HC Deb 21 January 2004 vol 416 cc468-76WH

11 am

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce the debate. I was encouraged to do so by a written ministerial statement issued on 2 December by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It sets out an analysis of its raison d'être and the United Kingdom's international priorities.

When I read the eight strategic policy priorities identified with the UK, I was dismayed to find that the word "environment" did not appear anywhere. In fact, notwithstanding the preceding blurb suggesting that issues were changing, the priorities tended to confirm the traditional view of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a body that seeks to maintain stability through diplomacy—the big chess game—to maximise the UK's interest. I agree with the objectives. None is wrong in any way, but failure to take full account of the environmental crisis that the world is facing would undermine the objectives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That is why I am raising the subject today.

To be fair, it is true that one of the objectives is sustainable development, but that is slightly different from tackling the backlog of environmental problems that have arisen in the world and which require something other than that strategy to ensure that what develops from now on is satisfactory. The strategy of "it is good as far as it goes" is not sufficient to deal with the crisis that we are facing.

Another objective is the security of UK and global energy supplies. Again, no one can dispute that we must ensure that the lights are kept on, but the way in which the objective is phrased suggests that we want to ensure that we have control over fossil fuel exploitation, whereas energy policy in the 21st century should be about diversity of energy sources and ensuring, as far as possible, that all the world moves towards renewable sources and that energy demand is not simply met, but reduced through the implementation of energy efficiency and conservation measures. I do not see such thoughts set out in the Foreign Office statement of 2 December.

If full account is not taken of the environment, the traditional Foreign Office objectives that have served us well over centuries will be undermined. I refer the Minister in particular to the comments of the Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. On 9 January, he said: In my view, climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism. For understandable reasons, for the past two years we have heard a great deal from the Government about the threat of terrorism. The Prime Minister and others have rightly given attention to that matter and have taken steps both domestically and internationally to reduce the threat of terrorism to this country. No one can dispute that such a policy is anything other than sensible. However, we have heard little from the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary about what is, according to David King, the more serious threat to the world—that of climate change, which seems to be an add-on—a footnote—to policy, rather than a central tenet of it, which is what it should be.

It is a fact that, through climate change, our environment is facing unprecedented threats. There is an old saying that forests precede man and deserts follow him. That was never more true than today. Mass deforestation is taking place, so that even countries such as Brazil, which has gigantic forests, are losing areas the size of Scotland each year. 'We shall end up, not within my lifetime, but in the lifetime of others now on this earth, with the forests all gone.

The situation is that serious: forests that have existed for millions of years could disappear, and we are seeing the polar ice caps melting and the oceans rising. Millions of people could be flooded out of their homes, and perhaps killed. We are seeing extreme weather patterns across the world. In addition, we saw a projection only last week that a quarter of all species on this planet could be extinct by 2050. Of course, there is also the issue of resources, especially water, and the fact that access to water is in question for a large part of the planet.

There is an ethical dimension to that—I hope we still have an ethical foreign policy, as we did when the Labour Government came to power—but there is also a practical dimension in terms of traditional Foreign Office policy. If the current environmental degradation continues and if no steps are taken to deal with it, the objective of the Foreign Office to maintain stability and guaranteed supplies of energy will be fatally undermined, because the world will start fighting for resources.

We—I refer here to the north, or to NATO, one could say—would be dragged into a position where we would have to defend access to resources. We have not quite got there yet, but with the battle for oil meaning that guaranteed supplies of fossil fuels is a key issue around the world we are getting there. We must avoid that, because it leads to instability. The way we avoid it is by making a real attempt worldwide to have a sensible environmental policy. That is something on which the Foreign Office should be leading, not least because there is a commitment to it in this country. I pay tribute to the Government for signing up to the Kyoto protocol and to the European Union for leading the way on that issue. We need to go further by taking that battle to the United Nations and to some of our allies, who are perhaps less enlightened than we are on those matters.

That leads me on to the United States, which is our ally. We have many close links—indeed, my wife is half American—but I am sorry to say that the United States is the world's environmental pariah. We need to say so, and we need to take firmer action than we have so far taken to bring the Bush Administration in particular into the world we all live in and make them realise their responsibilities. We have the opportunity to do that, more so than perhaps any other country.

We have this so-called special relationship: it is clear that, over many years, the UK, under successive Governments, has worked hard to ensure that we are in a good position with the United States. That may be a sensible Foreign and Commonwealth Office objective, but if we are in that position we should use our influence, where we can, to encourage the Americans to move forward on those issues and to make them realise that they are not isolated, that t hey live with and have a duty to the rest of the world, and that what they do affects us.

The Americans must appreciate that. Drawing in their horns and pretending that only America counts—which, I am afraid, is what the United States appears to do environmentally as well as in terms of the International Criminal Court and other issues—suggests that their policy is not sensible or sustainable.

The United States has not signed up to the Kyoto protocol. It has abrogated commitments made by President Clinton and its carbon dioxide emissions are 16 per cent. above 1990 levels, while the rest of us are cutting our CO2 emissions. The Government and the EU are on target to make their reductions specified in the Kyoto protocol, but the United States is not—and it is already the world's biggest polluter. Currently, 36 per cent. of carbon emissions came from the United States. Indeed, a third of the world's emissions come from there, yet Americans are getting worse in their approach to the issue.

The United States is the world's biggest economy and it has the greatest opportunity to deal with this matter. If it does not do so, how can we expect smaller countries to make the short-term sacrifices necessary to meet their Kyoto targets? Why should they bother when the United States does not?

The problem involves not only the United States' attitude to climate change directly, in terms of the Kyoto protocol. The front page of The Independent this week listed some attributes of the United States, including the opening by President Bush of 58 million acres of public land to road building, logging and drilling, and the attempt to downgrade or weaken 200 public health and environmental laws during his presidency, including permitting drilling for oil in pristine national park areas in Alaska and elsewhere.

I hope the Government recognise that President Bush's Administration are up to their neck in oil, in terms of the members' backgrounds, and that this is driving the Administration's policy. It is not in the UK's interest to go along with that. However, it is in the UK's interest to try to influence the United States to adopt a more realistic and responsible international approach to environmental matters, but I am not always convinced that we do that.

I was pleased to see—credit where it is due—what I hope is a true story in The Independent on Sunday on 11 January, which said that the Prime Minister is, finally, attempting to get George Bush to move on climate change. I very much hope that that is true. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to confirm it, but that is exactly what the Prime Minister should be doing—using his influence with President Bush to try and move him along in that direction.

On occasion, part of the price of the Government's objective to remain close to the Americans appears to be signing up and agreeing to whatever the US wants, even if we do not necessarily want to go along such a road ourselves. The Minister recently gave me an instructive parliamentary answer when I asked him on how many occasions since 1975 the UK vote in the UN Security Council was diametrically opposed to the US vote. In only 2.3 per cent. of the votes had the UK voted against the US.

Most of those occasions as helpfully listed by the Minister, were between 1975 and 1985, and there have been only two occasions since the Labour Government came to power in 1997 on which our vote was diametrically opposed to that of the US. I am not saying that we should seek occasions on which to vote like that—if we can get agreement and have a common policy, all to the good—but what has happened sometimes suggests that we are not as independent in respect of the US as we might be.

I would like to know what the Minister is doing through the Foreign Office, and what the Prime Minister is doing, to deal with Kyoto and the US. I would also like to know how much progress we have made with the Russians. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues are putting pressure on the Russian Government to sign up to Kyoto, because if the Russians sign up the protocol will come into force. We need either the US or the Russians to do so.

I would also like to ask the Minister what we are doing about promoting renewables, conservation and energy efficiency worldwide. Britain is at the end of a very long pipeline in terms of gas and oil supplies from pretty unstable areas of the world, so it is in our interest to take such measures—we will be dependent on those fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. We also need to ensure that we have our own indigenous supplies, which means, essentially, renewable resources.

I would also like to know how the Foreign Office calculates the balance between the geopolitical aspects of its policy and the perhaps long-term environmental consequences, as, for instance, with some dam projects that the Foreign Office has been keen to support. Friends of the Earth has produced a report on a BP pipeline that is intended to run through Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, which says that 173 violations of World Bank standards have been committed.

The pipeline will carry 1 million barrels of oil daily, which, when burnt, will produce 160 million tonnes of carbon dioxide—a third of the UK's annual emissions. The Foreign Office is supporting that policy, presumably for geopolitical reasons, but there is a big environmental downside. How is the balance achieved and what is the process for assessing whether the environmental downside outweighs the traditional geopolitical benefits of any particular project?

For example, the Foreign Office traditionally claims to lobby the Chinese Government on human rights abuses in Tibet, an issue close to my heart. I think the Minister and his colleagues do that, and all the evidence is that the Foreign Office listens on the issue, although I am sorry that the Prime Minister is not meeting the Dalai Lama. However, do the Minister and his colleagues lobby the Chinese on the environmental destruction that is taking place in Tibet?

The Minister will know, for example, that Tibet is being used as a nuclear waste dump. He will also know about the obscene deforestation, which is causing flooding for millions of people, not least the Tibetans themselves, because the Yangtze is affected. Unsustainable agricultural practices have been taking place in Tibet, which over the years have led to starvation among the Tibetan people. The Chinese are constructing a railway to Lhasa, which will enable that environmental destruction to accelerate. What are the Government doing about the environmental destruction of Tibet? I give that as a specific example, although there are other countries where it may apply. However, human rights are also abused if the environment in which people live is degraded. That is the important point, which I want the Minister to get across.

I draw the Minister's attention to the story in The Observer by Anthony Barnett about the Foreign Office apparently giving permission for 240 rockhopper penguins to be removed from Tristan de Cunha, a British dependency. That in itself is a relatively small matter, but it suggests that sometimes economic considerations come before environmental, so I hope that a system is in place to ensure that those things are properly assessed.

11.15 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this important debate, and although there will be a number of areas where I disagree with what he has said, or at least his emphasis, nevertheless he is a Member of the House whom I admire for the genuine commitment and energy with which he pursues his causes. Fundamentally, though, his critique is misplaced.

The hon. Gentleman is saying that we do not weave environmental considerations right the way throughout the fabric of our foreign policies and operations, but that is not the case. From personal experience, I know the number of countries—I have visited them on Foreign Office business—with which we have raised environmental concerns and considerations.

The hon. Gentleman has made great play of the FCO strategy, which was launched and published before Christmas. It presents eight strategic international priorities with the collective aim of creating a safe, just and prosperous world, underscored by sustainable development. As the Foreign Secretary said in respect of the hon. Gentleman's written question, which appeared in Hansard on 5 January, priority 6 of the strategy specifically refers to sustainable development underpinned by democracy, good governance and human rights. That underlines the fact that those issues are central to the work we undertake.

I have also commissioned within the Foreign Office the production of an FCO sustainable development strategy. This will provide the action plan to guide FCO staff in the implementation of this priority and of our public service agreement, which explicitly refers to making globalisation work for sustainable development in the UK and internationally. We are working towards that end in co-operation with colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for International Development and the Department of Trade and Industry. I went out of my way to involve Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Commission for Sustainable Development, in that process to give us ongoing constructive feedback about the way that the strategy is developed. That was exactly the right thing to do, and it underlines our commitment to this issue.

Furthermore, I believe that the strategy will show how the Foreign Office will work with other countries towards meeting international commitments on development that are agreed by the United Kingdom. Those commitments are the millennium declaration on poverty reduction, the Doha trade round on development of the international trading system, the Monterey agreement on financing for development and the commitments made at the 2002 World summit on sustainable development.

I will deal with some specific points the hon. Gentleman made. He started by referring to our strategy document and the focus on energy security, implying that it contained no environmental considerations. However, priority 7 specifically refers to practical initiatives to promote sustainable energy consumption. We are seeking to secure our energy supplies and, in doing so, to benefit the environment significantly through the promotion of renewable and sustainable energy. Promoting the diversity of supply is integral to tackling climate change.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to Sir David King's comments, which were quoted in a newspaper, suggesting that climate change is more serious than the threat from weapons of mass destruction. Both climate change and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are serious issues that we take account of in the development of foreign policy, and in our recently published strategy we committed ourselves to tackling both.

The hon. Gentleman made great play of the position and situation with regard to environmental concerns about the United States of America. I make no apology for saying that we are strong allies with the USA—we share a number of interests, values and concerns. Nevertheless, there are a number of areas where we disagree, and we do not have a problem with saying so.

The Kyoto protocol is one such area where we took a different position from the United States, and that is a position that we continue to uphold. The International Criminal Court, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, is another matter on which we have made clear our position, which differs from that of the United States. However, resolving those matters and seeking to influence the United States are not so easy as he suggests.

I also dispute the hon. Gentleman's party political characterisation in suggesting that the problem is just with the Bush Administration and that, if there were a different Administration, the situation would be different. I was interested to read the comments made recently by Howard Dean, one of the front runners for the Democratic party nomination. He said that if he wins the nomination, he will not sign up to the Kyoto protocol. With respect, the issue is a bit more complicated than the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding that disagreement on climate change and the Kyoto protocol, we are seeking to work with the US on a range of areas to promote environmental concerns and to achieve progress outside the Kyoto protocol. We continue to co-operate on climate change and believe that there are a number of areas for fruitful exchange, such as sharing our experience of the early action that business can take, working together on low carbon energy sources, and exchanging views on technological developments and climate change science. Science and technology in particular are areas in which we can make progress.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the article that attempted to suggest what the Prime Minister's views are. We have consistently made it clear to the US at all levels that we wish to engage with it on climate change and we regularly raise the matter at political and official level. We shall continue to do that. In addition, the US is a key partner in out efforts to prevent forest destruction and illegal logging. We work effectively in G8 and the United Nations, and the US has recently launched a presidential initiative on illegal logging. We support all those initiatives.

The hon. Gentleman referred to export credits and various pipeline proposals. Through the Export Credits Guarantee Department, environmental considerations are at the forefront of our approach and the FCO cooperates closely with the ECGD on the social and environmental impact of its work. That will continue.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to concerns about the situation in China. One of the biggest challenges in tackling future environmental concerns is those countries that are going through dramatic growth—for example, Russia, China, India and so on. Unless environmental considerations are built into the development of their industries and businesses at this stage, we will have serious problems. We are doing something about that on an ongoing basis and are constantly engaging with those countries on these issues.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we recently established a China taskforce under the leadership of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is treating the environment as a cross-cutting issue and covering every area.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of rockhopper penguins. I want to make it clear that under the terms of the overseas territories White Paper such matters are for the overseas territories to decide. We have reached a new and sustainable position with the overseas territories. We reassured ourselves about the safety and security of the rockhopper penguins, but to intervene because we dislike a decision would be the wrong approach when, under the terms of the agreement, the matter is no longer one for the UK.

My final response to the explicit points made by the hon. Gentleman is to agree with the thrust of what he said, but to disagree with his conclusion. By that I mean that if we did not tackle environmental concerns throughout our foreign policy, I agree that we would eventually affect and constrain our security. However, I rebut the suggestion that we are doing that. We weave environmental considerations throughout the range of our foreign policy deliberations.

I turn to some other key issues that the hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be interested in. Climate change and the loss of natural resources and biodiversity are clearly shared global challenges, which we continue to face up to. We are aiming to reinvigorate the international response to climate change.

It is worth noting that, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, we have taken a lead, and we can be proud of our track record. We have shown leadership by setting the UK on the path to a 60 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Indeed, the UK is one of the few developed countries to have met, and gone beyond, the target agreed at Rio in 1992 to return greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000—a remarkable achievement. Between 1990 and 2001, emissions fell by more than 12.3 per cent., while the UK economy grew by over 32 per cent. That is substantial progress and it shows that we are committing to the issues, although I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman gave us credit for that.

We are also putting our money where our mouth is. In addition to our diplomatic efforts, we want to deliver concrete actions on the ground. To that end, the FCO has created the Global Opportunities Fund, which is spending some £4.7 million this year on financing sustainable energy and climate change projects in several of the world's major developing economies, including China and Russia. Environmental degradation and biodiversity loss also threaten the ability of the world's ecosystems to provide goods and services in a sustainable way, so they pose a direct risk to us all. We are also tackling that issue.

Another key policy instrument at our disposal is the convention on international trade on endangered species, which regulates trade in endangered plants and animals and is widely regarded as one of the most successful multilateral environmental agreements. As part of the UK delegation, the FCO ensured that the last conference of the parties in 2002 was a great success for the UK. Our proposal to protect the basking shark was adopted, and we were instrumental in stopping attempts to remove protection for some whale species. In that regard, the work of the International Whaling Commission, in which we are very active, is similarly productive and successful. Maintaining the moratorium on commercial whaling remains our core objective, and our overseas posts undertake concerted lobbying in that regard.

Norman Baker

I agree with what the Minister says on whaling, but will he say something about how discussions on Kyoto are going with the Russian Government and whether he thinks they are likely to ratify?

Mr. Rammell

We are taking every opportunity at all levels, including the highest, which is Prime Minister to President, to express our view that it is critical for Russia to sign up to the Kyoto protocol. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, given the configuration of countries that have signed, Kyoto will not go forward without Russian endorsement. That is an issue of concern to us. We take it up regularly and we shall continue to do so.

We also work through a range of multinational agencies—the G8, the United Nations, the European Union and the Commonwealth—to ensure that we speak and act not only on our behalf, as we seek partners to work with us and take the process forward. The European Union, in which 40 per cent. of legislation is environmental, is clearly a major motor for change.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about our commitment on renewable energy. I was particularly pleased to be able to launch this year, in association with colleagues, the renewable energy and energy efficiency partnership—a partnership forged at the World summit on sustainable development. That mechanism builds on our commitment to accelerate the development of renewable energy. Renewable energy sources are essential in tackling climate change, and they will also ensure the long-term energy security of the UK and promote sustainable development at home and abroad.

Access to information is also critical. That is why we are promoting good environmental governance through the partnership for principle 10. Tourism is another key sector. The Prime Minister launched the sustainable tourism initiative, and I was pleased to launch the Travel Foundation, which the FCO is funding, at a meeting of the Association of British Travel Agents in October 2003.

I genuinely respect the hon. Gentleman's concern over these issues, but we are addressing them. We are endeavouring to include environmental considerations throughout our foreign policy and practice, and we shall continue to do so.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.