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Mr. Corbyn: That is the heavyweight.

Mr. Meacher: Yes.

It is disappointing that the Secretary of State gave way at the European Union Environment Council a fortnight ago, and offered only a 10 per cent. cut by 2010. On his own boast, Britain has already achieved up to an 8 per cent. cut, largely because the Government have decimated the coal industry and engineered a long recession, so what he is proposing over the next decade is, in effect, a cut of a mere 2 per cent. or so, which is pretty feeble when Germany and Austria have offered cuts of 25 per cent. by 2010. We all know that the Secretary of State will bow out at the election, but his much-vaunted green leadership has fizzled out with a whimper.

We shall achieve our more ambitious target of a cut of one fifth by 2010.

Mr. Matthew Taylor: How?

Mr. Meacher: I am coming on to that.

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We shall achieve it through policies that we already have in place. We are committed to an integrated public transport strategy, which is more environmentally friendly, in conjunction with pursuing a public-private partnership to develop a greener car, and a task force to advise on how best to achieve ultra-low emissions.

We are committed to promoting a big increase in renewable energy, with the objective of one fifth of our electricity being generated in that way by 2025. That will be achieved not least through an increase in the use of wind power: Britain has 40 per cent. of Europe's potential wind power--I must say, it sometimes feels like it--but we currently use less than 1 per cent. We are also committed to stepping up a national programme of energy efficiency measures.

I should make it clear that we do not support a carbon tax, because that would impact heavily on poor households, just as the VAT increase on fuel has done. It is important to note, although it is not often said, that such a tax would also bring comparatively little environmental benefit, because of the low elasticity of domestic demand. We believe that the same ends, on which we all agree, can be achieved through a more focused policy, via a changed regulatory regime for energy companies, improvements in building regulations, minimum efficiency standards for appliances, and measures to facilitate energy efficiency programmes by local authorities.

Trade and environment is another key issue that will feature strongly at the coming Earth summit. We believe that protection for the environment should be paramount in the development of a managed sustainable trading system, which means that international environmental treaties should be exempt from any challenge under the GATT/World Trade Organisation rules. That should include the Montreal convention on substances that deplete the ozone layer, the Basel convention on hazardous waste, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, the biodiversity convention, and the climate change convention. They should all be protected.

We also believe that there is a strong case for extending the range of these paramount conventions--perhaps in the case of forests, certainly in the case of chemicals. About 100,000 chemicals are in commercial use, and their impact on human health and ecological function represents largely unknown risks. Highly toxic hormone-imitating chemicals such as DDT, the polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and alkylphenols have increasingly been leaching into aquifers and rivers worldwide and thence into the food chain, causing serious damage to the endocrine and reproductive tracts of mammals, including humans. Many people think that the dramatically falling sperm count in men is most likely to be due to oestrogen-like chemicals in detergents, plastics and other man-made materials.

We believe that what is needed at the UN in June is a binding convention that will reduce and eliminate those dangerous chemicals. That should be linked, in our view, to a prior informed consent procedure for international trade in all hazardous chemicals, 51 of which have been identified as hormone disruptors. The banning of those highly toxic chemicals--DDT is already banned--must not be subject to haggles over trade: they are environmental absolutes.

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Action on forests is less advanced. Although we would, in principle, consider a convention on forests, it is doubtful, in the light of experience of the convention on desertification--mentioned by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North--which has not been a great success, whether that is the most appropriate way to proceed. We might do better pursuing the same goals, which we strongly support, via bilateral agreements and consumer pressure.

As many of my hon. Friends have powerfully argued, the central problem at New York is likely to be that of reconciling the demands of the north with the huge needs of the south. Already, a fifth of the world's population--more than 1 billion people--lacks access to safe water, and half the world's population does not have safe sanitation. Every year, more than 5 million people die from diseases caused by unsafe drinking water or lack of sanitation.

Adding 3 billion people to the planet since 1950 has brought huge destruction of forests, devastation of grasslands, soil erosion, crowding, poverty, land hunger and growing water pollution. One can only imagine what will happen if 4.7 billion more people are added by 2050, more than 90 per cent. of them in the third world, as predicted by the UN.

The result is a growing divide of epic proportions. In the 1890s, the income of the average Indian was about half that of the average European. By the 1940s, the gap had grown to 1:40. It is now 1:70. Not only the poorest have suffered. World grain production, which has actually fallen by about 1 per cent. a year since the mid-1980s, has been falling fastest in the 40 poor countries containing a sixth of the world's population.

However, using a more realistic and comprehensive system of economic accounting, which takes account of the loss of natural topsoil and forest and productive grasslands, it could be argued that a majority of humanity suffered a decline in living standards in the 1980s. That is the task that confronts us.

How can the needs of north and south be reconciled? A reduction or write-off of debt for the most severely indebted countries might be linked to a commitment by them to preserve their rain forests and biodiversity. The damage to the environment caused by mass industrialisation in the developing countries would be reduced if the north made available the most advanced technology, especially clean coal technology. A forestry convention might suit the needs of the north, but the south's concerns over finance, which the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) eloquently spoke to, and the issues of land ownership and a code of conduct for transnational corporations must be addressed at the same time.

When a quarter of the world's fisheries are already being exploited at maximum productivity and a third are over-fished, the north must accept that we need an intergovernmental panel on oceans with the same clout as the panel on climate change, to protect the oceans as a vital food source, as a carbon sink and as the home of some of the most diverse species on earth.

Those will be the central issues at the UN meeting, but other items will feature on the agenda, including tourism, which is fast becoming the world's largest industry. Of course everyone is in favour of it, because travel broadens the mind and people deserve holidays, but we need to make it sustainable and not spoil places that people want

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to visit. Disappointingly, little has been done about that in the European Union, despite the fact that tourism is one of the five priority sectors listed in the "Fifth Environmental Action Plan." That may be another task for the British presidency.

On biodiversity, the next conference of the parties will take place in May 1998, during the British presidency, but, if I may say so to the Minister, a main priority is to set our own house in order in various ways, such as strengthening protection for sites of special scientific interest and safeguarding our hedgerows. The Department of the Environment has taken 17 years to designate 136 sites as special protection areas for bird conservation under European law; another 130 sites await designation. In response to the UN biodiversity convention, the Department has completed only 116 "action plans" detailing its efforts to conserve declining species; it still has 278 to prepare.

The UN special session is obviously important as a signal of political commitment, but perhaps we should not become too fixated on it. As others have said, the meeting in Kyoto of the Commission for Sustainable Development may prove more significant in the long run, as may the on-going work in the World Trade Organisation trade and environment committee.

As preparation for those meetings, there is already an extensive dialogue with non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders. Labour will seek to build on that dialogue in government as we have in opposition. Unlike the present Government, we shall not be hampered by deregulatory dogma in responding to the concerns of NGOs and other stakeholders.

The Labour party stands ready, as a Government-in-waiting, to make progress on all the measures I have outlined, and to infuse a new sense of leadership and drive, which is much needed for the sake of our world.

10.46 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) on raising this subject and securing the debate, and I agree with him that the subject has central importance and needs the widest public understanding.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the United Kingdom preparations for and contribution to the UN General Assembly special session, which marks the fifth anniversary of the Earth summit in Rio. It is an important occasion for looking back at the achievements since Rio, and for charting the course for the next period. I shall seek to obey the injunction by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North to look to the future as much as possible.

We are making every effort to ensure the success of the special session. The Prime Minister was one of the first Heads of Government to announce his intention to attend. At the end of 1996, my Department published a consultation paper, setting out its objectives for the special session and giving its views on the issues that urgently require the attention of the international community.

Since the Rio summit, sustainable development, in the sense that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North defined it, has been at the heart of the

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Government's environmental economic policy, and we believe that the special session is an opportunity to persuade other countries that sustainable development should be the cornerstone of their policies too.

Much has been achieved since Rio, and the UK has played a leading role in pushing those successes through. The biodiversity convention has been negotiated, and action put in hand. In the United Kingdom, we have been the pioneers for the idea of national action plans for biodiversity.

We have been asked during the debate for targets. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and other hon. Members know that we have, through our action plans, set out clear targets and measurable objectives. We have provided a model for others to follow, and many others are interested in the pioneering way in which we have approached biodiversity.

Another biodiversity success which the Prime Minister announced at Rio was the Darwin initiative, a bilateral aid programme; and last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the 1997 awards, to 32 projects in 26 countries, ranging from the conservation of marine turtles in Egypt to the revision of the Galapagos marine management plan.

We have heard a good deal today about the UN framework convention on climate change. We fully accept that we in the north have a special responsibility to take action on controlling emissions of greenhouse gases. Unless the richer nations take responsibility for dealing with the pollution that results from our development, we cannot expect other countries that are--rightly--seeking to raise their standards of living to take up their burden as well.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West attributed some importance to this subject, but he might have acknowledged more graciously that we come to the negotiations in Europe, and later in Kyoto, from a background of success in meeting our obligations--unlike many other countries. We are among a minority of industrialised nations in having met our obligations. We also have one of the best records among European Community countries.

At the discussions in Kyoto and in Europe, we must look ahead to targets that can be achieved by others, too. As the House will know, we have just secured agreement with our European partners to a target reduction of 15 per cent. by the year 2010, with appropriate burden sharing.

We believe it to be vital that Heads of Government in June send out a clear political signal that effective action is required when the convention parties meet at Kyoto in December. The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North said that the show is on the road as a result of Rio; we now need to make more progress.

I agree with the hon. Member for Oldham, West that climate change is important. We have accepted the scientific advice that we have heard on the subject. Scientific opinion differs, but we have taken the side of what we believe to be good advice about the dangers. We look to other countries to follow our lead by reducing their emissions, so that we can ensure that the pace and extent of change are manageable. We will be pressing hard at the special session for new commitments in this area.

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The hon. Members for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North and for Truro (Mr. Taylor) raised the question of tax on aviation fuel, which we regard as an important subject. The hon. Member for Truro rightly said that it needs to be dealt with at international level. We have been pressing for international action through the international civil aviation organisations convention. We believe that to be the right forum for dealing with aviation fuel tax, but we accept that progress in that forum has been slow. We are also, therefore, pressing for commitments at the Kyoto convention to action on aviation fuel tax.

There have also been many other institutional developments since Rio: the convention to combat desertification, and agreements on migratory fish stocks, on the protection of the oceans from land-based sources of pollution, and on the sustainable development of small island developing states. The establishment, funding and replenishment of the global environment facility was a great advance.

I can assure hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Truro, that the Government remain strongly committed to the global environmental facility, and we intend to play a positive role in the replenishment negotiations and to achieve a satisfactory replenishment. We come to the discussions from a background of being one of the major contributors to that facility--we are the fifth largest contributor, having put in £130 million. We are therefore punching our weight. We think that it is an important fund, which must be replenished and which will provide the links needed between the north and south.

Hon. Members have also mentioned the Commission on Sustainable Development. In its first five years, the commission has looked at the whole of Agenda 21, which the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) discussed. In our view, the commission needs to concentrate its efforts on a limited number of issues on which it can make a distinct contribution.

The commission has already shown that it has a role to play in launching initiatives--for instance, setting up the intergovernmental panel on forests at the 1995 session. At the 1996 session, the decision on oceans showed that it can provide a lead in calling for improvements in the international institutional machinery for dealing with this pressing issue. We also see the Commission on Sustainable Development as a forum for inter-sessional meetings on the subject of finance--

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