HL Deb 30 November 2000 vol 619 cc1467-9

11.30 a.m.

The Earl of Liverpool asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to reverse the failure of the recent climate conference at The Hague.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the failure of The Hague Conference is obviously deeply disappointing. All sides were committed to securing agreement but negotiators ultimately ran out of time on this extremely complex and important matter. It has already been agreed that the talks will resume next year, probably in May or June. The Government will continue to work with our EU partners and other countries to build on the progress made in the Hague and to ensure that an agreement is reached.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I was pleased to read today in the press that the Deputy Prime Minister will not be attending the European meeting of Ministers on 17th December, particularly as that falls on a Sunday. Will that meeting involve the American delegation and the other members who attended the conference at The Hague? Without their attendance, the meeting seems unlikely to achieve anything.

Finally, does the Minister agree that in the light of recent events, the task of defending the UK's national interest at the forthcoming Nice conference will be that much more difficult?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Earl's question contains a number of misapprehensions. There is a European Environment Council on, I think, 18th and 19th December. That may be an appropriate point at which to discuss the issues arising from The Hague. But contacts with our EU partners are continuous. Progress may well be made before or at that point.

On the role of the Deputy Prime Minister, the House should be aware that if it were not for the Deputy Prime Minister the progress that was made in bringing the American and EU positions closer together would not have occurred. We were very close to reaching an agreement. As regards timing, it was unfortunate that we did not get further. We now need to pick up the pieces on that and develop a closer approximation between the American/EU position and that of the group of 77. That will require a lot of diplomacy. It will not be solely in relation to the EU or any EU meeting.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while the Deputy Prime Minister should be warmly congratulated on his tireless work, together with his Minister of State, in getting so close to an agreement, the truth remains that the position of the United States leaves much to be desired? I refer to the proportion of the crisis generated for which it is responsible and the minimum level of its readiness to respond.

Can my noble friend assure us that whoever forms the new administration in the United States will have an early visit from a person at the most senior level—the Prime Minister would be ideal—to ensure that we win American commitment without which substantial progress will never be made?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is clear that the position of the United States is crucial to reaching agreement on these issues and in making serious progress. Emissions levels in the United States are one of the major causes of the current climate change problems. It is, therefore, important that the American political and business leadership take that seriously. Within the present Administration, we have serious recognition of that. For that reason America was prepared to move significantly in the latter stages of the discussion at The Hague from its somewhat intransigent original position. We welcome those moves. We believe that we can build on them. We hope that we can build on them, whoever is in the White House in January. It is noticeable that in American public and to some extent corporate opinion there is a positive move towards doing something about climate change. I hope that whoever is the political leader of America takes account of that and begins to lead on it.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, will the Minister reassure us that, despite the failure at The Hague, the EU countries will persevere in their efforts to achieve the objectives they have already set themselves to deal with climate change and, indeed, intensify those efforts as an example to the rest of the world?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that I can give that commitment. I certainly assure the House that the UK Government are on course for meeting their commitment to the EU contribution towards Kyoto.

However, there are some problems within Europe. When we castigate the United States, we also have to recognise that although in policy terms the EU is well in advance of the United States, many EU countries are not on course to achieve their commitments with regard to the EU bubble as a contribution to Kyoto. Only the UK and, to a large extent, Germany are on target.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that one of the problems about the final agreement was that the United States proposed what were called forest sinks which would deal with some of the effects of emissions? Will the noble Lord promise that, while supporting the concept of forest sinks, Her Majesty's Government will ensure that that does not mean that monoculture of forests will replace the traditional rain and maritime forests of the world?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. The issue of sinks was important. The Americans started from the position of wanting to make a major contribution from afforestation within the United States and developed countries and also acquiring credit for planting afforestation largely within developing countries. They removed that latter point from their negotiating position towards the end, which was most beneficial, and became significantly more flexible on the former. Although maintenance of forests plays a role, it is important that positive measures are also taken to reduce emissions, and that the two are not seen as counter-poised.