HL Deb 15 June 1992 vol 538 cc35-43

4.40 p.m.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should now like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister about the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, held in Brazil. The Statement is as follows: "With your permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the UN Conference on the Environment and Development in Brazil. I represented the United Kingdom at the conference, together with my right honourable friends the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Minister for Overseas Development and the Minister of State for the Environment and Countryside.

"I should also like to report to the House on my visits to the United States and to Colombia. During the past week I have also had meetings with a number of other heads of Government.

"As the House will know, the Rio Conference agreed to legally binding conventions on climate change and biodiversity. It agreed a declaration setting out clear principles for sustainable development, a declaration on the management of forests and, in Agenda 21, a framework for action carrying us into the next century. We also agreed to establish a Sustainable Development Commission under the United Nations to oversee the implementation of Agenda 21.

"My right honourable friends played a leading part in the negotiation of these agreements. In particular, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment played a key role in negotiating a text on climate change which the United States was able to sign. The United Kingdom has been able to go further than the convention requires by making a firm commitment, provided others do so as well, to reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

"I was the first head of government of the G7 to commit myself to attend the Rio Conference and to encourage others to do so. The results have not gone as far as some would wish. As in any initiative, there have had to be compromises. The United Kingdom could have gone further on climate change than the convention provides. We wanted to see binding commitments on forests, but have, for the time being, to content ourselves with a declaration. But the undertakings we have made are substantial. There is a firm commitment by all participants to further action.

"There will also be a substantial commitment of new funds. The existing global environment facility will remain the sole multilateral mechanism for meeting obligations under the two new conventions. The Government support a 2 billion to 3 billion dollar replenishment of that facility. We also plan to make available substantial financial resources for conservation, biodiversity, energy efficiency, population planning and sustainable agriculture.

"In addition to these agreements I launched three specific British initiatives. The first, the Darwin initiative, reflects our position as a world leader in conservation and the use of the world's resources of biodiversity and natural habitat. The initiative will place at the disposal of other countries the experience of, among others, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, the Natural History Museum at London and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre at Cambridge. The aim will be to carry out studies of available natural resources; establish goals for research and monitoring; develop inventories of the most important species; promote international co-operation and techniques for conservation.

"The second initiative is for a partnership in global technology to give developing countries better access to environmentally sound technologies, by sharing information and by direct contacts with British companies. To launch this initiative we shall organise a technology partnership conference next year.

"We were in constant touch with nongovernmental organisations in preparing for the Rio Conference, and 12 representatives of NGOs and other organisations attended the conference as advisers to the British delegation. Their role has been a vital one in arousing public awareness and in offering expert advice. If we are to make real progress under Agenda 21 it is desirable for the NGOs to be fully involved. The third initiative, therefore, is for the United Kingdom to convene a global forum of the NGO community next year to build up their role in the next phase.

"Before the conference I paid brief visits to the United States and Colombia. President Bush and I discussed a wide range of issues including some which will be raised at the President's summit with President Yeltsin starting tomorrow. We had a detailed discussion of the GATT Round. We are both working for an early agreement. An agreement would be of enormous benefit to the world trading system, including the developing countries.

"My visit to Colombia was the first visit to South America by a British Prime Minister. Britain has a considerable stake in the country. We are the third largest investor; 22 subsidiaries of British companies work there. The recent BP oil find at Cusiana was the company's largest oil discovery for a quarter of a century. The purpose of my visit was to reaffirm our support for Colombian democracy, her market economy and her brave and successful fight against drug trafficking.

"The Government are already contributing aid worth nearly £20 million to the fight against drug trafficking. It has had considerable success. Drug crops destroyed in Colombia represent lives saved in this country. I therefore reaffirmed our commitment to helping Colombia. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will visit the country later this year to assess the programme and how best to carry forward our help.

"I agreed with President Gaviria a number of initiatives to develop our trade relationship. I look forward to the president's visit to this country next year.

"At the Rio Conference the countries of the world took on a substantial commitment to safeguard the environment on a global basis. In that respect Rio was a milestone. Britain played a leading part in securing those agreements. A lot of work remains. I am today writing to other G7 and EC Heads of government proposing that at the Lisbon European Council and the Munich Summit we should adopt an action plan to carry forward immediately the agreements made at Rio. We have already gone a long way towards achieving a cleaner, safer world in which all of us share responsibility for our environmental inheritance. In that respect Rio was a landmark".

That concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. We cannot but be impressed when 100 world leaders attend a conference and end by signing a document whose purpose is to implement a programme to save the planet. There is to be a new United Nations body to oversee the implementation of the plans, and we wish it every success. We also welcome the two world treaties on wildlife and global warming which were signed by 152 countries and the European Community. We regret, of course, that President Bush felt unable to sign the biodiversity convention.

All the countries concerned in these agreements have pledged themselves to wide-ranging economic, social and industrial commitments. Some people have criticised the paucity of the new aid. No doubt we all wish that more could have been pledged. But I assume that this is only the start. I personally feel that it was a historic beginning and that it certainly was not a failure.

Our representatives in Rio de Janeiro said that Britain would like to see all the nations making regular published reports to the new commission of their progress to sustainable development. We warmly support this, but does the noble Lord agree that, if we are to take a lead, then our annual aid contribution, which falls far short of the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of GNP, must improve progressively? Can the noble Lord give an assurance that this will now be the Government's aim?

The Statement says that the Government will provide "substantial financial resources". Will he confirm that this will be in addition to the current aid contribution so that we may get the position clear and clarify the financial facts which emerged from Rio? Furthermore, will the Government also consider publishing an annual White Paper giving details of our own progress on the key issues listed in the Rio action plan?

The first steps have now been taken towards constructing a global strategy to protect the environment. I appreciate the spirit in which the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister made his Statement, but the co-operation evident at the conference must be built upon. The developed nations must ensure that sufficient funding and overseas aid is made available to guarantee progress towards achieving the conference's stated goals. Failure to make such progress could precipitate a global environmental catastrophe, with grave consequences for the people of this planet.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, from these Benches we too wish to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. There were achievements in Rio which we very much welcome. We understand that it is extremely difficult to make speedy progress in a conference on that scale and with such diverse participation. We welcome the fact that we signed both the major conventions and the British initiatives for further action.

No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, will agree that the success of Rio must be judged not so much by what did or did not happen there but by what happens afterwards and whether there is a purposeful follow-up to what was broached. It seems from the Statement that the Prime Minister intends such a follow-up.

The amount of money at present pledged is disappointing. We are fully aware of the difficulties for nations in pledging large amounts of money. However, there can be no doubt that the whole environmental issue, including the forests, for example, is tied up with questions of poverty and population. I regret that there is nothing in the Statement and very little in the reports that came out of Rio about the question of population and what governments propose to do. There is little recognition that the population problem cannot be tackled unless the poverty problem is also dealt with. In my view the link between those two issues is not sufficiently emphasised—indeed is not emphasised at all—in the Statement.

With that in mind I welcome particularly the Prime Minister's emphasis on the importance of getting agreement to GATT. That is an essential first step if the poverty problem is to be tackled. I also greatly welcome the initiative to call a meeting of NGOs. It is generally recognised that in many ways the NGOs, given adequate support, are in a better position than any other sector to deal with many of the problems. The proposal for an international conference of NGOs is much to be welcomed. We hope that it will be fully supported and given the finance that is necessary to make it work. Can we be assured that the NGOs dealing with population issues will be well represented and that they will ultimately be given the financial support that they need? It is all too often limited for a whole variety of reasons which at the present time I cannot go into.

That is an essential step forward. Without it, a great deal of what has been talked about at Rio will lead to very little by way of results.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for their general welcome of the results of the conference in Rio. It is very important to say, in view of what the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said, that the Rio declaration is only a beginning. One important matter is the open access to information. If there is open access to information, public opinion and the NGOs will be able to play a much greater part promoting those issues in the world and moving public opinion than in the past. I am sure that we all welcome that.

It is only a start. There will he more resources developed. The Government are committed to the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of GNP. The conference agreed that that target should be achieved as soon as possible but did not lay down a timetable. I recognise that that was the position taken by the noble Lord's party in the recent election. In a number of the initiatives there is a commitment which involves additional resources. The global environment facility, for which an additional two billion to three billion dollars of finance was indicated, involves a commitment from the United Kingdom of an additional £100 million, which is about 6.5 per cent. of the total and about the sort of percentage figure normally expected of the United Kingdom for such matters.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of establishing reports. I agree that they are very important. That is why the British Government have already committed themselves to producing an annual report to follow on their White Paper of a year or so ago. There will be an annual report and the suggestion that it should cover wider progress will be taken very seriously indeed.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her remarks and for acknowledging that there were real achievements. In particular I am pleased about her welcome for the three British initiatives. First, there is the Darwin initiative where we will seek to build on UK strengths in conservation. That will involve additional costs to the Government although we have not yet been able to determine what they will be. The other two initiatives will also involve additional cost. The global technology partnership is aimed at promoting UK capacity in environmentally friendly technology and making it more widely understood in other parts of the world. There will be a conference in the United Kingdom. Also, there is the NGO conference, which we are calling for next year. It will consult on the progress of Agenda 21, which is an enormous document of 400 pages. It is full of ideas. Those ideas are not just for governments but also for local government, individuals, local authorities, international bodies, NGOs and others. It is a comprehensive agenda of all the things that can be done.

I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness. In the final analysis it is trade not aid which will assist the developing world to make substantial progress. I spoke to the Prime Minster this morning. He indicated to me that he thought that that point was understood much better now by the developing countries than it was before. That is why the noble Baroness was right to stress the importance of the GATT agreement, which we must achieve. Perhaps I may also say that I believe that the reform of the common agriculture policy is another part of the process.

4.58 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I congratulate the Government and especially the Prime Minister on most important initiatives. Is my noble friend satisfied that the countries in which the rain forests lie accept their responsibility for preventing their further destruction? My second question arises from that put by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, about poverty and population. Is it not an unfortunate fact that where there is extreme poverty, people cannot even afford the contraceptives needed to control population? Were any provisions made in that regard?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for asking those two questions. I agree and I am sorry that I did not answer the noble Baroness's point about population. I shall answer both questions together. There is a chapter on population. It is a difficult subject, as the House will realise. In the view of the United Kingdom Government it is a most important issue. A great deal of our aid programme at the moment is targeted on the education of women, as we believe that that is the biggest contribution we can make to the issue. We part company with some in our belief that education is a better way to make progress than having targets. The subject is very important.

With regard to forest principles, as the Prime Minister indicated in his Statement we would have preferred to go further. However, it is the first statement on which there has been international consensus on the value and conservation of the world's forests. A code of practice for sustainable management of forests was agreed. It is not a legally binding agreement but we believe that it will have the effect of increasing peer group pressure. It is a slight disappointment but it is a start in the right direction. Agenda 21 very much keeps open the door to a later convention.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Leader of the House accept my personal appreciation at having been included as an advisory member of the delegation? I do not say that the delegation took all my advice—but that is another question. I wish too to express my gratitude to Ministers and civil servants who attended. They made themselves available for consultation throughout the conference.

Does the noble Lord agree that however much we argue about the agreements reached, the actual fact of the conference was a triumph for the United Nations and for Maurice Strong, who was the executive secretary of UNCED. To have brought together such a conference with so many leaders and nongovernmental organisations was a remarkable achievement. I appreciate the Prime Minister's reference to the non-governmental organisations. I look forward to further consultations about the NGO initiative to which he made reference.

Does the noble Lord accept that there is a real sense of disappointment that the Government were involved in watering down some binding commitments on issues which vitally affect millions of people? Perhaps I may give three examples. First, there was no binding, legal agreement on the reduction of CFC emissions. Secondly, there was no clear timetable for reaching the agreed target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product, to which the noble Lord referred, as did my noble friend Lord Cledwyn. The noble Lord also referred to the party on this side of the House. We made a commitment in the general election that we would achieve it in five years. Is it not a pity that the Government were not able to make clear when their target will be reached? Thirdly, there was no clear commitment to further debt relief for countries now paying us more in debt repayment than we pay them in aid.

Unlike Mr. Bush, Herr Kohl and M. Mitterrand, who have elections pending, the Prime Minister has had his election. It is difficult to understand why, with presumably some years ahead, he was not able to be more precise about the funding commitment. It was an extremely important conference. However, I agree that the follow-up will be even more important than the conference itself.

I was glad to hear the noble Lord the Leader of the House refer to the role of local authorities which were included as advisers within the delegation, as I was. Will he give an assurance that the funding will be made available for local authorities to fulfil their part of Agenda 21?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for most of what he said. If I had known that he was at Rio I might have called him in to give me some advice while mugging up on the subject in the last hour or so.

We did not achieve everything that we wanted from the conference; I do not believe that anyone did. However, we made a substantial move in the right direction. Today we should recognise that and continue to press in other areas where we believe that further progress should be made.

I make two comments on what the noble Lord said. First, the Government require some credit for the initiatives they have taken with regard to third world debt. There were a number of initiatives both by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and his predecessor.

As it seemed likely that someone might refer to the Labour Party's commitment of 0.7 per cent. of GNP, I have before me a recent statement by its Treasury spokesperson. Asked whether it was a specific commitment, she said: No, that is a goal, and it's explicitly set out as a goal. That's what we're aiming for". Nobody is able to put his hand on his heart and say, "We know we can get there." I do not disagree.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the theme that has emerged is co-operation between advanced industrial countries and the remainder of the world, in particular in relation to making technology and expertise available? In the light of that, does the Minister find it extraordinary that the conference was boycotted by the member of the European Commission responsible for the environment? Does that not give us good ground for objecting to any further interventions by him in our own domestic environment?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, my noble friend tempts me into areas into which I shall not stray. I was disappointed that the commissioner decided not to attend. Perhaps he is now a little disappointed at his decision because it was an extremely good conference.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, the noble Lord states that we did not achieve everything we wished in Rio. So far as my information goes, the third world countries obtained virtually none of their aims. Although the Government have been at pains to suggest that the Rio conference is the beginning, there have been at least two years' preparation for Rio. Therefore we are entitled to examine the results of the Rio conference as a part of the negotiating process between third and first world countries. I commend the Government for calling the technology conference next year. That is a crucial issue arising from the Rio conference, which puts the results from Rio into practice.

If the noble Lord cannot give an answer now, perhaps he will do so later. First, what specific financial commitments in new money were made by the British Government at the Rio conference to assist third world countries to develop without interfering with the environment? Secondly, when the noble Lord states that we are committed to reducing our carbon dioxide emissions to the 1990 level by the year 2000 if other countries do so—I stress that point—now that the United States has stated specifically that it will not agree to that target, do Her Majesty's Government consider that they are still bound by the commitment; or does that refusal by the United States release the United Kingdom Government from the commitment?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the noble Lord is slightly wrong on the United States position. The United States is much further on board than it was. Indeed, President Bush called for urgent implementation of the climate change agreements. I agree that we would have preferred to go further.

The noble Lord asked about additional finance. As I indicated, some of the commitments to which we have agreed have not yet been costed; for example, the Darwin initiative, the global technology partnership and the NGO conference. We are committed to £100 million of new money for the replenishment of the global environment facility. There is one further aspect which has not been mentioned; the noble Lord might find some comfort there. I refer to Agenda 21, an extremely long document covering every kind of environmental improvement which could be considered helpful. We agreed to the establishment of a sustainable development commission under the United Nations to review progress and to keep up to the mark our progress on Agenda 21.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, will my noble friend accept the fact that the first visit for many years of a British Prime Minister to South America was warmly welcomed by the vast number of people concerned with promoting our trade with Latin America? It is extremely gratifying to know that Her Majesty's Government have finally recognised the importance of this vast area in respect of trading opportunities for investment on a two-way basis. I hope that the Prime Minister's visit was the first of many and that it will be repeated frequently in the future. That is extremely important.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his remarks about the visit. I know that the Prime Minister was pleased to be able to visit Colombia and that he found it most worthwhile. I too hope that he makes further visits to South America.