went into the European group and, if they were not prepared to accept it or said, "We need more time or information", as we said to them, "If you let this go, the whole deal goes. Secondly, if you do not decide now, there are only a few hours left." We are talking minutes left, an hour or so. "If you do not accept that now and you start negotiating again, frankly, you may find a change in the political situation in America and the fear is that it may be a different attitude." I do not know whether that is going to happen but there are signs of it at the moment and we are in a more difficult situation. You have a memorandum that is our understanding of that agreement. We put our understanding because, once it went into the group, people started saying, "I want a bit more on this. I want a bit more on that" and everybody walked away from it because the Americans particularly, do not forget, have to go and answer to their Senate. They did not want, "Did you agree this?" when they had thrown it away. Agree it in the context of agreement, fine, but if you have not got agreement you were prepared to give that away and when it came to Ottawa that is what the problem was. In Ottawa, they began to back off the negotiations.

Mr Thomas

  32. Following on from that and the evidence you have just referred to which you presented to the Committee, the outline you have given us on where things may go now is that there is a paper which Mr Pronk has prepared which was the subject of the almost agreement, which has been now subject to further comments and views and so forth, was not able to take in Oslo but could now come back in early April for further discussion. It is a question as to whether these are the right tactics. Is it right to work with a paper that has failed? We could not, you could not and the Europeans could not quite get it together. Are you convinced that you are taking the right line with this or, in order to get this to work, because ultimately the prize of getting this to work is what everyone needs, even if it does take a bit more time. Is it better to put all bets off on that and to look again at the whole issue of the sequestration of the sinks and the clean development mechanism and, okay, if it needs to go back to the drawing board, let's try a different path? How much consideration have you given to that?
  (Mr Prescott) I think the paper is bust. I do not think you can go back with that now because people in those late stage negotiations were prepared to do something. They might not now. Anyway, the US administration has changed. The administration might not be the same to the American negotiator now, so Mr Pronk is producing another paper. The issues are still the same, the formulas that you find agreement on, and now President Bush seems to be suggesting that anything that is just for the developed countries in the first stage is not acceptable. That is a fundamental change. Michael, in the Environment Council in the European Union, has been dealing with some of these negotiations.
  (Mr Meacher) We do accept exactly as you are saying that it would not be appropriate to continue with a paper which we have really had two go's at and not succeeded. Jan Pronk, the Dutch Environment Minister and President of COP6, has put together another paper—I am not sure if it has been published. I think it is going to be published very soon—on the basis of consultation with all the parties, trying to put forward a set of proposals which might bring them all together.

  33. Does that include America?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, absolutely, although the American position is completely unknowable. They have this major review and we are getting very contradictory reports from what senior ministers are saying in Washington.
  (Mr Prescott) If the paper was to suggest that we reopen it all again and the developing countries have got to fix themselves some targets, you can forget about getting any agreement.

  34. The Kyoto Protocols are not open for negotiation; they are agreed. There might be a previous administration in the US, but nevertheless that is the international agreement.
  (Mr Prescott) You still have to ratify it.

  35. It has not been ratified yet?
  (Mr Prescott) No. That requires so many nations to do so. You can sign it at its first stage but if you do not actually ratify—and indeed there was an argument at one stage that perhaps some of the Europeans entertained the idea that you could get enough to ratify up without the Americans. Frankly, I doubt it. Secondly, an agreement in this case without the Americans is not going to be very workable because many other countries will say, "Why should we bother if the Americans are not?"

  36. If I can put it to you in your terms, how gutted are you today that Bush has very recently questioned not only the negotiations that happened in The Hague but the actual climate change itself?
  (Mr Prescott) The gutted response was one reaction. I thought we had missed an opportunity. The events since then rather confirm that. I am sad about that because it was one opportunity, like Kyoto. Kyoto had every chance of failing but to fail on this one when we had Kyoto, I was gutted. Now we are in the process of negotiations and the reality of global negotiations. The Americans have elected another President and the President is entitled to put his point of view. I am entitled to argue with it and no doubt others will agree with America. That is into the public arena. Therefore, you live with that. You try to find agreements. If you say that all the developing countries have to come in and line up targets, I think it will make it impossible but who knows? Every country has to reassess when a major player like the Americans in this sense says, "We do not want to play that game" or, "We are not prepared to sign up for that." That does not mean we give up arguing and saying, "You have got it wrong." I have already said that I think public opinion in America has been moving as fast as it has here. It is no coincidence that many of those big industries began to change their views and that is a lot to do with public opinion. I have a lot more faith in public opinion than the media statements and we will keep arguing our case. The weather will keep reminding them perhaps that something is wrong and perhaps also the whole business of electricity provision in California might concentrate minds as much as floods here. They are not going to get away from those pressures. They are going to continue to be there and the public is aware that something is going on. They will want some response.

Mrs Brinton

  37. Have we any timescale of this fundamental review of climate change policy on behalf of the new American President? We have timescales set for other negotiations but if they are still fundamentally reviewing it it seems a big, black hole at the centre of those negotiations. Have we any idea whatsoever what is in Bush's mind?
  (Mr Prescott) If I can refer to the American request for a delay in the meeting at COP6 to July, it can be interpreted in a number of ways, I suppose, but if they were saying no to May I assume that was to assess the position. They know it is a very important, global issue. That is encouraging and if there are views and discussions that are going on the Prime Minister in our case, the Foreign Secretary, other people and Michael at the G8 meeting in Italy—we all make a very clear view and it is interesting at the G8 meeting they did sign up to language on Kyoto, so July is the time when we will know what the American position is.
  (Mr Meacher) They certainly said that they would complete the review in time to be able to engage seriously in the resumption of 16 to 27 July.
  (Mr Prescott) Also, the American President said he was concerned about energy, electricity, prices and things like that. There are different ways you can achieve your targets and that is up to the government, to make its decision. He might not want to do something in one section but he can probably achieve it in another. It does not rule out the possibility that he can meet his political difficulties as he sees them and yet achieve the same targets he is committed to.

Mr Loughton

  38. Could we move to the post-COP meeting in Canada in December between the EU and the Umbrella Group, where they discussed ways of moving forward? I gather you said that it emerged that the two sides now had different understandings of the political package which had been discussed in the early hours of 25 November in The Hague. Could you tell us when the different understandings of your last minute deal arose between the EU and the Umbrella Group? Were they there all along and just an inevitability about the length of the negotiations, or was the Umbrella Group stepping back in the cold light of day from commitments which had been given in reaction to vacillation by the EU before?
  (Mr Prescott) He was at a meeting of officials in Canada where they discussed that so I will ask Peter Betts about that. I would not be surprised if people said there is confusion because the main negotiator, Frank Loy, having done the business and put it on paper, then said, "I was not prepared to go that far." He began to change his position, which is understandable. If you do something thinking you are going to get agreement and then you find it is done, you are not going to put yourself into the negotiations on that basis of what you agreed there.
  (Mr Betts) We had thought in The Hague that sinks were excluded from the CDM. That was our understanding from the Umbrella Group. We also thought that Article 3.4 sinks, in the jargon, would apply only to three main parties, the United States, Canada and Japan. When the officials got to Ottawa, we learned from the Umbrella Group that they were now saying it had not been agreed that sinks would be excluded from the CDM. There would simply be a review before a decision was taken and it had never been agreed that only three countries would get Article 3.4 sinks. That possibility would be open to all developed countries.
  (Mr Prescott) Russia was particularly apprehensive about being left out of that. Everybody then began to look at it and Russia said, "Why are we not in it?" Let's face it: Bush had a pretty good deal out of Kyoto.
  (Mr Meacher) To be fair, Sweden and Finland were also interested in this. This is another area where divisions of interest between wanting to restrict CO2 from sinks are separate from a national interest and being able to take advantage of a rather convenient source. All of these tensions began to build up once that so-near link was broken.

  39. In part you are blaming a lack of time for the negotiations for COP6, but are you talking about time for the technical effort by the officials or time for the politicians to break the logjam and the deadlock? If it is the former, was not two years long enough? If it is the latter, is it not a shame that the Umbrella Group did not want to pursue further, informal negotiations in Oslo in December?
  (Mr Prescott) It was more to do with political will than technical terms because we knew anyway that, even if we agreed it, there were certain things that you would need to dot the I's, cross the T's and go on to the next meeting. What we wanted was a political framework that allowed you to go on to the next meeting in July and the developed countries had agreed among themselves what the principles were. The principles would be taken to the overall conference. The real problem then was that many of the negotiators, particularly for the developing countries, had gone. Some of the negotiators on the European side had gone. They had gone well before I even left. It was not possible to make it back to the main assembly that has to make the recommendation for which there is the political agreement. I still believe that was the political will. Oslo was still an opportunity. Hopefully we would come to some agreement, but it had become more complex. The other countries to this agreement had been left out of it and the Umbrella Group began to say, "I am not going to do that" or, "I am not going to do this". It became more difficult. The Europeans in our discussions—the French were still of a strong mind about this, and felt it was not enough and in my view there was a bit of fancy dancing went on about who was going to be blamed for the result of the fall-out of talks in Oslo. The reality is that once you get into that frame of mind you have not got negotiations. If you have not got the goodwill to meet and settle that agreement, it was not there; it was not on the European side and it was not on the Umbrella Group side. It had become more difficult and it had become too late to do anything. People then were beginning to say "let us wait until COP6 II", or whatever it is called, "in July" and hopefully they will do that but my main concern was that the American situation may have changed, and it may have.


 
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