Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. But before that you have spoken about the possibility of inter-ministerial consultation in New York in April chaired by Jan Pronk in advance of COP6 Part II, to give it its full title. What is the purpose of that meeting in April in New York?
  (Mr Prescott) Michael, you went to that one. Is that the sustainable development conference?
  (Mr Meacher) Are you talking about the next CSD conference?

  41. The Jan Pronk meeting in April.
  (Mr Meacher) The extended bureau at the end of the Commission for Sustainable Development which is 17-20 April?

  42. Yes. What is it for?
  (Mr Prescott) You attended that.
  (Mr Meacher) No, we have not come to it but I would expect to be going to it.

  43. The meeting in April, next month.
  (Mr Prescott) I am sorry.
  (Mr Meacher) One or other of us will be going.

  44. What for?
  (Mr Prescott) The President has a new paper and we will discuss the Pronk paper and that will be starting again. When we come back we will hear the opinions through the Civil Service, who meet at these meetings, as to what exactly will be the American position. If their position is we are not just going to have an agreement for developed countries and it will have to be everybody then the whole thing is completely opened up again and I do not think we will get any agreement signed ahead of the next conference.

  45. Are you going to lay the foundations for COP6 Part II or is it to see whether there is any point in COP6 Part II, in which case will it go ahead?
  (Mr Prescott) It will go ahead. At the meeting of the European Group you have still got to take into account the Umbrella Group and the developing countries. We have agreed now that the conference that would have taken place in May should be reconvened in July at the request of the Americans in order that they may make their assessment. Our meeting in April in that sense is an opportunity to look at the Pronk paper, see what the latest position is of the Americans and adjust ourselves ready for the meeting in Bonn.
  (Mr Meacher) There is a whole series of preparatory meetings, "prep coms" as they are called. We had an extended session after the EU Environment Council a fortnight ago precisely to discuss climate change, the latest information, to take note of latest positions and how best we form an alliance partly to keep America on track, if possible, with developing countries, with other big countries like Russia and certainly keeping our lines open with China, etc. We all tried to concert tactics in preparation for the next meeting. That is exactly the same purpose a month later in New York in April.

  46. Having said all that, what are the prospects for the meeting in Bonn in the summer?
  (Mr Meacher) I think really everything does depend—I hate to say this—on the American position. It is true, as John said, that we can ratify Kyoto, we need 55 countries and developed countries representing 55 per cent of emissions by those countries to ratify. We can do that without the US but it would be an extraordinary thing, in my view, to allow the world's largest polluter to go on polluting and the rest of us tighten our belts in order to meet these targets. There is something extraordinarily bizarre and perverse about that. That is why it is so important to keep America on track. We just do not know at this point where these contradictory signals coming out of Washington are going to lead to. I cannot believe that the United States is going to walk away totally from Kyoto. If they do they will have to return, in my view. It will not necessarily be to Kyoto but to something similar. I find it very difficult to believe that given the movement in public opinion amongst industrial leaders and the fact that republican senators have said to us "it is not that we like Kyoto, we like climate change, but this is something we have got to address". There are undoubtedly persons at top level positions in the administration who believe that this is a serious issue that the United States has got to be a partner in.
  (Mr Prescott) And there will be a different Presidency on the European side.
  (Mr Meacher) That is also true.

Mr Savidge

  47. And possibly on the American side. Sorry.
  (Mr Meacher) It is a mosaic and each time the kaleidoscope changes. It is very difficult to say. I do not think we would do it if we thought that we were bound for failure. We do think there is a good possibility of success but I would not put it too high.

Mr Loughton

  48. Minister, when you last gave evidence on climate change negotiations in 1999 you said that the major problem was the prospects for "hot air" trading. What has happened on that? Has it been overtaken by more important events or put on the back burner or what?
  (Mr Prescott) It was an essential issue. This is a very good example of the trading emissions, "hot air", etc. In all those areas they were the things that clinched it at Kyoto. People signed up on the basis that you could do emissions trading or CDM, etc. I think it persuaded an awful lot of industry to take part and they could see there was a possibility due to the experiments the Americans had done in this area on emissions trading and trading actually achieved. BP here were doing some of the internal trading. That was quite an important gain. Frankly, those things will not be lost but, of course, you need an international treaty to be able to trade in it. It was an essential reason why a number of people signed up. The "hot air" issue was one of the difficulties about Russia. Russia got—I perhaps ought to be careful about my words—a very good deal out of it but that was because it was tired at the end and everybody wanted an agreement. Now they are well placed with "hot air" to want to do the trading but you want an international agreement for it.
  (Mr Meacher) "Hot air" remains a problem but, to see it in perspective, Russian "hot air", because of the looseness of their targets, might involve something like 300 million tonnes of extra CO2 and they are getting all the financial benefit of the credits. If you then look at sinks, and of course sinks has overtaken "hot air" as the big essential loophole, I have already mentioned the figures for sinks at the top estimate threshold are between one and three-quarters and two billion tonnes, so it is a very different scale, but "hot air" still remains a problem.

Joan Walley

  49. I want to try to draw out lessons that can be learned from what has happened. The way that the discussion has gone so far, I realise that we have got to draw a line under what has happened and when the meetings come back in July we have really got to start afresh. Given the fact that we have got a new US Presidency and a different European Presidency as well, I just wonder given the various concerns that have been set out about, for example, principles like contraction and convergence, which I know our Environment Minister has been very involved with, do you think that things could change so much that things that might have been impossible or perhaps not even thought of at the earlier stages of the debate that we have had are things that could be brought up afresh in readiness for July?
  (Mr Prescott) I do not think we actually go back to square one completely. The fact that we had Kyoto means that the world has basically accepted that targets have a role to play, albeit it is the developed countries to begin with. The big key often was to try to find the connection to the developing countries and that was what we were working quite strongly on until it broke down. We have those targets and we have the mechanisms by which countries are prepared to make their adjustments and changes which we have been talking about, whether it is "hot air", CDM, emissions trading, all those kinds of things, and people have accepted that these are the mechanisms that can help achieve those targets, they were written into Kyoto. Therefore, we have that and are hoping that is not thrown out because eventually it was to applying to developing countries but the first stage was to make sure it applied to the over 40 developed countries. The big question now is going to be if the Americans stick to their line of saying it has got to apply to everybody immediately then I think the reaction of the developing countries where you have to get consensus will be to go back to quite a strong exchange between the parties, between the developing countries and the rich countries, and we will go back to the old arguments we were having before Kyoto. That would be sad. That would be a step backwards, I do not think there is any doubt about that. It will hang on what the general positions are. Since this is quite a global position, I think, for countries like America the argument is "do you want to lead" and the Americans usually like to lead. I can remember the conversations that Michael and I had in the later stages of negotiations in Kyoto and the real importance for the Japanese was that they wanted to be less than the Americans and the importance for the Americans was they wanted to be less than the Europeans and it was always at what per cent, so whatever level you went to could we have that relationship and we had to say to the Americans "if you do not want to lead the world any more, we will do it".

  50. Given the whole changed position now of the American Presidency and given, if you like, the scope that there is for even more UK leadership in trying to reach some kind of agreement, what has been your response? Have you had an official response?
  (Mr Prescott) From?

  51. Have you actually given an official response?
  (Mr Prescott) From the Americans?

  52. To the Americans on the fact that Russia has now changed its stance completely and is not saying what was said by Christine Whitman at an earlier stage?
  (Mr Prescott) Our position is for the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to obviously engage in a dialogue with the American administration and say "look, we think this is the position". We were very encouraged by the Environment Minister G8 meeting but since then we have had the American President give his opinion and we will continue to engage with them at all levels.

  53. If one of the things that has changed across Europe is greater understanding, what scope is there between now and July, for example, for that special relationship that our Prime Minister has with America to use that special relationship to try to bring about greater public awareness about the importance of the Kyoto Protocol and the importance of it being ratified and the importance of America taking a key role in that?
  (Mr Prescott) I think public opinion and the NGOs are quite powerful in these matters really and the changing opinion in American public opinion is the same as it has been in Europe. They are conscious about the weather considerations and what they see on the television and that has made a difference in America as it has here. No doubt the President will want to take that into account. They do not need any encouragement, the people are very committed to this. Where it would be quite strong was if the American President was to say "as far as I am concerned, I am not doing it just for America, it is going to be every country" and that would be read by everybody who sees that as a step backwards in agreement unless you can get those countries to agree. We have used a lot of energy and time particularly on major countries like China and India. We have travelled a lot to those countries to argue the case with them to find agreement prior to these conferences, but they feel it is a bit of a cheek if the developed countries start to lecture them on what they should be doing about greenhouse gas emissions, CO2, all that. They say "you did it, just show you are going to do something. Yes, we do want our industrialisation but do not start telling us what we have to do in the first stage until you show you are prepared to do something about it yourselves". I find that to be a very powerful argument and we do have to make that stand, it was accepted by all the developed countries. If we are now throwing that away, or if America says they are no longer going to accept that, that is a serious setback, there is no doubt about that. You have got to remember the other timetable is I think it is in 2002 that we have Rio 10 when all the nations will come together and talk about what a wonderful world and how we have got to save it for our children's children. Hopefully that will put pressure on them to get agreement but it is so easy to slide into rhetoric.

  54. Do you think that in the meantime in terms of Rio plus ten there will be scope for Europe to go ahead and supply ratification irrespective of the US?
  (Mr Prescott) Again, I have to say to my European colleagues in this sense that it is fine to be in the vanguard and say "we want 15 per cent", and the person who pushed that very hard to the President was the Dutch Minister and she did not last six months after because they found that very difficult to achieve, but there is one thing about rhetoric and another about targets to achieve them. Britain has given its programme and in the programme produced by the Commission it showed that we were well ahead of any country in setting in hand the programmes to achieve the targets that we had agreed in the UN and in Europe. Most other countries have not even begun to implement those policies. There are very big questions. We are taking a lead and we show that we do it by the policies and we have tried to highlight that in the documents before you.

  55. Some would say that the way we have been able to meet those targets, much of it has been to do with dash for gas and now we need to start going much more quickly down the routes of alternatives.
  (Mr Prescott) In the first stage it was more to do with smash the pump.

  56. In terms of the US and what we can do between now and July, is there any scope for the Prime Minister being able to perhaps have some special meeting with the President to discuss this? Is there scope for the US electricity companies in this country to have some kind of meeting here whereby we can perhaps ask why they have been lobbying so strongly with their US links against what we are trying to achieve on Kyoto?
  (Mr Prescott) I hear a great deal of European arguments in this country but when we were negotiating we were a much more powerful force being a European continental negotiator than we were as a European nation. It was not the Brits up front, it was the fact it represented the European case, quite a powerful case, and that is a powerful influence in any international negotiations. Anyone who is involved in those negotiations knows that to be true. I think at the coming Stockholm conference where the Prime Ministers are meeting under the Swedish Presidency, they will certainly be talking about that. There is a great opportunity for Europe to lead the way. In fact, I think it did play a very powerful part and without Europe we would not have had a Kyoto agreement. There were individual contributions and we might talk about the divisions but at the end of the day it was Europe as a Group of European nations with its powerful influence that brought that about. What we have is a margin of disagreement between ourselves, but there is more going for the agreement. The leaders are very much committed to it. Under the French presidency, they made a very strong statement about it and I think we have a chance of leading in that way. We should take it and I think we will. We spent so many years in these negotiations. If you just say to the developing countries, "We are not doing it now unless you guys do it", forget about any agreement.

Mr Grieve

  57. I did wonder whether the US or the United Kingdom position were really so far apart. The government here has taken a number of decisions. One is not to tax the use of energy in the domestic sector, so we have not got carbon taxes. Secondly, the desire to see a reduction in electricity prices for domestic users. Thirdly, we had the whole business of a moratorium on gas fired power stations. Curiously, looking at those three issues on carbon emissions, those strike me as being rather compatible with the sort of noises which President Bush himself has been making because, if you look at what he has been saying, apart from the dislike of Kyoto as a mechanism, the, perhaps rather vague, utterances he seems to have been making seem to highlight exactly the same points and concerns which are a desire to see a reduction in carbon gas emissions but a dislike of fiscal mechanisms to achieve it because of an anxiety over economic consequences. Do you share that view or do you think that you are in fundamental disagreement with President Bush and the American administration in terms of their approach?
  (Mr Prescott) I do not know what his view is. We must wait and see. We had a great deal of agreement with the previous administration under Vice-President Gore. Without his initiative, we would not have got a Kyoto agreement because at the end of the day it boiled down to Japan, America and European negotiators agreeing a package. If he says that the developing countries have to do exactly as the developed countries before there is an agreement to ratification, I think you have a real problem, but I will wait to see what happens. How you achieve your targets can be done in different ways. They are being done in different ways in Europe and perhaps in America. Is he saying he rejects the targets? As I understand it in one case, he has said that he rejects the Kyoto targets. That is going right back to square one. If you say, "I do not want to do the same things as you do", who would want to destroy their car industry which previous administrations did, frankly, but it did give us that environmental advantage. There is no doubt, if we were ahead as we were in most other countries of achieving those targets, it largely became because of the change of the use of coal. I had to recognise that was one major contributing factor to Britain achieving its targets. The Americans might find it very difficult to impose the kind of European fuel cost to their cars but there might be other ways of doing it and that is what trading is very good for. We were concerned and the Europeans were. You can do it all by sinks and trading if you want and do nothing about anything in the domestic economy. What we are strong about, if we are doing it in our domestic economy, so should you and that was one of the differences between us. There are different pathways to achieving the objectives. If the American administration is saying to us that the targets at Kyoto are not acceptable either, you do not have an agreement on anything. We have an agreement. We have all signed for it. We have to wait and see whether America will say they are not going to agree it.

Mr Savidge

  58. With the President's letter, I take a less happy view of it than Dominic does. When I see a letter that starts by saying, "My Administration takes the issue of global climate change very seriously", but then goes on to make the point, "... I oppose the Kyoto Protocol ...", reneges on its only environmental campaign pledge, says it will give priority to commerce, costs and consumers rather than to carbon reductions and says, "We have incomplete scientific knowledge", I have to say if it was anybody else who had written that I would be questioning either their intelligence or their integrity. Since it is the allegedly elected President of the United States, I could not possibly do that or ask you to do that but do you not find a certain inconsistency between the initial warm words and what he then goes on to say?
  (Mr Prescott) I am reminded that, when President Reagan came, there was an awful lot said about him but he did achieve some remarkable things in certain global negotiations. I had a similar view about Thatcher at the time, but using conventional opinion is not necessarily right. It is the early stage of the administration. They are having to take into account all sorts of things. Since they have asked for the July meeting, we should do them the courtesy of waiting to see exactly what happens. The President has to deal with all sorts of things, commitments etc., but since he has asked for July and since the environment person appointed, who Michael met, has no problems about signing up to language on Kyoto, assuming the debate is going on, I would wait to see the conclusion of it. I would like to see that they will go along. If they accept Kyoto targets, I would like to see them say that they have extra responsibility as a developed country. If they can accept those two propositions, we have a chance of working out an agreement. We need to work out an agreement, quite frankly. Most of the world and most of our electorate knows something has to be done. Something has to change. I will wait to see those forces exercise their pressures on an American President or even the European president.

Mr Grieve

  59. Have you been having direct dealings with people like Christine Whitman of the EPA, who seems to have adopted the new administration, a point of view which in theory would seem to me to lead inexorably towards the Kyoto targets?
  (Mr Prescott) I could not go to that conference but even during the negotiations in the conference I did think the Americans played a considerable part in it and I do know that they wanted to find an agreement and I was in personal conversations with Vice-President Gore about that, because they came to an agreement at Kyoto and we had the same exchanges of what the American commitment was for an agreement. I was convinced they would do an agreement at The Hague as they did at Kyoto. Despite everybody saying the Americans would not go to zero, they did a good job and that could have happened on this occasion. It is a new administration; they represent the American people now and we should treat that very seriously and listen to what they have to say. We were encouraged after Michael's discussion at the G8, but we have to wait and see.
  (Mr Meacher) I think that is right. Let us be perfectly frank about this: there is a power struggle going on in Washington. There are very different elements with different views of climate change. The state department was more pro climate change at Kyoto than, say, the domestic, economics department. There is a struggle and it is not clear at this stage how exactly that is going to be resolved or what the balance of forces is going to be in July. A good deal depends on this new negotiator but decisions may well be taken at a higher level, at President or Vice-President level. That is where the power is being wielded at the moment, but we have to see results and we have to keep open the possibility of an agreement. We cannot responsible simply write off what the Americans do because they are so important in terms of a generation of greenhouse gas emissions. I repeat what I said earlier: this is not just an environmental issue. This is a fundamental issue of foreign policy relations between all the major countries of the world.
  (Mr Prescott) The key will be who they appoint as negotiator at the end of the day because the President is not going to be involved in this from day to day; it is that negotiator. We will measure that. There has always been a conflict between the state department negotiations and the Environmental Protection Agency in these circumstances. We have found it before but it is usually the negotiator who is the key.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. That was a very useful session. Thank you once again for coming along at relatively short notice, considering all the other things you have to deal with today. In return for me saying I look forward to what you have to say about the environmental audit report, we expect a favourable response.

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