HC Deb 11 June 1997 vol 295 cc1078-101

11 am

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I am delighted to have this chance to introduce a debate on Earth summit 2, in particular on the theme of sustainable development. I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench and look forward to hearing what she has to say. I also welcome the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the former Secretary of State, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), the former Under-Secretary.

It has long been my view that sustainable development is not just of supreme importance but is the supreme issue that political leaders must address. It is crucial for this country and for every country; it is crucial for this generation and for future generations. Those of us who live at a time of unparalleled prosperity and peace in a country where so many freedoms are taken for granted, as they are in Britain, have a responsibility to concern themselves with the environment more than ever. This generation are trustees. We are charged with a duty to protect and improve our inheritance. We have a duty not to damage our inheritance in pursuit of short-term goals, not to consume resources in a way that destroys that inheritance, and not to leave our children and grandchildren with a worse legacy than we inherited.

Important though the contest for the Conservative leadership is, and fascinating though the process of analysing last night's votes may be, both subjects pale into insignificance compared with the urgency and overriding importance of achieving the goal of sustainability. I warmly welcome the fact that the special session of the United Nations will be held in less than two weeks. A wide variety of issues will be debated. This morning, I wish to explore the issue of climate change, which, without being apocalyptic, I believe needs more attention than it currently receives. It is often referred to as "global warming". Given this country's normal climate, that sounds rather appealing—as though my constituents in South Suffolk will soon enjoy Mediterranean weather.

Climate change also has some unattractive elements, however. There are likely to be droughts in some parts of Britain and more frequent flooding in others. There will be more rain and snow, higher winds and more frequent gales. Crop yields in the south-east may decrease. There may be decreases in river flow in summer and increases in winter, and more storms and flooding in coastal areas. Not all those consequences are benign.

Around the world, the dangers are even more damaging. Rises in sea level threaten some parts of the world that have substantial concentrations of population. As the Association of Small Island States pointed out, the economies of some islands—for instance, Caribbean islands such as Barbados—will be severely damaged by surges in sea levels. Climate change is therefore a potentially dangerous development.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although it may be important to have a precautionary principle on climate change, climate change has been going on all the time? We should not be too frightened of it; otherwise we might have been frozen in the ice age.

Mr. Yeo

The real question is the extent to which human activity now contributes to climate change. Human activity in the past 100 years has arguably led to a far more rapid rate of climate change than anything that occurred in the Earth's history. It is hard to be certain about the speed of climate change. Scientists have rightly been reluctant to be dogmatic about the precise causes. I welcome the best scientists' tendency to understate their conclusions, but, to a layman such as myself, it seems at least possible that climate change may be occurring faster than some people estimate. The inadequacy of the data available, which prevents bodies such as the intergovernmental panel on climate change from exaggerating the dangers, may be concealing the pace at which climate change is occurring.

Against that background, the world cannot stand idly by when the concentration of greenhouse gases, for instance, has reached twice the level of the pre-industrial age—twice the level that prevailed throughout the world's history. We cannot stand idly by and not deal with issues such as the need to cut the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. I pay a warm tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal for the work that he did when he was Secretary of State and to the progress that was made in cutting carbon dioxide emissions and moving commendably towards the original target set under the last Government.

I also warmly welcome the new Government's commitment to achieving a cut of 20 per cent. from 1990 levels by 2010. As the Prime Minister has taken such pains to stress that the Government will keep their promises, he would not have allowed that commitment to be made without knowing pretty clearly with what policies it will be achieved. That question is particularly interesting because the only firm policy commitment relevant to that objective to have been announced so far will have the opposite effect. The decision to reduce the rate of VAT on fuel from 8 to 5 per cent. will increase carbon dioxide emissions. Achieving a 20 per cent. cut in just over a decade will require immediate action. I hope that the Minister will set out the policies that will be followed.

I note the recommendation of the Government's panel on sustainable development that the Government should in future prepare and publish an overall assessment of the environmental consequences of measures in its annual Budget. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government will do that on 2 July. In case she hesitates, I refer her to Hansard of 4 December 1996, when the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), the then spokesman for the Labour party on the environment, contributed to a debate that I introduced on sustainable development. She said: each year we will publish a 'green book' alongside the Chancellor's Red Book, setting out the environmental implications of Government policy."—[Official Report, 4 December 1996; Vol. 286, c. 991.] I hope that the Minister will confirm that that will be done.

Will the policies followed to achieve the 20 per cent. target include a greater use of market instruments? I hope that the Minister will say whether the Deputy Prime Minister knows what market instruments are. In answer to an oral question of mine about whether sustainability in transport policy would be promoted through greater use of market instruments, the Deputy Prime Minister told me on the Floor of the House that people who have been subjected to the privatisation of the bus services … will not agree with that policy."—[Official Report, 3 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 181.] That appeared to be a rejection of the greater use of market instruments, but it may merely have been that the Deputy Prime Minister was not clear what they were.

I hope that the Minister will also tell us a little more about the Government's proposals for transport. For example, will we see a differential rate of vehicle excise duty to encourage the use of more fuel-efficient cars? Will road pricing be used to encourage an environmentally responsible use of cars? If Britain is to continue to exercise a leading influence in international debates, it will not be enough for us just to set a challenging target; we need credible policies to support that target, and those will need to be announced quickly if our word in international debates is to be listened to.

When the Deputy Prime Minister spoke last week at the Royal Geographical Society, he said that the Government would place a high priority on energy efficiency, among a number of other priorities. Are the Government prepared to lead by example? What targets are being set to improve energy efficiency in the buildings on the Government's own estate? If VAT on fuel is to be cut to 5 per cent., will the same rate of VAT be introduced for energy-saving materials? Will there be a cut from the present 17.5 per cent. rate for those materials, or do the Government intend to perpetuate the incentive to consume but not to conserve?

Will the Government support a proposal that I made in the last Parliament, whereby mortgage lenders should require house surveys to include an energy rating before a mortgage is offered? That is a simple and low-cost way to promote more awareness among house buyers and sellers of what can be done to make homes more energy efficient.

The introduction of such measures in the United Kingdom is the only foundation for any claim by the Government to have a right to speak out on energy efficiency issues in international debates.

With regard to an international approach, will the Minister say what the Government's attitude towards tradeable quotas will be? Are they regarded as a method of achieving a fair sharing of the burden of cutting carbon dioxide emissions among countries in general?

The special session of the United Nations will also provide an opportunity to continue the debate on the aviation fuel tax. Given, first, that the cost of aviation fuel in most countries is substantially below the cost of petrol used by cars; secondly, that carbon dioxide emissions per passenger mile travelled are mostly higher for air travel than for car travel, and that for short-haul air travel they are higher than for high-speed trains; and, thirdly, that air traffic is growing so fast that carbon dioxide emissions from this source rose by almost one third in the five years up to 1995, it seems extraordinary that aviation fuel is not already taxed.

Mr. Bennett

The hon. Gentleman says that it is extraordinary that aviation fuel is not taxed, but it would be extremely difficult to ensure that it was taxed by all countries. If only one country imposed it, airlines would probably refuel elsewhere.

Mr. Yeo

I take that point. I was about to say that I recognise the difficulties. Clearly, to be effective, a tax would have to be agreed internationally. I recognise the role that my right hon. Friend played in the previous Government in trying to promote the debate in the European Union and elsewhere. I welcome those efforts, but little practical achievement has yet been recorded. It is a matter of great urgency, for the reasons that I stated: the growth in air traffic and the relative inefficiency of air travel in terms of carbon dioxide emission. The matter requires greater attention.

No one could seriously argue that requiring the air travel industry to bear a share of the environmental costs that it imposes on the world would not be a desirable objective. It is also clear that the imposition of a tax on aviation fuel would be a powerful incentive for airlines to improve the energy efficiency of their aircraft. If air fares were raised as a result of such a tax, that might provide an incentive for people to consider alternatives such as high-speed trains, particularly for short-haul journeys.

I seek an assurance from the Minister that the Government accept the merits of the case for taxing aviation fuel, that they will strive for international agreement on that and that they will seize the opportunity to promote that debate at the special session in two weeks.

I acknowledge that I have touched on only a fraction of the issues that will be considered at the Earth summit, but, because of the level of interest in this debate, I did not wish to take up an unreasonable amount of time. I want to ensure that these issues are before the House, and I shall certainly want to return to them during this parliamentary Session. I should like to have touched on many other matters—forestry, water issues, biodiversity and on the crucial debate about how we can enable poorer countries to achieve their legitimate aspirations for greater prosperity without undermining the progress of the world as a whole towards sustainability.

I hope that some of those matters will be dealt with by other hon. Members. I want to leave time for that, but I hope that the Minister will respond to the specific points that I have made. If she cannot do so in her speech today—I realise that she will not have had notice of all of them and that there may not be time for her to deal with all of them—I hope that she will respond by letter, preferably before the start of the special session in two weeks.

There is growing interest in the subject. I am sure that the Government will want to be judged by their deeds rather than by their words. Actions and decisions, not more policy reviews, are needed to build on the work of the previous Government. Sustainable development is an issue which should transcend party political boundaries. Conservative Members are ready to support the Government when they are moving in the right direction, but we shall be relentless in exposing their failures.

11.14 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I shall endeavour to follow the unselfish example of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and speak succinctly. Wednesday morning speeches, when colleagues want to speak, should be short.

My one question to my hon. Friend the Minister is about mahogany and her Department's policy towards it. On 3 June in The Independent, Nicholas Schoon made a comparison between 1972 and 1997. He wrote that in 1972 up to a third of the world's girdle of tropical rain forests had been destroyed, and about 0.5 per cent. of the remainder were being lost each year—some 100,000 sq km, or an area the size of Iceland.

Schoon stated that the deforestation rate for the tropics from 1990 to 1995 was estimated to be 130,000 sq km a year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. It is thought that one or two plant and animal species become extinct every hour, as a result. The Brazilian national space academy estimated last year that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon had risen from 11,000 sq km to 15,000 sq km since the 1992 Earth summit.

I had the good fortune to go to the rally of the Amer-Indians at Altamira in Brazil in 1989 and subsequently to have had as my guests in the House the chiefs of the Kayopo tribe, Pyakan and Ru'uni. The all-party Latin-American group, of which I am a vice-chairman, has had relations with President Cardoso and the other South American leaders who attended the successful conference four months ago.

Against that background, may I ask the Minister and the Department about the Government's policy towards the importation of mahogany. It is no good imposing a blanket ban on imports. That would simply create resentment among countries that need to export. It is important to try to ascertain how the mahogany is harvested—whether that is done sensitively, without ruining the entire ecosystem, or by greedy developers who could not care less about the rain forest and simply sail in with their heavy machinery.

Members of Parliament who have had the good fortune to see those operations for themselves would testify that the importing countries can endeavour to do something constructive about the imports and their precise background. I should like to ask the Minister about mahogany cutting and the related question of the ecosystem.

11.17 am
Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

I am delighted that the debate has been secured and by the number of hon. Members who want to participate, which shows the increasing interest in the topic of sustainable development. Clearly, there is an increasing understanding of sustainable development.

I shall concentrate on a number of specific issues—one might call them cross-sectoral issues—in relation to Earth summit 2. First, the European Union position paper refers to the importance of moving to the implementation phase of sustainable development. That implies that nothing much has happened since Rio, except in the development of the process. That is useful enough, and it is important that the show should be kept on the road. There have been real achievements in the process, but it is time to start talking about serious implementation.

The danger at the New York summit is that, far from moving towards implementation, the Rio process could fall apart. That danger springs from the fact that the basic agreement reached at Rio has not been honoured. That agreement was based on the principle that the north and the south have common but differentiated responsibilities regarding sustainable development. Therefore, the north undertook to transfer resources to the south, in terms of both funding and technology, to allow sustainable development to occur in that area. The aim was development and improving the quality of life without devastating the environment in the process.

In reality, the north has cut its development aid to the south. The gap between what is needed and what is provided is grotesque. That issue cannot be bucked in New York. I am pleased by the new Government's approach to sustainable development generally. However, I was disappointed when the Prime Minister said during Prime Minister's questions last week that public expenditure limits would constrain the United Kingdom's ability to increase aid in the foreseeable future. That leads us to ask: what will the United Kingdom say in New York about that crucial issue which will decide the success of the summit?

It is important to support the idea of new financial mechanisms—one of which, the air fuel tax, was mentioned this morning. That seems a feasible option which would generate significant resources. If we cannot get our acts together on bilateral aid, there must be independent mechanisms to provide resources for sustainable development as of right. I believe that the United Kingdom Government should support the establishment of an intergovernmental panel on finance, which would report within a defined time scale and make a commitment to implement the panel's recommendations.

I also support the idea that the European Union should start the process by imposing its own air fuel tax. The system could be devised and the tax introduced immediately. That is one way of keeping the countries of the south on board and allowing the process to continue.

A second consideration is trade. It seems clear that the World Trade Organisation is not taking sustainability seriously. Its conventional wisdom is that free trade is inevitably good for sustainability, first, through the operation of the law of comparative advantage, which means that goods are produced in those areas best suited to that purpose—ignoring all sorts of other considerations that complicate the matter further—and, secondly, through the generation of increased wealth that can be used for environmental protection. That is old-fashioned, out-of-date conventional economic thinking, and it must be challenged seriously in New York.

In addition, the World Trade Organisation's rules often work against environmental protection and, on some occasions, have prevented countries from implementing important environmental protection measures. Therefore, I support the establishment of an intergovernmental panel on trade and environment. Non-governmental organisations must have greater access to, and input in, the WTO decision-making process. Although it is dangerous to call for the establishment of whole mechanisms, the current mechanisms are not working in these two areas and we must devise new ones.

Thirdly, the north must move towards sustainable consumption as a quid pro quo for calling on the south to forgo unsustainable development and consumption. Energy is just one aspect of that issue. Kyoto has been mentioned; it must be a success, and Earth summit 2 should pave the way for that.

I support the imposition of legally binding commitments on industrial countries to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction in the level of 1990 emissions by 2005. The United Kingdom Government are talking about achieving that target by 2010. That is a challenging target, and 2005 is even more so. However, I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of man to devise solutions at a time of crisis. Sustainable development is a challenge, and saving the planet is the most important challenge of all.

Tradeable quotas have been mentioned. There is nothing wrong with that idea in itself, but it raises the question of how quotas would be allocated in the first place. There is a great deal to be said for the contraction and convergence scenario suggested by the Aubrey Meyer Global Commons Institute. It aims to establish global equity and would provide a mechanism for transferring resources to developing countries. That allocation would occur on a per capita basis, and the extent of the contraction would be based not on what is supposedly realistic, but on what is necessary to prevent damaging climate change. Climate change is a deadly serious business. We should not suggest for one moment that it might not be that bad, that it has happened before and that it might have some advantages. When human activity destabilises the planet's climate, it is time to sit up and take notice.

The United Kingdom has set a target of reducing 1990 emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. That target, however, will not be met unless we tackle the problem of road transport. I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, in addressing the United Nations Environment and Development Organisation, UK, conference at the Royal Geographical Society, make a commitment to the environment and to public transport within an integrated transport policy.

Turning to practicalities, I trust, therefore, that the Government will support the Road Traffic Reduction (UK Targets) Bill which I shall introduce in the new year. The debate on it will be at the heart of the discussions on transport and sustainable development in the run-up to the White Paper that the Government intend to publish in spring 1998. If the Government accept the legislation and begin the process of reducing the volume of road transport, they will set a very important example to the rest of the world and establish the United Kingdom in a lead position.

11.26 am
Mr. Dennis Murphy (Wansbeck)

At the outset of my maiden speech, I thank the people of Wansbeck for allowing me to represent them in this House. It is indeed an honour and a privilege.

I was born in the constituency of Wansbeck and have lived in it all my life. I believe that I understand the problems of the area and I have never wished to represent any other constituency. My predecessor, Jack Thompson, represented Wansbeck for 14 years. He was a hard-working, diligent Member of Parliament who never forgot either his background or his roots. It is to his eternal credit that, whenever I speak of him in the House or outside, people refer to him as a genuinely nice man. Not many people can manage that delicate double of being well liked and an effective politician.

Another of my predecessors was Thomas Burt, Member of Parliament for Morpeth, who was elected to the House in 1874. He was a great man who served his people and this place with great distinction for 44 years. He was also the first miners' Member of Parliament. I mention that because the near closure of the mining industry means that I will probably be the last miners' Member of Parliament to represent my constituency.

Wansbeck is situated north east of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, squeezed between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Blyth Valley—so it is a veritable rose. The main town of Ashington owes its existence to coal mining. It was the original company town, where the coal owners built and owned everything—including, for a time, the miners themselves. Apart from coal, Ashington is a famous footballing town. It is the home of Jackie Milburn, the famous—and, some would say, the very first—Newcastle United striker in the 1950s, and of Bobby and Jackie Charlton, who both had brilliant individual careers, culminating in their playing in the 1966 World cup final.

The constituency boasts two beautiful ancient market towns: Morpeth to the west, which is home to the Northumbrian pipes, and Bedlington to the south which, among other things, is famous for its breed of dog, the Bedlington terrier. It is completed to the east by the seaside village of Newbiggin, which operates one of the last fishing coble fleets in Britain.

In my view, the constituency is a microcosm of the industrial north. It is a classic example of the aftermath of colliery closures in a single-industry area.

Mining underpinned the local economies and the speed of the decline and ultimate demise of the area industry dealt an economic body blow from which the local authorities have not yet recovered.

Our people, however, have not sat back and whinged. They have worked in partnership with local government and the private sector to expand and broaden the base of the local economy. Much work has been done to clean up the environment, to rid ourselves of the legacy of 200 years of coal mining. Award-winning country parks and lakes have replaced slag heaps. High-tech business parks with global telecommunication links now stand on colliery sites. Two major employers in the constituency have invested heavily in environmental improvements.

Through skilled management and a dedicated work force, the Alcan aluminium smelter has weathered two recessions. The company is now investing heavily in the future in opening the new aluminium-producing pot line with state-of-the-art emission controls. The fact that the company is able to do so is a personal tribute to the managing director, Mr. Frank McGravie, who never gave up hope. When complete, the plant will provide 150 much needed new, permanent jobs.

Synpac is a local Taiwanese-owned company. It manufactures in Wansbeck 10 per cent. of the world's supply of penicillin G. It has invested in new plant to turn effluent into high protein animal feedstock. We should applaud those industries that invest to protect our planet.

Also in the constituency is a unique project called Earth Balance. As the name implies, the project works in harmony with the environment. We have on site an organic farm and an organic bakery. In keeping with the finest traditions of the north-east, we also have an organic brewery. Electricity is produced on site by wind and hydro power, with solar energy also available. It is a community-based sustainable development and we are justly proud of it.

Air quality and the physical environment are clearly important and so, too, is our quality of life. Being in employment improves our quality of life. We have had many successes recently in the area in attracting new jobs to it, but, in reality, we have hardly scratched the surface. There are unemployment rates of more than 30 per cent. in some wards.

For the first time, I am meeting third generation unemployed people. Who do these young people look to for an example? Who is at home to teach them the value and discipline of work? Who is there in the morning at six o'clock each and every day to get them out to work? Who is there in the evenings at the dinner table to share their day's experiences and to encourage them after an especially bad day? Sadly, many of these young people have no one to fill those roles. I am pleased, therefore, that it is one of the Government's priorities to offer hope and place an investment in the future of 250,000 young people. I hope that the training will be both relevant and wide ranging and in some way will compensate for disadvantaged backgrounds.

I was made redundant three years ago. I was fortunate because, within a few weeks, I regained employment. I did, however, sign on the dole along with many colleagues with whom I had worked for more than 25 years. Part of the team with which I worked signed on with me, including three highly skilled miners. They were proud, hard-working, diligent men, who genuinely contributed a great deal to society. They signed on as unskilled. They are still out of work. What a terrible human waste.

I am pleased to sit on the Government Benches, albeit a very long way from the Government Front Bench. I am delighted to support policies that harness the skills and talents of the people of this great nation.

11.35 am
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

I send a warm welcome to the new hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) and congratulate him on his maiden speech. He gave the House a thorough tour of his constituency. I am sure that he will return to the important theme of unemployment in his constituency and the need to look forward to developing the future. That ties in with the wider issue of sustainable development because we cannot unlink the environment from social and economic sustainability.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on securing the debate and allowing the House the opportunity to discuss some of the key issues to be raised by Earth summit 2. The first so-called Earth summit took place almost five years ago in Rio. It was the most significant meeting held by the United Nations on sustainable development. The challenge is to ensure that the global desire for a more sustainable existence, so clearly expressed at Rio, maintains its momentum.

Much has already been achieved, but there is a great deal still to do and Britain needs to be setting the lead. The Government have stated that they want to put the environment at the heart of their administration, so they must work to put the environment at the heart of international negotiations. They must also ensure that the United Kingdom has a leading role in those negotiations.

The most pressing environmental challenge that we all face has already been taken up in the debate. The framework convention on climate change looks set to agree binding greenhouse gas emission targets at the Kyoto meeting on climate change in December. I have no doubt that that should be seen as a concrete achievement in international regime building. I look forward also to the Government's climate change action plan. The new Government have set themselves a welcome and ambitious target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the main greenhouse gas, and they will require imaginative solutions for their targets to be met.

I would welcome an assurance from the Minister on comments reported in The Independent on 5 June, which were attributed to the new Green Minister. The article states that the Environment minister told the conference Britain would not deliver on its new target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010 if other European Union nations did not go further in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. If we believe that the climate change threat is real—I think we all accept that it—it would be wrong to refuse to take action ourselves simply because other countries would be slow to follow our lead. Is the Minister able to assure us that the report in The Independent is inaccurate, and that the Government will press ahead with meeting their election commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent., irrespective of whether other EU countries go further, although maintaining pressure on them to do so? The best pressure to bring to bear will be that of showing a lead.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Will the hon. Gentleman add to his question the very tough supplementary that if other nations are seriously to follow us, we must show them in advance precisely how we are to achieve our targets? If we fail to do that, they will not believe in the targets and we shall be worse than useless as a leader in international negotiations.

Mr. Taylor

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that the Government will give the House the opportunity, in Government time, fully to debate the actions that they propose. I hope that they will outline in detail how they plan to achieve their objectives, not merely state their objectives. There is a great gap between the will and the how, which has not been properly outlined.

The special session must provide the momentum for the Kyoto conference and remove blockages for negotiation so that legally binding targets can be agreed by industrial countries for the short term. I should also like to see an evaluation of the effectiveness of the measures that have so far been taken on all greenhouse gases. If we cannot identify where we have succeeded and where we have failed, it will be difficult to meet the tougher targets that will be necessary to prevent a serious threat to human life.

Other agreements at Rio, such as the convention on biological diversity, have failed to achieve the same focus, and there has been little progress in implementing or funding the desertification convention. Once species and habitats are lost, they are gone for good. Too many have already been lost. Urgent action is needed to ensure that a comprehensive and effective global biodiversity plan is in place, so all countries should be urged to ratify the convention on biological diversity and should work to produce national and international strategies to conserve biodiversity.

Crucially, neither the framework convention on climate change nor the convention on biological diversity has agreed a programme of action or mobilised sufficient financial resources to implement their aims in developing countries. As a result, their financial mechanism—the global environment facility—has been left largely without any clear strategic direction.

The greatest and potentially most intractable challenge has been financing our commitments to achieving environmental sustainability. In fact, the GEF budget amounted to under 0.004 per cent. of gross domestic product in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—about 50p per person per year in the UK. The UK should commit itself—I hope that the Minister can give some indication on this—to increasing its contribution to the GEF, and work to ensure that GEF activities are properly monitored.

We should also increase the proportion of our bilateral aid devoted to biodiversity. At the moment, it is just 1 per cent., which is far smaller than our major partners' allocations. We should show our international colleagues that we are serious about looking after our environment and encourage others to follow suit.

How we finance our international environmental commitments is likely to be at the centre of debate at next month's special session and is, I believe, fundamental to its success. Poverty around the globe is on the increase and, what is more, the disparity between rich and poor is growing. The need of developing countries for funds is at least as great now as it was in 1992. Since Rio, forests have continued to be cleared, wetlands have been substantially destroyed and the Earth's biodiversity further eroded. In many cases—most cases, probably—that is not through deliberate or wilful neglect, but because many developing countries simply do not have the resources to pursue more sustainable forms of development or to police effectively rules designed to protect the environment. One cannot tell a hungry family that they must stay hungry for the sake of protecting the global environment.

The developed countries have simply not fulfilled their commitments made at Rio to provide new and additional resources. Official development assistance fell from a peak of $62 billion in 1992 to around $53 billion in 1995, far outweighing the $3 billion in the GEF since 1992.

It is imperative for all our futures that poorer developing countries remain committed to the ambitious agenda and targets of Rio. If they are to do so, developed countries such as ours have to demonstrate at the United Nations special session that we are prepared to live up to the financial promises that we made, and that means ensuring that adequate financial resources are made available.

The UK Government can take a lead, ensuring that developed countries meet their aid targets of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product within 10 years. The UK does not meet that target at present, and in past years our commitment has fallen. Those cuts should be reversed, and I hope that the Government can announce a clear timetable for doing so. Without such a timetable, any vague promises are pretty much meaningless and certainly will not be believed in the developing world, which has bitter experience of what has gone on so far.

At the same time, the quality of aid must be improved. Although some progress has been made, too often aid continues to focus on large technology intensive projects rather than smaller sensitively planned projects that will yield environmental and social benefits. That is not good news for those countries, and it is not good news for global sustainability. Although some things that Britain has done on this front have been good, much is poor.

We simply cannot separate environmental sustainability from economic sustainability or social sustainability. Working to eradicate global poverty must be high on the Government's agenda. It will be impossible to do so without looking closely at global trading arrangements. International trading organisation are still weighted heavily against environmental sustainability. We need reforms to the global trading regime. Multilateral environmental treaties, like the climate change convention, should no longer be open to endless challenge under World Trade Organisation rules. We also need, alongside environmental reforms to WTO rules, to make real progress on the development of sustainability indicators. The Government have gone some way on that, but, internationally—particularly with the OECD—there is still an awfully long way to go.

It will have taken eight years simply to begin to measure the problems defined at Rio. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that work on this will be done as a matter of urgency.If we can achieve all of this, I hope that Earth summit 2 will go down in history as much as Rio has already, this time not as the beginning of change, but as the moment when the world showed that, it has not just woken up to a problem but can take the tough decisions that will do something about it.

11.48 am
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on initiating the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), whose constituency I have visited. I look forward to working with him in this Parliament to ensure that we have a Parliament that addresses environmental issues.

When the Government go to New York to Earth summit 2, it is crucial that our delegates know that they have the whole-hearted support of the House in the very important work that needs to be done.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to her new post.

It is crucial that we build a cross-party alliance on green issues. Indeed, it seems to be growing. We have seen many changes already in this new Parliament: the majority that we now have on the Government Benches and the large influx of women into our Parliament. However, if our Parliament is truly to address the needs of the next millennium, we need to nurture the cross-party alliance on green issues, on issues of environmental sustainability. In fact, it was the hon. Member for South Suffolk, on the Opposition Benches, who initiated the debate, although many others have also tried. We need to work in partnership.

Just as we need to work in partnership with our Government delegates who are going to New York, so we need to work in partnership with all those throughout the country who are working on Agenda 21 issues, and who are working to get the message across locally and internationally—bottom up and top down. I make those comments as the vice-president of the Socialist Environmental Research Association. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), who wishes to make her maiden speech shortly, shares the same sentiments. I want to ensure that we grasp this opportunity.

Our Prime Minister, our Deputy Prime Minister and other members of the Government are going out to New York shortly. I want them not just to seize the leadership of this debate in terms of the British Parliament but to deal with the issue on the world stage. We must seize the green mantle, because time is running out, just as time is running out for us in this debate—a debate which will give our Prime Minister greater authority when he goes out to make environmental points. We have a wonderful opportunity to assume that leadership.

The United Nations has made great progress, but, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) pointed out, we have not seen the progress that we want to see on the world stage. That is not the fault of any one person or Government; it is our failure to negotiate the international agreements that are needed and to tackle the environmental agenda with the urgency and priority that are needed. We need to say not only what we want, what we really really want, but how we will put it into practice.

That is why I want the Government to find a way in New York of overcoming the failure so far of the climate change convention to promote energy saving. That is why I want us to press for change within the global trading system. Despite all the UN's work, it still has not got it right. The trade and environment committee of the World Trade Organisation has not yet reconciled protection of the environment with global trading. We must develop a sustainable global trade regime and Earth summit 2 in New York is our best opportunity and challenge yet to do that. For example, the GATT treaty should be amended to confirm that the multilateral environmental treaties, such as the climate change convention, the biodiversity convention, the Montreal protocol, the Basel convention and the convention on international trade in endangered species, should all be exempt from challenge under GATT.

When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary comes to consider section 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, I hope that she will study the recommendations that have been made and do what she can to speed up the process of addressing biodiversity issues. I cannot miss this opportunity to mention the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species conference which is taking place in Zimbabwe at the moment, of which the basking sharks issue is part and parcel.

That brings me to how we seize the green mantle. To do that, we must put our own house in order. Time is short and I do not have time to go through all the issues that I would like to raise which cut across every Department, from the Foreign Office and the Treasury to International Development, from the Environment to Transport, and so on. I commend to my hon. Friend a document produced by the Council for the Protection of Rural England in conjunction with the Green Alliance which has had an input from many groups with which we should be working in partnership, entitled "Have We Put Our Own House in Order?" That provides a starting point for not just debate but the actions and strategies that we now need to be preparing which will cut across and transcend the work of not just Government Departments but local government and local authorities, which in turn links to the international and European agreements in which the Government, on behalf of all Parliaments of all people concerned about environmental issues, will take part.

I was a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and I have taken part in debates on the regulation of the energy industry and the liberalisation of energy markets. I know that other Select Committees have considered other aspects. When we have the White Paper on the environment and when the Government's strategies on environmental sustainability are up and running, it is crucial that the Government, perhaps with the Procedure Committee, consider the way in which Select Committees work, so that environmental issues are at the heart of all Government policies, and consider how we will charge ourselves with ensuring that we contribute to what the Government do while ensuring that our house is in order.

I recently met a delegation from an organisation called Gender 21. In the Agenda 21 debate, women have been classified as a vulnerable group in terms of putting forward proposals on how women can take part in the environmental debate. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to ensure that the Government's civil service delegates who will be batting for us in New York meet representatives from Gender 21 to ensure that women's issues are firmly taken up and that great heed is taken of them at the New York summit.

I wondered how to put across the need to put environmental sustainability on our agenda. I should like to think that when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor presents his Budget shortly that will also be at the top of his agenda. I appreciate that things cannot change overnight and that it will take time, but I want us to move towards green taxes. Perhaps it is time to replace the Chancellor's Budget box with a rucksack made of recyclable, long-wearing material, which he could put on his back when he cycles from No. 11 to the House of Commons to make his Budget speech. I hope that, by the end of this Parliament, green taxes will be firmly at the heart of Government policy.

11.54 am
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I welcome the debate, although it is unfortunate that we have only one and a half hours. I hope that before future major international environmental conferences, such as the one in New York, we can have three-hour debates so that the Government and the delegation understand the feeling of hon. Members.

Like many hon. Members, I welcome the Government's strong commitment to the environment in their opening statements, the appointment of Ministers with responsibility for the environment and the strong delegation that will go to New York next week.

The Rio summit some years ago was an incredibly important turning point, because it was the culmination of many years of environmental campaigning by many people. Lots of wondrous statements were made and great commitments enunciated by Governments, but global warming continues, as does the destruction of the planet's forests and many of its species.

One of the key opportunities that will come in New York will be a proposal for a much tougher UN agency with powers to control and enforce limits on carbon emissions and many other gases that lead to global warming. Unless we are prepared to take the necessary steps to control emissions and environmental destruction, we will simply have a series of Earth summits every five years or so which will wring their hands about the on-going problems of environmental destruction, but have little power to do anything about them.

Some tough decisions lie ahead for the Government. I hope that they will maintain their commitment by ending the road-building programme, limiting the use of the motor car and increasing the use of public transport. In addition, some serious questions will be raised about the use of market mechanisms in solving environmental problems. Parallel to the Rio summit was the closure of the UN office on multinational companies and the establishment of the World Trade Organisation which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said, has not come to terms with its environmental concerns. Instead, it is promoting free trade and the movement of goods around the world, which is at odds with protecting the environment.

For example, it is the height of madness to have undernourished people in many countries in Africa working extremely hard to produce early vegetables which are then flown by jet plane to London, Berlin, Paris and New York so that we can all enjoy them, while at the same time a set-aside policy leads to the non-use of available agricultural land in Britain and other parts of western Europe. The question of food miles is a serious one. If a taxation system on aircraft fuel leads to less of that nonsense, that will be welcome.

The climate change issue will dominate the summit. The first four months of this year have shown that the global average temperature is 0.37 deg C above the average global temperature between 1951 and 1980. We are at the point when the planet's global temperature is likely to be the highest ever for 100,000 years. Those who say that global warming is not serious or important because it is all part of a cycle of climate change are seriously missing the point. Clearly, there are cycles in global temperature, with warming and cooling, and there have been ice ages, and so on; but anyone considering the matter would say that the rate of extraction and burning of fossil fuels and the waste of such fuels with the most inefficient transport system possible—the endless use of the private motor car—must be a major contributory factor to global warming. We must act seriously.

I am alarmed when I read excellent publications such as that of the Global Commons Institute which has shown in graphic terms the extent of the use of fossil fuel and the potential for saving it, and the amount of money being put by mainly American oil giants into producing bogus, nonsensical reports which claim that oil exploration has no effect while, at the same time, those companies try to gain oil exploration licences throughout the Atlantic. We have to call a halt. We must protect the planet and the environment, but we cannot do that if, at the same time, we increase the rate of burning and exploitation of fossil fuels.

We must recognise that it is a question not just of Governments laying down the law to people but of harnessing the wishes of people around the planet for environmental protection and for survival. I often think of Chico Mendes, who lost his life in Brazil because he attempted to defend the rain forest. I think of people around the world who try to defend their environment. Those people are often fighting the very forces that fund bogus institutes such as multinational oil companies. We will read much more about green guerrillas in the next five to 10 years. People in Latin America are trying to protect their land against oil exploration, just as people in the industrial north are trying to protect their environment.

One of the good outcomes of the Rio summit was the promotion of local Agenda 21 groups. I have the privilege of being the chair of the Islington Agenda 21 group, and I am always amazed at the energy that so many people put into producing very valuable reports on these matters.

Mr. Anthony Colman (Putney)

Does my hon. Friend agree with and support the views of local government world wide that the United Nations General Assembly special session should take two actions? First, it should adopt global targets for local Agenda 21, as only 20 national Governments, including our own, have gone ahead with national programmes. Secondly, before the sixth session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in 1998, it should set up a study to investigate the barriers to local sustainable development that are created by central Governments.

Mr. Corbyn

I strongly endorse my hon. Friend's two points, and I pay tribute to his work in promoting Agenda 21 across London.

Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give us a commitment that the Government will seriously consider harnessing all the good work of local Agenda 21 groups around the country to give them a regional and national focus, and providing those groups with the funding necessary to enable them to continue the valuable work that has been achieved thus far?

The debate is too short: the issue is far too big to be dealt with in this way. I hope that the House will return to this subject straight after the New York summit, ahead of the Kyoto conference.

12.1 pm

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech during this important debate. As an executive member of the Socialist Environmental Research Association, and, as the new Member for Stourbridge in the west midlands, I am keen to highlight for my constituents the important link between global initiatives, which we have discussed today, and the environment that they experience daily.

Stourbridge is an attractive and once thriving town. It is completely encircled by a busy ring road, which many people believe blights its regenerative potential. Roads throughout the constituency are choked with traffic fumes. The area is characterised by urban villages, such as the black country communities of Lye, Cradley and Quarry Bank. They are proud communities with a strong sense of industrial heritage and a strong work ethos, and I am proud to represent them.

Nowhere is the work ethos more apparent than in our schools, where teachers work hard to provide a high standard of excellence. I recognise and value their contribution. Throughout the constituency, teachers are well supported by not only parents, who recognise that we have a good education service from Dudley council, but an army of behind-the-scenes staff—caretakers, dinner ladies and secretaries—who all care very much about our children's well-being.

As a candidate, I stood outside school gates giving out leaflets to parents. I was approached time and again by lollipop ladies who told me about traffic pollution. They care about children's health, and they want me to do something about it. They care about the traffic fumes that the children breathe in every day.

Many schools in my constituency are situated on busy roads. Children breathe in polluted air on the way to school, in their classrooms and in the playgrounds. One in seven children suffer from asthma: the figure is one in five if they live near a major road. Earth summit 2, which reviews Agenda 21, is, therefore, important to the lollipop ladies of Stourbridge. I welcome the Government's commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. on 1990 levels by 2010: that is a welcome start to deal with a difficult problem.

Pensioners in Stourbridge are also affected by the summit. Like pensioners across the country, they often survive on pitifully small incomes, and often have to struggle to heat homes. Local Agenda 21 can touch their lives: insulating homes, saving fuel and lowering bills would substantially affect the quality of their lives.

Young people can also gain from the summit through local jobs created by environmental initiatives. I am pleased to say that, in my constituency, a new cycle path has just this week been created along a canal tow path. The canal is a major and much-loved recreational facility enjoyed by anglers, walkers, families and now cyclists. Our new environmental task forces can open up more facilities, rejuvenate our parks and turn some of our neglected and vandalised cemeteries into wildlife havens. Plenty can be done at local level to improve our environment, and plenty can be done by government at national and international level.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank the Churches of Stourbridge. Through public meetings, they have raised issues of global environment. Congregations in Wollaston, Amblecote, Pedmore and Norton have discussed the vital issues of sustainable development, such as forestry, drinking water, fish stocks, as well as energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy. I sincerely hope that Britain will take a lead on those matters during Earth summit 2, and will make them a high priority.

Earth summit 2, which focuses on sustainable development, should also set a target for the climate change convention to be held in Kyoto later this year. To bring about change we must have vision, and we must have action. I have a vision of a renaissance for my constituency, and it is now a real possibility. Proposals include the pedestrianisation of Stourbridge town centre, the opening of more pathways and cycle routes, creation of new jobs, rejuvenation of open spaces and investment in urban industrial architecture and heritage.

We already have plenty of good things in Stourbridge: most notably food and drink. Many people who come to the black country for the first time remark on our excellent, small, local pubs. Well, that is not surprising, as the local brew is the best.

It is tradition in a maiden speech to make positive comments about one's predecessor. He did two things well: he held regular constituency surgeries—I give him full credit for that, because it is important for Members of Parliament to do so—and, I am told, he was a keen customer of the excellent balti restaurants in Lye. I shall be only too happy to carry on his good work.

I shall conclude on a serious note. It is easy for some people to dismiss far-away conferences on global issues as "nothing to do with me". I hope that I have shown that it is in all our interests to take urgent action. The quality of our environment is rapidly deteriorating, and the very real concerns raised by the lollipop ladies of Stourbridge are the same concerns for which solutions must be found at Earth summit 2.

12.7 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

I congratulate the hon. Members for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) and for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) on their maiden speeches. They both showed great knowledge of their constituencies, and brought the importance of the global issues with which Earth summit 2 will be concerned into local focus. That is essential if we are to make the great issues of climate change and biodiversity real to all our population, which is crucial.

I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) for her comments. She said that there should be a bipartisan approach to these issues. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), and her right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for their kind comments about the environmental steps taken by the previous Government in general and by me in particular. I assure the hon. Lady that the Opposition will support the Government in every way possible to promote our joint environmental ends.

I cannot resist reminding the Under-Secretary from time to time that it would have been nice to have that bipartisan approach, for which I sought hard, when we were in power. However, I shall remind her of that only occasionally, winsomely, when I wish to do so. On the other hand, I must tell the hon. Lady that I shall press her—and, I am sure she will be pleased to hear, her colleagues in other Departments—to provide the "how" for the "what" that we share. She must therefore take it as helpful, rather than as in any way destructive of her position, if I constantly press members of the Government to tell us what they are doing to make a reality of the targets that have now been set out.

It is well known that we signed up to the target of a 15 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union and that, for 10 per cent., it was clearly worked out how that reduction would be achieved, country by country. I have always felt that it would be difficult to provide an equally accurate statement of how we could achieve a 20 per cent. reduction in CO2, emissions, which is a tough target.

The Government have accepted the target and I shall support them in reaching it, but they really must say how they intend to do so. I shall give three examples of the sort of "how" that we shall need. First, we shall need an assessment of what extra will have to be done to make up for the changes in taxation proposed by the Government. I shall not argue about those changes. I simply say that changes are proposed, that if they take place they will have an effect and that we shall have to estimate what that effect will be. We want to know precisely what steps will be taken to replace what is lost.

Secondly, the House will not put up with arguments that simply say, "We shall do a lot more about energy efficiency." No one could be more enthusiastic about energy efficiency than I am, but an example of one of the problems is that, as we all know, if we insulate the home of a pensioner, energy savings may not result; instead, the home may become warmer. People may spend the same amount of money, while living in conditions that they feel are more comfortable. It is not for us to say whether that judgment is right, but we must properly assess the real effect of such measures on emissions, and I submit that we have not yet done so. We shall press the Government on that subject.

Thirdly, among the details that we shall have to pin down are the rather frightening proposals that the non-fossil fuel obligation should, rather curiously, be spread to fossil fuels. In both logical and linguistic terms, I find that difficult to understand. The Government have made a commitment that so-called "clean coal" will be subsidised, but the House knows that "clean coal" is not clean; it is one of those fake phrases. "Clean" coal may be less dirty in terms of sulphur, but it is no less dirty in terms of CO1 emissions. The idea that we should increase the amount of power that we generate using that dirty coal, pretending that it is clean, and without understanding what we are doing, runs wholly contrary to the Government's policies. I do not say that because I wish to score points in any sense. I want to win for us all. I want to win for the Department of the Environment against those who do not have the same things at heart.

That leads me to my next main point. We need not only a tough bipartisan approach, pressing all the time, but the kind of personal commitment that alone will carry such changes through, not only in government here but in the European Union and beyond. That being so, we must recognise that climate change is a reality, and we must be more than missionary in demanding the alterations in our life style that alone will meet the challenges involved.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) attacked all the international oil companies, because there are some remarkably good ones that are taking the matter seriously. We should distinguish between those that are trying, and those that are still manifestly wrongly supporting the American coal industry in their antagonism to the science.

I shall continue my battle to insist that aviation fuel should be taxed in Europe as a whole. I sought to bring that about when I was Secretary of State for the Environment. We have to start in Europe. The Under-Secretary will find that we have to start everything there; the European Union is crucial to the future of the environment.

No country can do on its own what needs to be done. We produce only 3 per cent. of the overall pollution, so the European Union has to deal with the whole subject, and set an example, because the Americans are way behind. Our actions within the EU are therefore crucial.

The Under-Secretary will also find that she has to do something about the United States. It takes the work of 120 people to provide the energy that each American uses, whereas it takes the work of 60 people to provide the energy that each European uses, the work of eight people for the energy that each Chinaman uses, and the work of one person for the energy that each Bangladeshi uses. That tells us a great deal about who grabs most and who wastes most.

The fact that the United States cannot meet even the meagre targets that the EU has set, although it uses twice as much energy as we do, and certainly does not have a standard of living twice as high as ours, shows how wasteful the Americans are. Anyone who has visited the United States knows what that means. One has to put one's coat on in the summer because the air conditioning is so high, and take it off in the winter because the heating is so high. We must raise such issues, so I thank the House for allowing my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) to raise the matter in a short debate.

We are talking not only about the future of our children and grandchildren—although, goodness knows, that is important enough—but about the future of the planet, and about making it possible for people to live on it at all.

That is why I must tell the Under-Secretary that this debate is not good enough as a forum for discussion before the Earth summit. The Government should have introduced a full day's debate. I do not blame them, because it would have been difficult to arrange that so soon after the election, but I ask the hon. Lady to find out whether we can debate the subject again immediately after the summit.

Mr. Bennett


Mr. Gummer

I have only a very short time, because I have promised to finish speaking soon.

It would be good to have a full debate, and I should like it to be in the middle of the week, so that some of our colleagues on both sides of the House, who do not understand how serious things are, may wander in and realise the importance of the subjects that we are discussing. I hope that that will be possible.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will recognise that we must learn not only to live differently ourselves, but to live differently in the world as a whole. The concept of global commons is vital, so long as it really is global and really is commons. If we ask people to accept the importance of intellectual property, we must also ask people in the west to accept the idea that we should pay for the basic materials that we use that come from the biodiversity of the world, and are in the ownership of some of the poorest nations, which do not now get much back for them.

That is a kind of parallelism; it is a question of paying. We have earned what we have by pollution. Our pollution has provided us with riches, so we have an enormous responsibility to help those on whom we now rely to save the planet. The north-south divide, and the north-south dialogue, will be crucial when we come to those negotiations.

I do not have time to do more than refer briefly to two important matters. What my hon. Friends and others have said about the World Trade Organisation is right. If we want the financial advantages of free trade, we must demand the moral advantages of world responsibility in trade. We cannot grab for ourselves merely the money that comes from trade, without recognising that that in turn demands a payment—a moral payment—and a responsibility throughout the world.

Lastly, I shall challenge the Under-Secretary on one of the most difficult subjects of all. Yet another meeting about fishing is to take place in the House, and I know that many Members from both sides of the House will be holding forth there about fishing. However, they will not be holding forth about the fact that every fishery ground in the world is over-fished, and that Britain over-fishes just as every other country in the European Union does, so we need to do something about over-fishing, or there will be no fish left.

We need to achieve those ends, and I ask the hon. Lady to admit that some tough measures therefore have to be taken. She will have the support of the Opposition, but it will be the kind of probing support that will ensure that the measures taken live up to the targets that she, properly, has placed before us.

12.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on initiating this debate, although I feel somewhat daunted in attempting to answer in 10 minutes the many questions on global and interrelated issues raised in the debate. I hope that the House will bear in mind the time constraints, and I will try to deal as best I can with the issues raised.

The new Government have put sustainable development at the heart of policy making at home and abroad, and this is apparent from the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in bringing together the issues of the environment, transport and the regions. We also recognise that there are other cross-departmental issues that tie in directly with sustainability issues across government. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, in his mission statement for the Foreign Office, and the Secretary of State for International Development have also given a completely new focus to their Departments' approach to sustainable development, which will help in our negotiations.

In the short time since taking office, we have made clear our determination to make faster progress than our predecessors. I welcome the support given by Opposition Members today and I look forward to their probing, as they check that we are planning to meet what we all admit are extremely tough targets. We must meet those targets if we are to protect the future of our planet.

I wish to deal with some of the issues raised in the debate, but, first, I want to congratulate the two maiden speakers who demonstrated once again the high standard of maiden speeches being enjoyed by the House—a record number. My hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) and for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) demonstrated their abilities and their concern for their constituents. I am sure that we all look forward to more high-quality speeches from my hon. Friends.

On aviation tax, I am happy to say that the Government believe that we have to tax aviation fuel and we will support the Dutch presidency's attempt to have a look at whether we can do this on a European Union basis only. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Suffolk will appreciate that we have to get international agreement on this important issue; otherwise there is the risk of perverse incentives applying. The Government will continue to press on that issue.

Another important issue raised in the debate is the relationship between the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organisation on environmental agreements, and the fact that there is often tension between the two. The Government are well aware of the position and believe that international environmental conventions must be exempt from challenge by GATT and the WTO if they are to mean anything—be it the Montreal convention, the Basel convention or the convention on international trade in endangered species, which is currently subject to some trade threats with respect to leg-hold traps.

It is no good the world community putting together important conventions on environmental issues, implying real sacrifices and tough decisions, if they can have holes punched through them by the WTO or GATT. In New York, we will look to ensure that we reach agreement on exempting such conventions; otherwise, the problem is that, the more effective the convention, the more likely it is be to have holes punched in it by GATT in an attempt to dismantle it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised the extremely important issue of mahogany. As one of the major importers of mahogany, the United Kingdom must continue to work with the producer countries. We agree with my hon. Friend that a ban would be wrong, but we must either unilaterally or internationally reach agreements to prevent the wanton destruction of these very important resources. He can rest assured that we will try to make progress on the issue, which we realise is extremely complex.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk asked what the Government's energy efficiency targets were, and I can confirm that we are seeking a 20 per cent. reduction in energy use in Government buildings by the year 2000. My experience of the new Eland house office block—which is environmentally sound—is that we have had three floods there in two weeks. We could do with it being drier, although that block is good for the climate and for energy efficiency.

The Government have announced our determination to reverse the downward trend of aid from 0.27 per cent.—where it currently rests—up to 0.7 per cent. of gross national product, and a White Paper on development will deal with the issue. I hope that the White Paper will deal with the quality, as well as the quantity, of aid. The Department of the Environment is reviewing the national sustainable development strategy. We have announced new and more stringent targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We also propose that the House establish a new Select Committee to consider the environmental effects of policies and actions across the whole of government. We hope that that will allow the legislature to give an extra push to our commitment to green the whole of government.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

Before the Under-Secretary moves on from the issue of targets—I welcome the establishment of a Committee, but that is another matter—I wish to ask her a question. It has been reported that the Government have said that their 20 per cent. carbon dioxide target was dependent on action by other European countries. Can she clarify whether that was correct?

Angela Eagle

My understanding is that, regardless of what other countries do, we are not going to offer completely unilateral targets. We hope that what we do will put pressure at Kyoto on others to come up with equally binding targets, which we hope they will deliver. We are committed to our 20 per cent. target.

In a change of emphasis from the previous Government, we believe that progress on sustainable development—so vital to the future of our planet—depends on issues of social equity and poverty eradication, which require unequivocal leadership from the developed world. From that point of view, I commend almost all the speech of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) who is a well-known expert on the matter and is going to UNGASS in one of his other guises with my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Mr. Colman) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley).

We believe that poverty reduction is one of the key areas that has been neglected in the process. The first principle of the Rio declaration states that human beings are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. We recognise that; but, in the developing world, 500,000 women die each year in childbirth and 160 million children are malnourished. One quarter of the world's people remain in severe poverty, although it is estimated that the cost of eradicating poverty is a mere 1 per cent. of global income.

We believe that this problem must be tackled if we are to make progress towards a more environmentally sustainable world and we want to put more emphasis on that. We accept that there are difficulties between north and south in this respect and we want to play our part as a Government in putting them right so that we can then take the Earth summit 2 process forward more successfully. We strongly support the plans outlined in the OECD development assistance committee report, which says that the world should set itself targets—including that of halving world poverty—and should reverse the downward trend in natural resource degradation by 2015. We shall push for agreement on this at the special session.

All donor countries should work in partnership with developing countries to achieve measurable progress. After all, it is the poor, not the rich, who are the first to suffer when the environment is damaged. To realise the truth, we have only to think about the way in which rising sea levels could affect coastal communities in some of the poorest parts of Asia, or about subsistence farmers struggling to grow their crops in degraded soil. The Government believe that we need to integrate poverty reduction and environmental protection into mainstream economic and development policies. We need to make the most of opportunities to reduce poverty, and protect the environment at the same time.

There are many issues that I have been unable even to touch on in this all-too-brief debate, such as climate change, forests, oceans, fish stocks and fresh water. I hope that this is the first of many debates on those important matters. I look forward to working with hon. Members of all parties to make progress.

We have a strong team of Ministers going to the United Nations sessions, which shows the Government's commitment in this extremely important area. The team will be led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and will include my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for International Development and the Minister for the Environment.