HC Deb 01 July 1997 vol 297 cc93-5
4. Mr. Bennett

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions it' he will make a statement about Earth summit 2. [4667]

Mr. Prescott

Initiatives on the sustainable management of forests, on the provision of fresh water, on energy management and on oceans were agreed. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's address to the UN General Assembly established the UK as one of the leading players in the international debate on sustainable development. The Prime Minister will also make a written statement shortly.

Mr. Bennett

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he accept that, really, the conference was high on pious words and not very good on promises of action? What was signed up to which this country and other countries will achieve?

Mr. Prescott

Without doubt, the agreement fell short of what we would want to achieve. It was a conference to report back on the Rio conference and to see whether the rhetoric—if you like—of the Rio conference was matched by deeds. I think that it is generally agreed that, out of the industrialised nations, only Britain, Switzerland and Germany will achieve the Rio greenhouse gas targets. Other industrialised countries have failed to do that and to achieve the aid programmes that were set and the transfer of technology.

The agreement was not very good, but some steps forward were taken. The agreements on the oceans, on fresh water and on the forests were a step forward, although they were not all that we wanted. We have to recognise that the Kyoto agreement is the one where the real test will come: nations will have to make a judgment as to how they will set targets and whether they will achieve them. The full measure of—and a judgment about it—success against the targets on climate change will emerge when the statements are made at the Kyoto conference.

Mr. Gummer

I have always respected the right hon. Gentleman for the directness of his language. I wonder whether he would be prepared to tell the President of the United States—primarily because the United States is the largest waster of energy in the world—that he has disappointed the entire world in his refusal to take on board real reduction targets and real dates. Although the United States has only 4 per cent. of the world's population, it uses 20 per cent. of the world's resources. Will he clearly tell the President that it is about time that he put his money where his mouth is?

Mr. Prescott

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about America's contribution to greenhouse gases. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was the first Prime Minister to be critical of an industrial nation that had not achieved its environmental objectives. I note the right hon. Gentleman's strictures on the American President, but I also note that he did not make the same criticism of European industrial nations that have not achieved the same objective. It is for him to make a judgment on that matter.

The point that I should make—a point that the President and the Vice-President of the United States made to the conference—is that we will have to convince the electorate. We pressed very hard and made it clear that everyone signed up to the Rio agreement, but the United States and a majority of industrialised nations failed to achieve the target. In his speech on Thursday, the President made it clear that the United States will present proposals at the Kyoto conference. We await those proposals.

I should also tell the right hon. Gentleman that, an hour to two ago, I met a delegation of American Senators. They clearly dispute the targets—and they are the ones who will have to be convinced, even by the President of the United States. The right hon. Gentleman should therefore take into account some of the political considerations before expressing his stricture on the President of the United States.

Sir Norman Fowler

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that Britain will be one of only three countries to meet the reduction levels agreed at Rio in 1992 because of the actions of the previous Conservative Government and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer)? Does he further accept that the public will not support generalised and indiscriminate tax increases that are simply disguised as green initiatives?

Mr. Prescott

First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on taking charge of the shadow portfolio on the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and welcome him to that position. It is not the first time that we have met across the Dispatch Boxes. After the previous Government's record, however, I was surprised to hear him talk about taxation. I should remind him that the landfill tax, which was quite a good tax, was levied for environmental reasons. I should think that he went through the Lobby to support that tax. I suppose that, until he has fully learnt his brief, we will have to take his comments with a pinch of salt.

It is important properly to recognise the role of the previous Administration in achieving the targets. I was delighted to accept the right hon. Member for Suffolk. Coastal (Mr. Gummer) as a member of the British delegation to the UN. We do not oppose him ideologically on environmental issues, although previously I have opposed him on other matters.

We want to make real change. There should be no doubt, however, that the first stage in achieving that goal was made at the expense of 100,000 miners and mining communities in the United Kingdom. I would have greater respect for the views expressed by Opposition Members if more had been done to help coal communities pay that price, which has enabled us to claim to be on a high moral plane.

Difficult decisions will have to be made. Achieving the second stage in our greenhouse gas reduction targets will entail action on transport and renewable energy issues and we are spelling out the policies by which we will attempt to achieve that goal. We have been in office for only eight weeks, but we have made progress in making the important decisions that will be necessary for change. Our commitment to progress is why the most powerful delegation ever sent by Britain to a UN conference established itself as a real authority on the work done by the previous Administration.