Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)

MONDAY 4 MARCH 2002

RT HON JOHN PRESCOTT, MP AND MR CHRIS WOOD

Sue Doughty

  100. Could we turn to the United States now? You are visiting the Vice-President next week and we have been talking about dealing with other nations but most of us would see the United States as the toughest nut to crack. What areas do you expect to discuss with the Vice-President?
  (Mr Prescott) Last time I met him we had to speak by video because of the unfortunate circumstances at the time. Now he is visiting London and we agreed to meet out of a phone call he made to me on the day President Bush made his announcement and his latest proposals on climate change. He rang me four hours before the President made his statement. We discussed what they were proposing to say and I mentioned certain other aspects we would like to follow up with them. Clearly it is not as good a deal as we had previously but it is a different administration. We did welcome the fact that the President now accepts the science which he had rejected four months before. He now accepts it so I find that two trains on two tracks have produced that but one is going at a different speed. At least a target is now set by the Americans which even commits them to reducing it voluntarily and they accept the science which is a step forward from the situation four months ago. What we have to do is encourage them to go further. We have discussed one or two ideas with him and I asked whether one of my own staff could go over there and talk with them and use that as the basis for further discussions when he is over here in London. I am looking forward to the opportunity of discussions with him.

  101. I have some sympathy with you when you talk about achievable targets and consensus, but in the memorandum you have set yourself a very tough target when you talk about the UK's wish to match the current global coalition against terrorism with action in a range of areas. That may be so with our more junior partners in the coalition. You are now speaking to a senior partner in the coalition asking for a match of effort with what we are putting into the action against terrorism. Do you think there is any real hope of that?
  (Mr Prescott) If I might just think aloud on this one and say that four months ago the President made a very emphatic statement that he did not accept the science and was not prepared to see his industry ruined by these proposals as he saw it, which was a judgement he had made as a newly elected President and he was entitled to make this judgement. He was totally rejecting what the previous administration agreed to and it was a deal which was worse. We talked about the reduction in greenhouse gases, and they are a major emitter of these so that is unfortunate, but it was better than four months before when he said it was not acceptable. I happen to think that change of mind is not only about looking at facts and the arguments more clearly, it is also due to the fact that their businesses have told them that there is quite a lot of interest in this for them and he should not cut them off from the possibility of environmental development for industry. They were an influence. Whereas at Kyoto they were highly hostile, they have changed over the period. The final one was that greater emphasis came from global partnership and working together. That was one of the factors involved and it would be very nice if we could get the same energy and commitment involved in dealing with these problems and it would certainly save money but a step at a time.

  102. Do you think there is any leeway for hoping that they might be starting to think about exceeding targets in the same way that the Germans have? This Committee went to Germany last week to look at renewable energy and what we found was that moving further across to renewable energy was not only a way of achieving Kyoto targets but was actually creating quite a lot of jobs. Do you think you will be able to get as far as that sort of discussion?
  (Mr Prescott) That is a very important factor. I work closely with the German Green Minister who is very effectively involved in that. Overall, comparing the programme in Germany and in Britain, I have to tell you that we are ahead of them in the overall achievement of targets but that is taking all the factors into account. There is an economic argument about there being a lot of gain not pain in environment investment and we have had this discussion before and I think that has focused the minds of the Americans. That is why business interests have not been so hostile as they were at Kyoto. They have realised that there is some benefit, there is a buck in the development, there is gain and it is not all pain. That example in Germany is one example and one which is beginning to register and hopefully will decide the kind of contribution they can make. Little known was that when the Americans made their proposal for reductions one part of the formula said they wanted was to increase their help to developing countries in technology, in transfer of technology, in these things which were identified as the tool, the mechanism for achieving the target under the Kyoto agreement. That is a useful and welcome development and when it comes from the Americans it comes with an awful lot of money involved.

  103. If you see a change coming about in American thinking and also with this objective to try to get as many world leaders as possible, do you think you are going to be able to persuade them or do you think there is a chance of seeing George Bush going there and playing a full part?
  (Mr Prescott) I notice that George Bush is going to the Monterrey conference and people thought he was not going to go. That is about getting together, financing trade and development and that is a welcome sign. The Americans might just see what is happening at Monterrey before they make the decision on going to Johannesburg. We will obviously press them to go to Johannesburg but there are several difficulties. One might be about policy but another one is the time chosen because they did not want to be in conflict with that date in September, with the 12-month anniversary of that tragedy in New York. Clearly an American President could not be out of the country at that time, so they made the conference earlier. That brings it into August which is always more difficult because it is usually the holiday time for most of the leaders and in America there is Labour Day. It is not easy but certainly he is going to Monterrey and that is welcome. The President's father when President only made up his mind to go to that conference a few days before so I am an eternal optimist.

  104. I think you might need to be.
  (Mr Prescott) I have been here 30 years and I have learned that bit.

  105. What about climate change? I know there is a range of issues. You have talked about whether climate change was the thing to discuss this time but for many people it is still the key issue. There is a thought that it might be ducked at Johannesburg for fear of upsetting the Americans. I hear what you say about a change of thinking but do you think there is almost a mind set now that we do not discuss climate change in front of the Americans and we should duck the subject?
  (Mr Prescott) Climate change is now taking care of itself if you observe Kyoto, go through the ratification, live up to the promises, the monitoring of the process and the sanctions which may come from it. The only issue which would make environment a matter for Johannesburg would be if you were deciding whether you would want to pass a comment on whether America should come on board or not. That of course would be a highly controversial thing. Of course you could have it but you have to find where there is agreement. What I found very interesting and significant during those Kyoto negotiations and later during the discussions in The Hague and Bonn was that the Group 77 and the European nations did not want America to leave and did not take a kind of hostile approach and hope that eventually the President would change his mind after review. It is a matter of judgement now as to whether he has changed his mind sufficiently. I would have thought in the main they will think not but they will welcome the fact that he has accepted the science. He may be on a different track going at a different speed, but he is heading for a target. He is heading for an assessment even though it is voluntary. The interesting thing about his point about it being voluntary is that he is setting up a register for these companies so why not do it internationally. The curious thing is that China is now reducing greenhouse gases faster than the Americans are and they are not party to it. Presumably that will be a credit for them as for other countries which are achieving it, even though they are not in Annex 1, even though their cuts are not considered in the overall cuts. If you balance that, why not have an international register which accounts for those countries who are not part of Annex 1? That would include America and it would include a number of developing countries. These are some of the ideas to develop in a positive way rather than going to the conference and just having a big row and treating America as the leper of the world for not coming to an agreement. I prefer to stick with the positive arguments which have had some success so far, then getting an agreement. I remember when we first went to Kyoto nearly every paper—in fact I will say every paper—and radio and television said the Americans would not change, they would not move from their zero position. They did. They went to minus seven. That was a major change and a major challenge for them. Unfortunately the new administration did not accept that proposition but they do accept that they are going to have to cut greenhouse gases. That is to be welcomed.

  106. Surely if we could get America to make clearer commitments to climate change it would be a key factor in the peace process internationally. When we are looking at global sustainability one aspect of that is peace.
  (Mr Prescott) I agree with you and they are some of the arguments we do plug.

Chairman

  107. One of the great achievements, arguably the greatest achievement of Rio was to put climate change on the map.
  (Mr Prescott) Yes.

  108. You followed that up and the world has followed that up except not a lot has been done. The fact is that we have not ratified Kyoto; no nation has yet ratified Kyoto. Europe has not ratified Kyoto, we have not ratified Kyoto and America has backed off. I understand what you are saying about the change of emphasis towards positive development as opposed to climate change and the environmental matters. Does it not in fact really need a kickstart? It is ten years since Rio and ten years before the next Earth Summit or whatever you like to call it. Do we not really need to seize this opportunity, not to downgrade environmental things? The environmentalists and those concerned about climate change who argue it is the most important topic, it is the future of the planet and so forth, are getting very worried about what is going to happen here. Are you?
  (Mr Prescott) To put it in perspective, Rio was all right, we called for voluntary agreements and after five years found that was not working at all. Britain was the only one who achieved it, largely because we closed down our coal mining industry. Germany achieved it because she had a collapse of an awful lot of the East German aspects which came into it. At least they achieved it but the voluntary way was not going to work so there was a major shift half way through to this more statutory framework, a convention which we actually sign up to and face possible sanctions if we do not agree it and various procedures put in for that. I think that is a major step forward and I think to be welcomed. Fifty-odd countries have signed and ratified but many of them are not ones for the obligations of Kyoto. The ones in the Annex countries are the ones you need to sign up. In Europe we all agreed that we would sign together and the European nations in the Council of Ministers this afternoon are discussing that aspect of now ratifying it and certainly wanting to do it before the conference in Johannesburg. We hope other countries in the umbrella group will: Japan has said she will; we shall have to wait and see for some of the others who are in the Annex groups. Hopefully America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand will sign as well. I agree with you that we have to keep the pressure on to achieve that but it is still a remarkable change in international negotiations to shift in that five years to getting a convention agreed and getting on to implement it.

Sue Doughty

  109. I have a group of very articulate sixth-formers who spend a lot of time looking at these international problems and they are particularly concerned with the rights of children to an education. They are saying to me that every time we take a long-term view that is another generation of children who are not getting the literacy they need to start developing and contributing to their own countries and internationally. How would you answer them when they are saying the delays are too long?
  (Mr Prescott) Sadly we live in a political system where long-term decisions are not given a great deal of importance. If you do take long-term decisions you get stick for it. You can look at transport, all sorts of disinvestment problems in this country and how easy it is to put off the decision because it does not fit within the political cycle. I must say to those people that they are right to demand and to push and to say more should be done. I have perhaps left the impression that because we have the agreement on Kyoto that is enough. No, we have to move to the developing countries. They have to play their part in it. Do not forget what we did to get agreement was to say that the richer countries which had caused the pollution would go ahead and make that decision and then hopefully bring on board the developing countries who are going to go through and have a right to go through their process of industrialisation if we are talking about prosperity. What we want to emphasise is that this is a more sustainable kind of development. At the end of the day if we do not achieve these targets we shall have failed internationally and our children will bear the main penalties of those failures.

Mr Francois

  110. You mentioned earlier the importance of delivery and that is germane to this entire debate. One of the criticisms is that you have this blaze of "summitry" and people fly in and appear to consent to these things and there is much backslapping and then people go away and some time further down the road nothing happens. What do you accept of a critique which says that following on from Rio there were many aspirations which were agreed in principle, but the actual practical things which have changed ten years on are relatively slight compared with all the optimism you had a decade ago.
  (Mr Prescott) First of all you have to get them to agree. If anyone looks at international conventions, they take a considerable period of time from when somebody states at the conference what their aims are, to get the convention, to get the protocols, to get the agreement and implement it. We did set targets, 2008-12[1] is one, for achievement of the obligations we entered into. It required us to be on track for everybody to ratify by 2002. All the signs are that quite a lot of them, a majority I would imagine, will have done that and hopefully it might be all. That is to be achieved in 12 months to two years from the agreement; it is less than that because Marrakesh was where the legal framework was set for the objectives set at Kyoto. Within 12 months the majority of those nations will have ratified. They have a date imposed on them to implement by 2010-12. Looking at international conventions, that is pretty fast movement, I have to tell you.

  111. I will just press you a little further. I take the point and I accept the point you are making that it takes quite a lot of effort just to get people to agree and that is a fair point to make and I am cognizant of it. Nevertheless, a lot of your story here today is yes, we are near to getting some progress on these things, people are shortly to ratify and to sign up, but the thing that runs through is that it is going to happen. What I want to come back to and press you on is that a lot of it has not actually happened yet. How certain can you be that whatever is agreed at Johannesburg is going to be implemented further down the line?
  (Mr Prescott) Can I go back to the criteria for what we were wanting to do, namely to get a reduction in greenhouse gases? Some countries are increasing, America for example, others have begun to make their cuts in their programmes and are having an effect. That is beginning to happen now. Before the convention coming in we had targets. You have to start early enough and we started early enough and we have got ahead of the game, admittedly building on the advantage which came from the coal industry being closed down. Given those circumstances, we have already achieved half of the target which was set for us at that time, so have the Germans, by Rio 1992. We have gone further since then by implementing programmes. Europe has already started to implement. We are not waiting for the ratification; it is making sense to do something about it now. If you go to China and wonder why they are doing it because they are not obliged under any treaty to do so, they do know that the smog in their cities has a political effect on their people and they are having to do something about it. They know the effects of climate change on some of their rivers and they are having to do something about it. Political pressures are developing there. The curious thing is that China has now cut gases far more than America with a greater growth than America has. That is largely because they are using higher technology, environmentally friendly technology, not because they have any obligation under this treaty, but it just makes sense for them to do, yet it does contribute to an actual reduction in greenhouse gases; not a net reduction because that has to be balanced against the kind of growth, but they have done considerably better in America and no doubt it gives them great satisfaction to say that.

Mr Challen

  112. May I ask what the Government are doing to tell the public about the preparations for this summit and to educate the public about sustainability? Does it not seem that a conflicting message is coming out, even perhaps this afternoon, that some countries might want to sign up to a treaty, they might want to bind themselves to doing something, but other countries, if they are of sufficient power, can simply say it is all voluntary and they will do what they like? The record of the current administration when George W Bush was Governor of Texas was that the voluntary approach simply did not work.
  (Mr Prescott) We have an education programme within our schools which achieves that. We have the bilateral agreements with industry, co-operating together on how they may adjust to achieve that. The whole climate change levy has been about that. Frankly we have a press who are not interested in a positive story. If you want to put what is going to happen in Kyoto they do not want to know. They only want to know about rows. With one or two honourable exceptions I can think of who do report seriously on these matters, in the main most of them are not interested. They only want to know if there is a row, if you are not going to make it, about the problems of sustainability. A classic example was when I went to visit coral reefs. Coral reefs are very important. Now everybody thinks they are important whereas three or four years ago it was "Prescott on holiday". Coral reefs are very important. They are like the canary in pits which warned the miners of gas. Dying coral reefs are a good indication of what is going to happen to our oceans and seas and that is why one of our objectives is to do a lot more about the oceans and seas because a lot of people depend on them for their living, whether fishing, access to water all sorts of things. Quite frankly the positive aspects do not make a story. We keep plugging it and trying to get it over but if we ring a journalist up and ask to talk to them about sustainability they will say "Call me next week".

  113. The President of the United States says our approach is voluntary then we have to work twice as hard to get people on board. We could perhaps look at the period of the petrol crisis to see that people do not accept we are doing enough environmentally or indeed towards sustainability.
  (Mr Prescott) Curiously enough I think it is the other way about. If you are making it a requirement, you make changes. The change creates a great deal of argument about the change itself and then you have to argue the case for it. Increasing petrol prices was a good example. You could argument an environment case as to why fuel was far too cheap. The argument was as to what the government tax level was on fuel. I hear that when I go abroad from some of the Arab countries who make it clear that it is our taxation programme. In reality we have discussed time and time again here that if you want to use energy more effectively the price mechanism is one way. You talk about the price of petrol and whatever you say about it will be extremely controversial and not very positive.

Mr Gerrard

  114. You said in your memorandum that you regarded a successful outcome as being of high political importance. You have talked this afternoon in broad general terms about some of the key priorities for the UK, eradication of poverty, fresh water and so on. I would assume that most people would view a successful outcome from Johannesburg in terms of there being some new agreements rather than just agreements on targets which already exist. What would you see as the key things which would constitute a successful outcome? What are the key agreements you would like to see?
  (Mr Prescott) The first one is that people feel it has been successful and there is no obvious breakdown. I do not seek to make an obvious point but the conference they had in South Africa on race was generally felt not to be the best example nor the one in Seattle which I do not think was thought to be a good conference. The first requirement is that people have felt it was a good step forward and in trying to get that good step forward is the agreement on all those things which will be defined as making it successful. The climate change one was more difficult because it meant major changes, as the Americans have pointed out, to their economy but we had the same questions with our economy. When you come to the issues we are dealing with, which we have identified as UK priorities, namely the poverty eradication, application and development of scientific and technical knowledge so these countries can develop, transfer of technologies, help with investment which is more environmentally sustainable, the fresh water and oceans, sustainable development issues particularly for Africa because we have identified there countries largely being left behind in this process, access to modern energy, controversial again, capacity building and education, whilst there will be an element of controversy, you do find a common consent that it is terrible that in this world one billion people live on less than one dollar a day, that one billion people cannot get access to clean water, that so many of the kids have no chance of education. If you want countries to develop and prosper, they certainly have to have the education. The fact is that they spend more on interest rate debts than they spend on health and education and we have been at the forefront of trying to reduce the debt responsibilities. They are all important issues which have a real consensus of support in the Group 77 and the developed countries. The concern which arises is how to deliver more effectively than we do at the moment because there is a great belief that finding resources is not enough. You need a degree of governance in those countries which in some cases is not there and you need to bring that alongside these programmes. You help them in the governance, you help them with targets, but they help deliver those targets themselves.

  115. You said earlier that there was a possibility that some of the targets, some of the proposals which were being mentioned in the preparatory conferences were over ambitious. Do you think it is going to be possible to achieve an agenda which really is action oriented? On some of the issues we are discussing such as poverty eradication it is very easy to find lots of people who will say, yes, of course we want to eradicate poverty, and rather more difficult to get down to specifics and to something which really is action oriented. Do you think there is a danger that we will end up with something which rather than being over-ambitious is actually too vague and not very clear in terms of specifics?
  (Mr Prescott) Yes, it is a very real problem and the crucial moment will come in the conference in May when the final preparatory conference takes place and the Ministers endorse the agenda to go to South Africa. That is the kind of route map in a way. It is important therefore that in these targets we are setting for ourselves we may have to do something else. For example, recognition of poverty in this country is far different from Africa. You begin to identify that the definition of poverty is a dollar a day. Clare, our International Development Minister has been very much involved in investigating whether we direct our aid to those countries where the GDP is below a certain level or above it though they are still called developing countries. These are questions where we have to draw a line and develop a kind of progressive universalism. They all need to be helped in the process of their development but in a progressive way because some of the countries have just been left behind and they need to have more help in the process because they need more help. That means you have to define it. Will the rest of the world accept, for example, that the trust fund which was to be set up to meet all the millennium aims—which were defined, reducing by half those who do not have access to water, sanitation, education, we set figures on them—for 2015 would cost something like £50 billion. Half of that would go to Africa, which shows just how far Africa has got behind in this process and that is why the Prime Minister has given such importance to it. If you want to say it used to be between the rich and the developing countries or the developed and the developing, you now have some countries which are well ahead of others in the developing-country stage and I believe we have to set a progressive approach to that and give more help to those countries. If you can do that, plus set the targets, then it becomes practical. I am bound to tell you that in my experience of talking to some of the developing countries they recognise that needs to be done as long as they are not totally cut out of the picture.

Mr Francois

  116. May I talk a bit about the co-ordination of policy in the run-up to the summit? I think it is fair to say that the UK—and this is recognised by a number of NGOs—is one of the better prepared countries in the run-up to Johannesburg. Even so, the UK itself got off to a pretty slow start. The UNED were advocating preparations as early as back in 1998-99 and it was really only in 2000 that things began to get cracking. Was that a matter of resources? Could you have done more to prepare it even more thoroughly if you had had greater resources to enable you to do that?
  (Mr Prescott) It is a very interesting question. We were caught very much in trying to get Kyoto to be successful and we were playing the same role of thinking this was the major change we had to make. The public had a feeling that something was going wrong in climate change so a lot of political energy went into that, there is no doubt. UN conferences were taking place on sustainability, on fishing, on oceans, all those things as well, so we were not cut off from that. In the main it is probably right to say that we did not begin to give more attention until later in 2000 and certainly in discussions I had with the Prime Minister I thought it was very important for us to focus on that. September 11 came as an opportunity to say that if all this energy, this commitment, could be brought together to deal with global terrorism, which is quite correct, why can the world not get to deal with poverty in the same way. Why can we not give the same effort and energy to doing it? That gave us the focus. To be fair, I think we moved a lot faster than any other country in that sense. We began to focus on what our priorities are. We talked to all these different countries, the Prime Minister, myself, the Foreign Secretary. I used to find when I asked people if they were going to be attending the conference on sustainability that a glaze would come over their eyes as I tried to explain what it was. It is not that they are not aware of many things which are going on, it is just one of those small parts. They saw it as a conference which would create a massive number of demands and they say it is going to be another talking shop. Our job was to shake that down to see whether there were practical possibilities and to make sure that objectives are achieved from which you can say it is a successful conference. Let me be clear about that. The timetable is limiting. There is not a great deal of time for preparation. When you prepare from the bottom up as the Secretary General said to me, everybody throws everything onto the camel until all of a sudden you have to fight through that and try to get to a common agreement. We did that by focusing on those categories I have talked about, but it does mean that we cannot be too ambitious. I cannot believe for a second that you will get such a detailed action problem that will lead to something being achieved within a month and then you all start on it. I do not think it will work that way and it does not normally. If you can see this within the context of a new global architecture, that basically the Doha agreement on trade, the Monterrey agreement on finance and sustainability now being brought together under one umbrella to achieve that real sustainability which reflects the same principles and targets all agreed, we are bringing them down to one focus, not like separate operations, trade, finance, sustainability, to make it a practical thing. The goal is well worth it even if it takes you a little time to achieve these objectives. Let us get one small step we can call success, not a large one which fails and nothing is done for the next ten years.

  117. You made a comparison with the effort in fighting terrorism. Just to take a very simple example, the MOD has over 300,000 who are concentrating on that quite hard, plus the police and everybody else. How many officials in your Central Policy Group are actually working directly on the preparation for the summit?
  (Mr Prescott) While he thinks about the answer may I give one response which comes to mind immediately when you ask that question and it is important? America's intervention in Afghanistan is apparently costing £50 billion. That is the same amount as the trust fund for the world.

  118. How many people?
  (Mr Wood) Three of us are working more or less full time on this but I would point out that we are only a small part of the whole Whitehall machine. There are many teams of officials across Whitehall in a range of departments, particularly DEFRA, DFID, Foreign Office, Treasury. We are a small part of a much bigger picture.

  119. Three of you specifically with the Deputy Prime Minister's staff.
  (Mr Wood) Yes.


1   Under the Kyoto Protocol, each country's emissions will be calculated as an average of the years 2008-12, the five years being known as "the first commitment period". Back


 
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