Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
PORRITT, CBE, MS
240. Going back nearly ten years ago, she managed
to drag George Bush Senior to the Rio Conference, how important
is it in the light of what you were saying earlier about the position
of the United States, the greatest global power in the world,
that George Bush Junior is there?
(Mr Porritt) I think it is pretty important. It would
have sent out a terrible message in Rio if George Bush had not
been there, even though the outcomes of Rio would not necessarily
have been different if he had not been there. It will send another
very strong message if George Bush is not in Johannesburg, there
is no doubt about that, and it is a macro-message to do with the
role of America in promoting these interdependent initiatives.
241. That definition that you just gave "within
the world's carrying capacity" would allow for a world in
which there were virtually no wildlife, no wilderness. Is that
a definition you are entirely happy with?
(Mr Porritt) No, indeed not. If you look at the whole
concept of what a carrying capacity is, initially you look at
the notion of bio-physical constraints
242. I understand what carrying capacity means.
(Mr Porritt)on development. It does not mean
a world in which all other biodiversity is eroded to permit the
human species to fill the available space. That is because, if
I may, biodiversity is not only about species and habitats, biodiversity
is about the services which we derive from nature, services as
in water purification, climate regulation, pollination, soil cleansing,
a whole set of generic natural services which we depend on to
secure our own economic aspirations. You can only secure those
services if you secure the natural systems from which they derive.
243. I understand that.
(Mr Porritt) Then the question is meaningless.
244. It is not meaningless. Within the definition
that you gave, carrying capacity, the world's population could
go up to 20 billion or whatever and as long as there is the carrying
capacity, the total ability of the ecosystems within the world
to sustain that, that would be okay according to your definition,
but it would leave no room for a great deal of the biodiversity
which currently exists on the planet.
(Mr Porritt) But, with great respect, you are limiting
your understanding of biodiversity to a habitats and species level.
That is an incorrect definition of biodiversity. You need to construe
biodiversity not just in terms of habitats and species but of
the services that we derive from those habitats which permit this
species to prosper. So to talk about 20 billion people eroding
the available natural capital on which we depend is a meaningless
concept because we would destroy the services which make life
possible for us.
245. We are getting into a semantic argument
(Mr Porritt) It is a very, very important argument.
Do not get me wrong, people endlessly minimise their understanding
of, or seek to deliberately misunderstand what we mean by, biodiversity.
We are not talking about the protection of the charismatic mega-fauna
and the odd campaign to protect the world's rainforests, what
we are talking about is a much, much bigger challenge, which is
how we secure the natural services of that set of assets, those
capital assets, in such a way that our species can prosper as
well as any other species. Look at watershed protection. Sure,
you can fill every single watershed in the world with more human
beings, but if ultimately you destroy the capacity of the watershed
to cleanse water, to regulate climate, to hold water, to retain
it in the upper areas of the watershed rather than release it
downstream and therefore eliminate flooding, you destroy a set
of natural services which make our life possible. That is what
biodiversity means in a more holistic way. It is the failure of
politicians sometimes to construe biodiversity properly and look
at natural services, not species and habitats, which leads to
these fairly profound misunderstandings of what carrying capacity
246. I am sorry but I will just have to carry
on with the simplistic view that words mean what they say in dictionaries.
(Mr Porritt) That never got us anywhere, did it?
247. It is not just politicians of course because
part of your remit is to explain this to the public.
(Mr Porritt) It is.
248. Let us look in practical terms about post-Johannesburg.
If we look back at what happened in Rio and the things which flowed
from itAgenda 21, biodiversity, a change in legislation,
corporate responsibility which was not heard about ten years ago
and is now on the agenda herewhat would you hope at the
UK domestic level would come out of Johannesburg which we could
apply here as politicians and which you as the Commission would
be trying to promote with us and for us and then within the public
at large? Are there clear signs at the moment of the sort of things
which could be happening there? In the light of what we heard
earlier, which is an important development agenda but it is not
necessarily directly relevant to public policy in this area, what
would you expect to come out of Johannesburg which would be directly
relevant and which you would be working on as a Commission?
(Mr Porritt) As I understand it now, and I am not
sure I have any greater insight into how the agenda for Johannesburg
is eventually going to end up than anyone else, we are not going
to end up with a whole set of new legal international instruments
of the kind which were secured in Rio. So I do not think we are
going to be able to come out of Johannesburg with a product of
that kind. That actually makes it much harder to articulate the
benefits of Johannesburg to the UK electorate, who will be looking
for something quite concrete rather than for opportunities for
politicians to get out there and talk their way through the sustainable
development agenda. It is going to be very difficult. In that
respect, we share the challenge with DEFRA and others of saying,
"How are we going to make this relevant to people here in
the UK? What can we do to make Johannesburg a living bit of the
calendar so they can find their own way of relating to it."
I have already said we have a meeting coming up next week, we
have a big discussion as to how we are going to play our part
in that communication challenge. Unfortunately, it will not come
about by saying, "Here is this convention or that treaty
or this instrument which will suddenly move the whole debate further
forward." It is not going to happen like that.
249. Have you had any part in the communications
strategy so far? Have you had any discussion with DEFRA, because
they have already started, as you know? We have had, as MPs, letters
a month or so agosome people say that is already too latehave
you had any discussions?
(Mr Porritt) We have indeed.
250. What part have you played in that?
(Mr Porritt) Personally?
251. Or the Commission.
(Mr Porritt) The Secretariat has had meetings with
both the SDU and EPINT to talk about what role there is for us
in this communications strategy they are developing. We see ourselves
as very much a supporter of that. Because of our UK remit we think
we do have a role interpreting the Johannesburg stuff and making
it relevant for people back here in the UK. In our Review, which
we sent you, Chairman, just to give you an example of how we are
trying to do this, in the Review we published last year we took
these big picture issues like low turn-out at elections, riots
in English towns, climate change, flooding, which are very much
in the headline news and said, "These do touch people's lives,
they really do and they are, whether you are necessarily owning
this bit of it or not, all about sustainable development, about
more sustainable ways of creating and distributing wealth here
in the UK." So we have already taken on the big challenge
of trying to re-interpret conventional media coverage of issues
through a sustainability prism, and that is the same sort of challenge
we are going to try and take up in Johannesburg.
252. This (indicating) is the report
you are referring to?
(Mr Porritt) That is the report I am
referring to, yes.
253. How many people saw this? How widely was
(Mr Porritt) 5,000? 4,500 I am told. We would love
our communications budget to be substantially enhanced. Is this
the point where I make the plug about under-funding? Well, Chairman,
I think the Sustainable Development Commission is badly under-funded
to take on this communications challenge and we would very much
like to talk to Government about it.
Chairman: So is the Environmental Audit Committee!
We are very badly under-funded!
254. In the light of what you said about the
communications problem I wonder whether your work in the UK is
going to be effective at all. Are you not going to carry on flooding
your sustainable development message which is already worked out,
or nearly worked out, responding to the UK Government's agendaand
there might be another agenda there about taxation and so forth
on climate change, which is the task which faces us all? Is Johannesburg
going to make a blind bit of different to your work as a Commission?
(Mr Porritt) Yes, it is.
255. But you are not sure what yet?
(Mr Porritt) Many other people sitting in this chair
coming from the environmental movement will be very, very cynical
about all this globe-trotting, international agreement diplomacy,
and they say it is all just opportunities for politicians to parade,
it never really does anything
256. I am not questioning it from that point
of view, but if we do not have anything new coming out of Johannesburg,
if it is just going to be a re-evaluation
(Mr Porritt) I think there will be some genuinely
new things. I am aware, for instance, of some of the new things
coming forward in the UK initiatives on water, forestry, energy,
tourism and finance. In the finance initiative there is a small
but significant new product called the London Principles which
the UK Government is going to seek to persuade all large private
sector interests in the financial services sector to adopt as
a set of operating principles as they relate to developing countries.
So there will be some new things, but I cannot pretend that our
work programme has been significantly influenced by Johannesburg.
Our work programme was developed on the basis of what we thought
were priority areas for the UK and we will now seek to make whatever
contribution we can to the Johannesburg agenda.
257. I do apologise for missing the first part,
I had another engagement, so this may already have been covered.
I hear what you say about the abuse of the word "globalisation"
and agree with you on that point but I wonder if I can ask whether
you feel trade liberalisation is having a benign effect or not
on this process, particularly as we seem to be redefining sustainable
development a little away from the environment and more towards
anti-poverty strategies and so on? Could it be that tackling poverty
is now just a new, trendy way of saying that we need to be selling
more of our services particularly into poorer countries? There
have been some examples. I think the WDM talked about water services
in Ghana as one example of how things are being done correctly.
Clare Short has said in a Parliamentary Answer that what we need
is proper privatisation backed up with good regulation. It seems
to me we have plenty of people, transnationals and so on, ready
to privatise anything they can get their hands on, but we do not
have the capacity for good regulation, and we are just going to
be continually finding there is a mismatch. Would you comment
on that set of assertions?
(Mr Porritt) Chairman, I think I have probably over-stepped
my role as Chairman of the Commission on so many occasions today.
I am just beginning to think about the implications of this.
258. I do not think the Commission will mind.
(Mr Porritt) I hope the Commission will not mind but
I think I ought to be constrained in giving an answer to that
by virtue of the fact we have never talked about it on the Commission,
let alone actually come up with a collective opinion on it.
259. Perhaps you could go into Porritt-mode.
(Mr Porritt) All I would say is that it is impossible
to imagine how we are going to arrive at a sustainable global
economy without a very powerful role being played by the private
sector. If that aligns me with what Clare Short was saying, then
I am with her on that front because I just cannot see it. If you
look for instance at the water issue which both she and the WDM
have endlessly referred to, a lot of the resources for dealing
with those issuesthe sanitation issues, access to better
waterdo lie in the private sector not necessarily in government
aid flows or NGOs. How are we going to liberate that energy within
the private sector to bring those assets to bear on what is an
unbelievable set of needs which have to be addressed in developing
countries? That is the big issue. Quite honestly, at the moment
the globalisation debate has gone off track because most people
in developing countries look at the way the private sector has
sought to squeeze value out of the water assets and said, "No,
thank you very much." The water summits have very clearly
demonstrated that unless the private sector is prepared to engage
on a different basis, it is not going to be a welcome partner
in bringing water services, sanitation services, to many people
in the developing world. It is not that the role of the private
sector is not a legitimate role, it is the basis on which that
role is mediated in many of these countries. That is the issue.
It seems to me futile to talk about whether there is or is not
a role for the private sector. Obviously there is a role.
5 "Review. Headlining sustainable development",
Sustainable Development Commission, November 2001. Back