Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)

Question Number



Ian Lucas

  220. Is not the reality of the problem of sustainable development that it has not registered with the majority of the population in this country? Sustainability issues are issues that are raised with us by what is a minority group within our electorate, but in my experience the types of issues that concern us today have still not taken that step-leap through to the general consciousness. So that the whole idea of sustainable development is not understood at the present time. I would be interested in knowing how you would like to try to make that leap. I think it is absolutely essential. Secondly, is it not the case that the reason why it is not high on the list of priorities of the Government departments that you refer to (and you mentioned the Department of Health) is because that step-leap in the general political consciousness has not been made by the general population? In other words, it is much more important for the Department of Health to be concentrating on waiting lists politically than it is for them to be concentrating on sustainable development. Is it not about time we all got real about this, because there is a political class that is having this discussion, and it is a different discussion to what the general public are having?
  (Mr Porritt) Yes, we share a lot of your concern about the degree to which sustainable development remains a pretty alien concept in terms of the vast majority of people in this and most other European and other countries. There is no question about that. So that will show you just how little understood and recognised—let alone owned—the concept of sustainable development is. I am absolutely at one with you about that, and that is certainly a big challenge for us, which is why, out of the five main elements in our work programme, one key element is our communications work specifically to add what we can to that overarching challenge of making sustainable development a more useful, comprehensible and accessible concept than it is now. I am absolutely with you on the analysis. I think there is a bit of "chicken and egg" here about whether it is the political will that would help drive increased public knowledge and understanding of these issues, or whether the politicians, as it were, will only own it and use the concept more powerfully when there is a bigger push from the public. I think there is a bit of a "chicken and egg" job going on there. I am not completely down-cast by this, although I must admit that we all suffer under the really hideous jargon we have to use in this world. Our jargon is not helpful to us and we have been absolutely up-front in acknowledging that. I am not down-cast because this concept is, in public terms, very new. At the most you are talking about a decade. To seek to influence people's mind-sets, their perspectives on personal development, progress, their models of what is going to happen in the big wide world, within a decade you do not do much more than scratch the surface of where whole nations are going. The take-up has been much better than some people have allowed for. So I am not too disheartened on that score, and I am greatly heartened that when you actually do these exercises at the local level, through community-visioning processes or Local Agenda 21—whatever it might be—and when you unpack what it is that people look for in terms of improvements in their life, improved quality of life and so on and so forth, and you run through these lists that just come out time after time after time from people, it is all about the things that you would expect; it is all about improved quality of life locally, it is about the state of their local environment, it is about security issues, crime, it is about jobs and the quality of work—it is all of the things you would expect, which, when you bundle them up, is sustainable development. So people may not say "I care passionately about sustainable development" and take that to their respective representatives in an electoral process, they do not do that, but when you ask them "What do you care about?" and you do this analysis of what actually forms a vision in people's minds, it is sustainable development. That is what they are articulating in their vision of a better world. So communication is one thing, and I believe the vision is basically there, but I do not think we have done—and with great respect I do not think many politicians have even sought to do—

  221. It has only just started.
  (Mr Porritt) Absolutely. You are the Environmental Audit Committee, but you could have been the Sustainable Development Audit Committee (I am just being mischievous, for the sake of argument).


  222. It nearly was, but John Prescott thought no one would understand what that was.
  (Mr Porritt) Exactly. We have got Green Ministers, even though the remit for the Green Ministers is a sustainable development remit. It is a very interesting issue, not daring to take on the challenge amongst ourselves and not actually confronting this and saying "Okay, this is not the easiest concept to work with but if we do not work with it it is never going to get any easier."

  223. We had a problem, frankly, with the Secretary of State for International Development in the previous session, because what she posited—and I think I am quoting her now—was that the dominant voice in the environmental community was anti-development.
  (Mr Porritt) That is rubbish.

  224. This was, in essence, her view, that the typical, Northern hemisphere environmentalist—

  (Mr Porritt) The Secretary of State is extremely well-known for her difficulty with encompassing where the modern environmental movement is, and for her one-woman campaign to seek to belittle the work done by an awful lot of environmental NGOs to knit environmental, social and economic concerns in a genuinely integrated approach to development. It is a bee which she has in her bonnet that buzzes regularly and forlornly. It would be enormously helpful if she actually up-dated herself on the work that is being done by many of those environmental NGOs to make development a very powerful concept indeed. The old-fashioned notion of environmentalists as protectionists who say "Don't go there, don't do this, build absolutely nothing absolutely anywhere near anybody"—all of that kind of stereo-typing of environmentalists—is just caught-in-a-time-warp stuff. It is very important to get out of that stereo-typing of environmentalists as nay-sayers, people who are down on progress and development.

  Chairman: She did insist that she went round the country and met a lot of these people, characterised as she did.

Mr Thomas

  225. I just wanted to pick up on that, because it was an interesting session earlier on with the Secretary of State. She certainly has a very strong agenda, but I do feel that some of the comments you made might have actually encouraged her in her thinking or might encourage some others in their thinking. You mentioned earlier, when you were asked by Mr Jones about sustainable development, that it was the stage that we were in of the industrial revolution. When you were talking about visioning and Local Agenda 21, for instance, you talked about the way people put their vision together at a local community level and how it encompassed all these things together. It was a very western view of quality of life. Though I appreciate that your Commission has a domestic UK agenda, it must be tremendously exciting to have a world conference, a world summit, on sustainable development happening. Yet, how can we close this gap between the concept of sustainable development, which has undoubtedly emerged from western thought and western ideas and a post-industrial world, and how can we apply that to a developing world in a way that does not hold back the basic human right of access to food, water and some element of energy? We were told at the time—and no doubt you will say—that it is possible to do it, and you have seen some examples yourselves of how it is possible to do it, for example in the application of solar power in Southern Africa, whatever it might be. However, the concept still seems to be a concept that comes from developed countries, industrialised countries, dealing with the environmental degradation of the industrialisation they created and is, therefore, not seen as being really applicable to developing countries. In Johannesburg is there not a danger we will just go back to the developing countries' agenda, back to the poverty alleviation agenda, and the environmental and sustainable development and the wider concept will move back and in fact we will have made no progress at all?
  (Mr Porritt) That is the danger certainly. The discussions and the preparatory meetings, as you know, have been very polarised, with many people from developing countries absolutely adamant that Johannesburg will not be Rio, that it will be a conference that addresses their principal concerns first and foremost, and their principal concerns are to do with equity, poverty, access to the world economy and so on. So there is a sense maybe we are not beginning to integrate any of these concerns in the way we should do. In answer to your question about whether this is a Western concept, I really fight against that. It completely ignores, for instance, the incredibly powerful contribution of NGOs in India, for instance, where thousands of NGOs at the local and national level work incredibly hard to talk about a different pattern of economic development which does not destroy the natural capital and natural resources on which that Sub-Continent depends. That is not an anti-development movement, that is a very powerful NGO contribution to a different pattern of development. I would be nervous of saying this is a Western concept. If you go back to 1987 and the Brundtland Report and you look at the membership of the Brundtland Commission—it is worth going back to the origins here—to bill that as a Western impulse would be completely wrong. That whole commission came into being specifically to find ways of talking about development in the poorer parts of the world without causing the environmental damage that we have done historically in our part of the world. That is what it did. The starting premise was how do you find a better model of development which will help people in poorer countries, not how do we create more effective patterns of environmental protection in the Western world. I would strongly take a line that this is not a Western concept, this is a universalistic concept which allows for different interpretation whether you are in Canada or India or whatever it might, quite obviously because different countries are in different parts of their growth curve.

  226. It is interesting and valuable you have reminded us about the Brundtland Report and the Commission, because that is presumably what some people are trying to achieve now in Johannesburg which, as far as I am concerned, is not going to happen and we will have in fact another agenda pasting over but not on top of what should be a sustainable development agenda. You said as a Commission in your Review that the forthcoming World Summit would be the place where the ground rules for a genuinely inclusive, equitable and sustainable global economy can be put in place, and you have just mentioned that yourself in a sense. What sort of ground rules can those be? Are there examples in this country of it working and things which you know about as a Commission which you would like to see applied on a more worldwide level? Just to take an example of where the difficulty of ground rules comes up, it must be around transnational corporations and corporate responsibilities. How can we have a building of ground rules in Johannesburg? You said it could be different in Canada and in India and, yes, it needs to be different, but what are the ground rules, what are the basic environmental and social considerations which everyone needs to apply? Is it not the case that at the moment we are going round as parliamentarians or governments trying to get institutions to apply some ground rules, whether it is the WTO or the World Bank, whereas the real power is now lying with the corporations? There is a huge change in these corporations, they are not necessarily the way we always thought of them, but they nevertheless apply different rules in different countries and they certainly apply different social rules in different countries. How can that be squared with sustainable development? An easy answer please! Is it possible to put in sustainable development and have ground rules to look at it?
  (Mr Porritt) As you know, that is an extremely dense area of very lively debate, which is the debate about can one talk of standardised, global rules for large multinational entities, wherever they are operating, or does one have to allow for a certain amount of local sensitivity and local adaptability according to the conditions of the country in which that company is then operating. To be honest, there is a constant battle going on between those two elements.

  227. But does that adaptability not lead to things like Bhopal?
  (Mr Porritt) At the worst end of it, that kind of double standard leads to the kind of abuses and disasters of which Bhopal is one, which rightly made many multinational companies sit up and think, "That is not a good place to be." If you look at the large multinational companies now, many of them would not dream of building plants to a different set of technical specifications in the developing world because they would know that simply was not going to work any longer. They put the plant in at exactly the same technical specifications. When it comes to paying the people in the plant, they would still say, "We are bound by the market constraints in this market, not by a set of standards for a global payment system", so they would differentiate in some of their social and economic policies.

  228. But it is a global market.
  (Mr Porritt) It is a global market but clearly there are differences in different parts of that global market, as we all know. That is why we have such difficulties in this respect. So the issue of globalisation is bound to loom over Johannesburg, it will not go away, and in many respects the big picture challenge for governments coming together in Johannesburg is to see if they can begin to enunciate a more or less helpful concept of responsible globalisation. Globalisation is not going to go away. We live in a global economy, that economy is becoming increasingly interconnected, networked, interdependent, and that brings both benefits and costs. It is foolish to stereotype this debate as the global economy being all wonderful or all wicked; it is an absolutely ridiculous debate we have fallen into. There is a real challenge which actually I think the UK Government has a serious leadership contribution to make on, which is what we mean by responsible globalisation. What would it look like? How does the private sector work with international institutions to fashion patterns of intervention in developing countries which eliminates some of these externalities and abuses? How do we, as you said, reform organisations like the WTO and the World Bank to fit with a more engaged concept of responsible wealth creation. That is not an anti-development message at all, not at all, absolutely not, but how do you get those things knitted together in both the public and private sectors.

  229. You have rejected that anti-development message; the idea that the environment or sustainable development is in itself an anti-development concept.
  (Mr Porritt) Indeed.

  230. I think we can see how it can be interpreted that way, but then all concepts can be interpreted the wrong way.
  (Mr Porritt) I would say, with great respect, that the essence of sustainable development is that you cannot interpret it in an anti-development way. That is why it is such a significant improvement on some of the old-fashioned—I did not mean it pejoratively, I meant it analytically - concepts of the environment which did indeed in their worst manifestation lurch into elitist, Western protectionism. You cannot do that with sustainable development because it is about changing the patterns of development, not stopping development.

  231. Do you think on reflection then that Rio tended a little towards that, emphasising environmentalism above sustainable development, always excepting that ten years ago our concept of sustainable development was not as well worked out as it is now? If you accept that, that sustainable development on a worldwide scale is not there yet, what can be done in Johannesburg to ensure that that development aspect, whatever it may be—certainly not portrayed by the Secretary of State earlier on—either does not happen or is not used as an excuse to hold back the other aspects of sustainable development? Otherwise, surely, Johannesburg will collapse into a North/South divide, an anti-development/development perspective, and excuses will be made about sustainable development and out of that will come a bad image for sustainable development?
  (Mr Porritt) I think that is the worst case scenario which I think everyone is working extremely hard to ensure does not happen. The likelihood of it happening is I think honestly remote. I think it is wrong retrospectively to interpret Rio as a narrowly environmentalist Western agenda, the international instruments which were put in place at Rio on climate change and biodiversity have an incredibly strong development element to them rather than a protection element to them. Indeed, I was referring to NGOs in countries like India, most of their concerns about the Biodiversity Convention is that they are not sufficiently tuned to the protection of natural resources in developing countries, they are not getting Western governments to help them more in their need to protect their natural assets. I think it has become bit easy to re-interpret Rio as an environmental conference. What can be done? I think what can be done is what is being done. I would fight against counsels of despair here, I would fight against incorrect assumptions that there is a powerful group of Western NGOs going around seeking to bring Johannesburg in line with some set of narrow Western views about what environmental protection means. I do not meet these people anywhere wherever I go in the world. I do not see it. Where are they? WWF? Friends of the Earth? Greenpeace? You tell me where these people are and I will happily engage in some dialogue with them, because I genuinely do not find it these days. I think this is a straw person that Clare Short has dressed up in front of you here today and I would strongly advise you to swipe it aside.

Joan Walley

  232. I think what we have done is got to the very heart of the debate about where we are going in respect of Johannesburg. Given what you said a short while ago, that you can only scratch the surface in a ten year period, and given that that is the timescale we have from Rio to Johannesburg and that come Johannesburg we are in a time frame that is going to give us another decade of the clock ticking away, we desperately need to look to see what can be done to protect the earth's natural resources. What constructive measures can the Government take, can you take, can Ministers take, in the run-up, in the negotiations at Jakarta, at Monterrey, before Johannesburg to make this whole issue relevant so we have this issue of corporate accountability being addressed, so it is not just a question about governments and governance but also about what multinational corporations are doing, so you can apply basic environmental standards which need to be all pervasive within everything that is being done?
  (Mr Porritt) The first thing I would say is much more is happening than people know about. It is not a question of isolated, episodic examples of good practice, the odd project there, the occasional shaft of good news over there, it is not like that. There is a huge amount of integrated sustainable development already in place and going on at different levels across the world. I can refer you, for instance, to some of the extraordinary things going on in sustainable agriculture without a great deal of help from the international agencies, without a huge amount of research into this from the international agricultural research bodies. The lives of literally tens of millions of people now are being improved by very practical, on-the-ground approaches to improving yields whilst simultaneously protecting the natural assets—soil, water, biodiversity—on which that agricultural productivity depends. That research is coming into the public domain increasingly. You probably have a model in your mind of intensive agriculture going out there and stripping bare all the assets of the Third World in the interests of screwing as much yield as they possibly can for short-term gain. These perspectives we have are often quite wrong. I would urge people to actually look to the body of work that is currently going on in areas like agriculture which is already demonstrating the practicality and feasibility of more sustainable routes to long-term security, food security and so on. It is already happening. That is my first point, more is happening and we should not be quite so gloomy as we are. We fall easily into gloom because it is where we are happiest. I do not know why but it just seems to be that which gives us our adrenalin rush, when we are feeling really gloomy. The second thing is to hold up those patterns of good practice and ask, "What made them work?" How do we get behind what made them work, whether it is people, communities, institutions, funding streams, new ideas, whatever it might be, and how do we not theorise about this stuff but lend what weight we can to these proven examples of success? Forget all the grandiloquent notions about new economy and all the rest of it, just get on pragmatically at ground level and make it work. You mentioned solar energy in South Africa. The answer for hundreds of millions of people in the developing countries quite clearly is access to sustainable, renewable energy sources, without making them go through what would be a very painful curve if they had to get on to an integrated, grid-based, hydro-carbon based system; the answer to many people in the developing countries, as we know, is access to efficient, reliable, cheap, renewable energy sources. Quit theorising, just get in there and say, "Right, how do we do this? How do we do this for the whole of rural Africa? What is the amount of money involved? What institutions do we need? How do we bring this together?" It drives us bonkers because what we have to do is what we know, we do not have to think this stuff up from scratch, all of what we have to do is known, everything is known. We have to marshal the will, private sector and governmental will, to drive these known solutions through this morass of declining life quality and corruption and all the rest. That is the nature of the challenge.

Ian Lucas

  233. You mentioned solar power there. I smiled to myself because we referred to that before you arrived this morning with Clare Short and one of her civil servants, Mr Bennett. Whilst in sympathy to some extent with the line the Committee was taking with him, and what you have just said, he was I think resistant to the vision that you have, and it is interesting that you with the role that you have are at such variance with another central driver in our policy towards Johannesburg and the whole environmental agenda. What sort of discussions do you have with other important drivers of policy?
  (Mr Porritt) Good question. Have we had discussions with DFID? No, is the answer.

  234. Do you think you ought to? I think you should.
  (Mr Porritt) It sounds like it!

  235. Seriously. We have been referring to Clare Short but I think your vision actually is not as different from hers as perhaps sometimes comes across. Bearing in mind what you agree on is much more than what you disagree on, it is very important that in presenting this to the public and getting those people I was talking about earlier on board, the British Government as a voice presents what our vision is.
  (Mr Porritt) That is a good point well made. The difficulty for us is that DFID just is not in our remit. I know the WSSD is obviously sharpening up our role around this international agenda because our role as we construe it, given the remit we were given by Government, is to engage with this event and with the agenda which lies behind it and to help articulate that and disseminate it in whatever way we can back in the UK, which is our principal area of interest. So we have not had discussion with DFID, largely because we do not have an international remit. What you have done and what this discussion has done is put your finger on the fact that both DFID and the Sustainable Development Commission and others in Government are involved in giving out messages on what sustainable development means, and we probably need to be giving out coherent messages.

  236. The thing which really engages my constituents in the sustainable development issue is when you talk about development in the South, and that is what many of my constituents are interested in. This is an opportunity for you within Britain to carry forward the sustainable development message within Britain, because those people often think about it as a subject which relates only to the developing world rather than to them. So please get together.
  (Mr Porritt) I think that is a very good point.

Mr Francois

  237. You have made the point, Mr Porritt, that you do not have a specific international remit per se, that your locus is primarily domestic, but nevertheless you are entitled to an opinion. If you could boil down what you wanted to come out of Johannesburg to two or three key objectives, what would those be?
  (Mr Porritt) This is typical stuff but I would have to say that in a world where the sole remaining superpower is heading off down a line of increasingly aggressive unilateralism, a reaffirmation of interdependence is a critical output from Johannesburg. This stuff cannot be done without nations working in concert to produce mutually beneficial solutions. There is a tendency right now in the world's most powerful nation, to say, "All of that international stuff, all of that acknowledgement of and ownership of interdependence is meaningless." I do not know how much of that political agenda is going to be engaged in, but it is critical. If we want the vibrancy of interdependence, if we want prosperous, sustainable, secure futures for our children here in this country, we are only going to be able to secure that if we allow people in other countries to have the same expectations. So a much more powerful affirmation of interdependence is critical. Secondly, to come down from that rather lofty high-level ground—sorry about that—and say that we do have mechanisms available before us for driving different aspects, different elements, of this agenda, whether it is a more sustainable energy strategy for countries, whether it is sustainable agriculture, whether it is fascinating and really critical issues about increased productivity through technology shift. We can help countries go through parts of their growth curve without generating some of the old environmental externalities through the use of better technologies. There are countless opportunities in that area to do that: the role of the finance sector, which the Government has picked up on, the degree to which capital works to promote integrated benefits through foreign direct investment flows, through venture capital. Those are critical to this. It is getting integration on those kind of things which is important. That is much more operational, it is much closer to the reality of what development means in people's lives, but strong affirmation of this stuff is do-able and can be done. Otherwise we will undoubtedly revert to the frame of mind which says, "It is all too difficult, we are not going to agree on it so wait for the next round of earth-shattering disasters, whether they are disasters of 11 September kind, or disasters of melting ice caps in the Antarctic, wait for the whole thing to fall to pieces and then the ingenuity of humankind will eventually be stimulated into doing something about it." The opportunities for precautionary, anticipatory action now are still there if we seize those opportunities. Talking about your constituents, that is where we can engage. This is just as relevant an agenda to people in the UK as it is to people who are watching the outcome of Johannesburg very carefully.

  238. One of the things we grapple with is when you talk about sustainable development everybody sort of knows what you mean instinctively but it is actually very difficult to define it. We have you here today and you are Chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, what is your working definition of sustainable development?
  (Mr Porritt) We would allow people to go on using the Brundtland definition which is in the public domain and it is better that it is there than it is not but it does not do it in every respect. Our working definition is to put in place a pattern of economic development that meets people's needs and allows for the constant improvement in their quality of life within the earth's carrying capacity. So it starts with the concept of development, it does not start with the concept of environmental protection, it starts with these legitimate economic aspirations, to have needs met universally and opportunities for improvements in quality of life without this pattern of damage that has historically accompanied that development pattern in the past—the social and environmental externalities—and that is where you come on to the concept of the earth's bio-physical capacity to bear that pattern of economic development.


  239. Does not Mrs Thatcher's concept of a repairing lease rather sum that up?
  (Mr Porritt) That is a very good concept. For a brief period in her political life, as you know, Chairman, Mrs Thatcher got her head round this stuff.

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