HL Deb 11 July 2002 vol 637 cc815-7
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How their commitment given at European Union level in May "promoting a 10-year work programme on sustainable production and consumption with the aim of reversing the trends in the loss of natural resources and promoting the decoupling of economic growth from environmental degradation" will be drawn to the attention of consumers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government and the European Union are seeking agreement at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to a 10-year work programme on sustainable production and consumption. Clearly, informing consumers about the outcomes of the world summit will form part of the EU's communication strategy. Raising consumer awareness of the environmental pressures remains integral to our promotion of environmental policies, programmes and campaigns.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, the Government have made very little effort to inform consumers of what exactly their goals are and how consumers could translate that in terms of exercising a good choice on the high street. Does the Minister agree that not many Members of your Lordships' House have heard of last year's DEFRA campaign, "Pick the daisy", which was about choosing products with an EU eco-label? Does he agree that that is not fair to manufacturers, who are trying to up their game and produce products that use fewer natural resources, or to consumers, who are unable to implement any buying power in order to make a better environmental choice?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is unfair to say that the Government have not taken initiatives in this area. We have, in conjunction with industry, greatly improved the commitments involving the provision of environmental information to consumers. There are examples in the area of domestic appliances. Eco-labelling is only one aspect of that information. We have not developed a nationwide eco-labelling scheme partly because the European eco-label, with a daisy, is being developed at that level. It is important in an internationally traded sector to have a Europe-wide system. Wider promotion of information on energy consumption and material consumption is also part of the system, and not a simple label.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, the Question on the Order Paper relates to decoupling of economic growth and environmental degradation. The Government are to be congratulated on reducing the energy coefficient of growth, which is the relationship between GDP and the growth of energy consumption—growth is now slower. However, does the Minister agree that we have not so far succeeded in reducing the waste coefficient of growth? Do we know why that is and why the price mechanism is not reducing packaging and other coefficients of growth? If the tax and price mechanism is not somehow giving the right signals, do we face the dilemma that the alternative is regulation, which in other respects is not now a popular policy?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend correct to say that we have reduced the energy coefficient. I believe that 30 or 40 years ago it was more than 1; in other words, we used more energy for every 1 per cent of growth in GDP. The figure is now substantially lower in the UK and worldwide. We have also reduced the total resource coefficient. Over the past 30 years, UK consumption of resources grew by about 12 per cent, whereas GDP and income grew by nearly 90 per cent. We had least success in the waste area. We must address information and consumer behaviour in that area and, ultimately, regulation and price. A combination of those instruments is needed.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as someone who has in the past sold daisies to Japan, I will concentrate, as did the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, on the second half of the Question. Exactly how do the Government propose to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation other than waste?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have already indicated that we have had some success in terms of reduction and the relationship between total use of resources and growth in GDP. That reduction must continue. We have had substantial success in relation to energy. In conjunction with industry, we are looking at various market transformations, particularly in the area of domestic appliances, to allow consumers to make choices that minimise energy use and waste content. Our main approach is to raise awareness and work with market solutions, but it is clear that better labelling and a degree of regulation also play a part.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if the Government were to give active support to a vibrant bio-fuel industry, that would resolve an enormous amount of their commitments?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as noble Lords know, we are committed to the development of renewable energies of many sorts. On the issue of bio-fuels, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, knows, the department is seriously considering the possibilities of various forms of renewable energy through crops, in respect of biomass and liquid bio-fuels.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that consumers learn about sustainability issues but that they tend to do so rather slowly? Introducing one sector after another is quite a wise policy. People have already learnt to look for recycled paper and glass products and, when people buy something that is made of wood, they look to see whether it has come from sustainable forests. Does the Minister agree that to attack the question sector by sector is a wise approach? What area of manufacturing do the Government plan to look at next?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in one sense, that is a sensible approach, in that we must establish in people's consciousness the information for which they must look. We have had substantial success in relation to the energy consumption of domestic appliances. The scale of A to G has now been reduced because people buy only the top three, most energy efficient appliances. Both the Government and industry are focusing on providing better consumer information, based on energy consumption, in that area.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government have been a little slow in considering some of these issues? As a result, we are experiencing tremendous problems with mountains of fridges. Soon, that will also be the case in respect of televisions. Many European directives are giving us enormous problems of which the general public are not aware.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the European directives are geared to reducing waste and the damaging effects of waste, particularly in relation to fridges. We are tackling that problem. Long discussions have been held in various places about the effectiveness of the directive concerning fridges. There is a difficult, short-term problem relating to the dumping of fridges, but we are tackling that problem and overcoming it.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission. Will the Minister remind or announce to consumers in the House that the state forestry service in Britain is the first in the world to be accredited as sustainable? Can he give assurances to all our consumers in Britain that by-products from the state forestry service will, indeed, be from sustainable forests?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept both the declaration of interest and the serious commitment of the Forestry Commission to sustainable timber. My department has given very clear advice to consumers on the choice of timber-based materials. Purchases of wood are an important contribution to that end.

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