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House of Commons

Wednesday 19 March 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Earth Summit II

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Conway.]

Madam Speaker: Mr. Cynog Dafis.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not wish to delay proceedings this morning, but I should be grateful if you would give me guidance. The day before yesterday, I sent you a written application to launch a brief emergency debate under Standing Order No. 20 about the drastic situation concerning the future of Edgware general hospital. I am not commenting or complaining about the fact that I have not received a reply--I am sure that you are very overloaded with work, Madam Speaker--but I wonder whether I may press that point further by way of a point of order, and raise the matter briefly, either now or at 3.30 this afternoon, at your discretion.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman may not raise the matter now. I am sure that he has been in the House long enough to know that the Speaker does not respond to applications under Standing Order No. 20 or applications for private notice questions unless the response is positive.

9.35 am

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North): I thank you, Madam Speaker, for allocating time for this important debate. It has been sought by an informal group of Members working together on a cross-party basis, as a way of highlighting Earth summit II and the issues with which it is concerned.

It is fair to give notice of the fact that, if the members of the informal group are re-elected, which we fully intend to be, we shall continue to be active on the subject after the election--reinforced, I hope, by the increasing number of people, including other Members of Parliament, who see sustainable development as the central issue of our time.

Nothing could be more important than the cluster of issues brought together under the term "sustainable development"--the maintenance of a healthy environment, which is the basis of all our prosperity and success, as well as of all our cultural and spiritual fulfilment, and the issue of social and global equity regarding the satisfaction of human needs.

Those two themes convey what sustainable development amounts to, and what Earth summit II--the United Nations General Assembly special session in June,

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which is part of the Rio session--is about. Earth summit II offers us a chance to put new and much-needed urgency and impetus into the process.

We have been glad to receive assurances both from the Prime Minister and from the man whom I must describe as the likely next Prime Minister to the effect that whichever of them is elected to that office will attend Earth summit II. In his letter to me, the Leader of the Opposition said:

and the Prime Minister speaks in similar terms.

"Enormous significance"--that is strong language, and there is every justification for using it. We should make no mistake about the fact that sustainable development is a radically different way of organising the economy and society. I do not think that enough people have managed even to begin to comprehend that. Mainstream economists, politicians and the public at large have barely begun to understand the concepts underlying sustainable development, much less the means by which they can be given substance.

Mr. Dykes: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it has been noteworthy throughout the argument, all over the world and within the United Nations, that the European Union has played a leading and united role in promoting those good causes? Is not strength through unity another example of the way in which the United Kingdom can play an efficient role within a united European Union?

Mr. Dafis: That is a useful intervention, and I emphasise the fact that the European Union has a potentially key role to play. It has prepared an enlightened and advanced position paper that stresses the importance of moving now to implementation--actual action--on sustainable development. The Rio process emphasises global and regional activity--that means European activity--as well as national and local activity. All those levels of activity have a role to play. There is an enormous task in providing basic education which has still to be done.

I can do no better than quote Klaus Topfer, the former chairman of the Commission on Sustainable Development and German Environment Minister, who is one of the great leaders in the global movement for sustainable development. He says:

Taking that seriously, and treating the resources of the natural environment as capital, has far-reaching implications.

What progress has been made since Rio, where the countries of the world signed up to Agenda 21 and to sustainable development? Things have not gone well, and the world is now less sustainable--if anything--than it was in 1992. Poverty is on the increase, except in south-east Asia and the countries of the Pacific rim. Per capita income among 1.5 billion of the world's people has declined during the 1990s. The disparity between the

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wealthiest and the poorest is becoming greater. Indicators of social development show a decline in many countries. Life expectancy is down in 32 countries, and the improvement in Latin America is negligible, as life expectancy there is far too low.

I wish to refer to the natural environment. Taking soil as an example, according to the Secretary-General of the UN, 10 per cent. of the earth's dedicated surface is at least moderately degraded. Water is emerging as a crucial environmental and resource issue for the next century, and it is projected that, by the year 2025, two thirds of the world's people will be living in countries suffering from water shortages.

Forest cover is being lost, and we are using non-renewable energy resources, at an alarming rate--that has serious environmental and social effects. There is a massive impact in extraction, transportation, processing and combustion. The use of fossil fuels has a massive effect. Energy consumption--mainly of fossil fuels--is up by 40 per cent. since 1973. The pressure from developing countries to increase energy use is intense: one has only to think of China and the huge implications of that country beginning to use its coal resources. Things are not going well in that sense.

What about the political process? The creation and implementation of policies to turn this matter around is important, and that is what the Rio process was supposed to achieve. Agenda 21 and the convention signed at Rio were supposed to contribute to this work. It would not be true to say that nothing has been achieved--one might say that the show is still on the road, and that is no mean diplomatic achievement.

In climate change, it is true that the show is still on the road, but progress has been painfully slow. In its response to the United Kingdom Government's position paper for Earth summit II, the World Wide Fund for Nature agrees that progress has been very poor, and gives examples. There has been no progress in implementing or funding the desertification convention. Neither in the convention on climate change nor in the biodiversity convention have we managed to agree a programme of actions or mobilise sufficient financial resources to implement their aims inside developing countries. The United States has not even ratified the biodiversity convention, to its eternal shame.

As far as the financial mechanisms are concerned--the global environmental facility is the key one--there is no clear strategic direction, and the GEF has a derisory budget, amounting to less than 0.004 per cent. of OECD GDP per annum. If one compares that with military expenditure worldwide--expenditure intended to ensure global security--one sees that it is absurd and grotesque. The best means of ensuring global security is to ensure sustainable development, and we need to put resources into it.

What is to be done at this time? First, we need to apply the political will with the greatest urgency to achieve sustainable development. I very much welcome the announcement by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), that he intends to make the environment central to a Labour Government's foreign policy. That is very good. I hope it

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will be central to a Labour Government's economic and social policy as well, but there is precious little indication of that.

However, to be positive, the statement by the shadow Foreign Secretary is seriously encouraging, and the task force he has put together has an impressive membership. If that kind of spirit informs the UK contribution to Earth summit II as part of a strong and serious EU commitment, that is good news.

What should we look for this year? The EU has produced an excellent position paper, although I hope that the EU means what it says--that does not necessarily follow. The paper states that Agenda 21 needs to complete the transition to the operational phase. That is an admission in itself, as it suggests that we need to start doing something, rather than talking about the theory.

What do we need to do? First, we need action in relation to key sectoral issues. Climate change is to be discussed at Kyoto at the end of the year, and a reasonable--or at least adequate--target is a 20 per cent. reduction from 1990 levels in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 2005. Some say that that is unrealistic, but I would ask whether it is realistic to allow the climate to change as it currently is, bearing in mind the effect that that will have.

On forests, we need effective action linked to climate change and biodiversity. On fresh water--a very important issue--the EU calls for a recognition of the interaction between fresh water and soil erosion, demography and security of food supplies. These are terribly important issues, but there are others, including toxic chemicals, oceans and energy. But these specific sectoral issues will not be addressed unless certain key cross-sectoral themes are seriously tackled. The most important of these has to be finance for sustainable development in third-world countries, where the situation is appalling.

We have seen a decline in overseas aid from the developed world in GDP terms. There is profound disenchantment about the process in third-world countries, because the developed world has not begun to deliver. Private investment flows are increasing, but they are not geared to the poor countries or to sustainable development.

The commitment to 0.7 per cent. of GDP for overseas development aid targeted on sustainable development must be fulfilled by 2005--a reasonable target. We must move towards more debt cancellation, and there has to be a firm commitment to the replenishment of the GEF. I hope that we get that commitment this morning. But we also need new financial mechanisms, and an aviation tax on international flights--with the proceeds earmarked for sustainable development--is perhaps the most immediately feasible. The call for an intergovernmental panel on finance is a perfectly reasonable one, which I back.

The United Kingdom Government should go to New York with an unshakeable commitment at least to financial matters, because, if we do not get that right, we can say goodbye to sustainable development, and the consequences will be disastrous. It is a key foreign policy issue.

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The link between sustainable development and trade must be taken seriously. By all accounts, the World Trade Organisation--the key organisation in this--is not doing so. Earth summit II should tell it that it has to take it seriously.

Sustainable consumption and production is another underlying cross-sectoral issue. I do not know whether all the other members of the group I have been working with would agree, but I believe that modern consumerism--the very engine that drives our economic system--is ultimately incompatible with sustainability. It is as if it were designed to impose stress on the natural environment that makes it possible.

Weaning ourselves off consumerism is a daunting task, but we have to begin the process. Two mechanisms are essential, and the first is new indicators of economic success. Progress there has been slow, and we need those quickly. We need a radical revision of our accounting system, and we need not only to develop the indicators but to use them to describe the extent of our economic and social success.

Secondly, the internalisation of environmental and social costs simply has to be faced. A glaring example where that is not being done, even remotely, is in transport. That requires a change in the basis of the taxation system, which we are beginning to talk about. A commitment about that should come out of the Earth summit. Of course, the constant need to include social equity must be borne in mind in doing so. One cannot internalise environmental costs unless one is concerned about social equity at the same time. Sustainability is about social equity and social inclusion as much as it is about the environment.

Much has been said about the international institutional structure to drive forward Agenda 21 and the whole agenda. Briefly, we need to renew and strengthen the United Nations Environmental Programme, which is important and has a key role to play. I hope to hear a commitment this morning to ending the suspension of UK funding to UNEP.

Secondly, the CSD has clearly shown itself to be a useful body. Mr. Topfer, the former chairman, said that we need it to become a sort of environmental security council. There is general agreement that it needs a more focused agenda, and the UN Secretary-General has set out a timetable for it leading up to 2002. I agree with WWF's suggestion about the need for a stronger and better resourced mandate for the CSD.

I look forward to hearing the response of the spokesmen on the two main Front Benches, as well as that of the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. We do not want to hear complacent self-congratulation from the Government, and I hope that we will not, although I am perfectly prepared to acknowledge the Secretary of State's important achievements in this regard. From Labour, we do not want a lot of electioneering and slagging the Government off. We want to hear clear signals that we regard Earth summit II as an historic opportunity to start a course of radical action globally, regionally and nationally at last to begin the transition to sustainability.

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