Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)

Question Number



  240. Going back nearly ten years ago, she managed to drag George Bush Senior to the Rio Conference, how important is it in the light of what you were saying earlier about the position of the United States, the greatest global power in the world, that George Bush Junior is there?
  (Mr Porritt) I think it is pretty important. It would have sent out a terrible message in Rio if George Bush had not been there, even though the outcomes of Rio would not necessarily have been different if he had not been there. It will send another very strong message if George Bush is not in Johannesburg, there is no doubt about that, and it is a macro-message to do with the role of America in promoting these interdependent initiatives.

Mr Jones

  241. That definition that you just gave "within the world's carrying capacity" would allow for a world in which there were virtually no wildlife, no wilderness. Is that a definition you are entirely happy with?
  (Mr Porritt) No, indeed not. If you look at the whole concept of what a carrying capacity is, initially you look at the notion of bio-physical constraints—

  242. I understand what carrying capacity means.
  (Mr Porritt)—on development. It does not mean a world in which all other biodiversity is eroded to permit the human species to fill the available space. That is because, if I may, biodiversity is not only about species and habitats, biodiversity is about the services which we derive from nature, services as in water purification, climate regulation, pollination, soil cleansing, a whole set of generic natural services which we depend on to secure our own economic aspirations. You can only secure those services if you secure the natural systems from which they derive.

  243. I understand that.
  (Mr Porritt) Then the question is meaningless.

  244. It is not meaningless. Within the definition that you gave, carrying capacity, the world's population could go up to 20 billion or whatever and as long as there is the carrying capacity, the total ability of the ecosystems within the world to sustain that, that would be okay according to your definition, but it would leave no room for a great deal of the biodiversity which currently exists on the planet.
  (Mr Porritt) But, with great respect, you are limiting your understanding of biodiversity to a habitats and species level. That is an incorrect definition of biodiversity. You need to construe biodiversity not just in terms of habitats and species but of the services that we derive from those habitats which permit this species to prosper. So to talk about 20 billion people eroding the available natural capital on which we depend is a meaningless concept because we would destroy the services which make life possible for us.

  245. We are getting into a semantic argument again.
  (Mr Porritt) It is a very, very important argument. Do not get me wrong, people endlessly minimise their understanding of, or seek to deliberately misunderstand what we mean by, biodiversity. We are not talking about the protection of the charismatic mega-fauna and the odd campaign to protect the world's rainforests, what we are talking about is a much, much bigger challenge, which is how we secure the natural services of that set of assets, those capital assets, in such a way that our species can prosper as well as any other species. Look at watershed protection. Sure, you can fill every single watershed in the world with more human beings, but if ultimately you destroy the capacity of the watershed to cleanse water, to regulate climate, to hold water, to retain it in the upper areas of the watershed rather than release it downstream and therefore eliminate flooding, you destroy a set of natural services which make our life possible. That is what biodiversity means in a more holistic way. It is the failure of politicians sometimes to construe biodiversity properly and look at natural services, not species and habitats, which leads to these fairly profound misunderstandings of what carrying capacity means.

  246. I am sorry but I will just have to carry on with the simplistic view that words mean what they say in dictionaries.
  (Mr Porritt) That never got us anywhere, did it?

Mr Thomas

  247. It is not just politicians of course because part of your remit is to explain this to the public.
  (Mr Porritt) It is.

  248. Let us look in practical terms about post-Johannesburg. If we look back at what happened in Rio and the things which flowed from it—Agenda 21, biodiversity, a change in legislation, corporate responsibility which was not heard about ten years ago and is now on the agenda here—what would you hope at the UK domestic level would come out of Johannesburg which we could apply here as politicians and which you as the Commission would be trying to promote with us and for us and then within the public at large? Are there clear signs at the moment of the sort of things which could be happening there? In the light of what we heard earlier, which is an important development agenda but it is not necessarily directly relevant to public policy in this area, what would you expect to come out of Johannesburg which would be directly relevant and which you would be working on as a Commission?
  (Mr Porritt) As I understand it now, and I am not sure I have any greater insight into how the agenda for Johannesburg is eventually going to end up than anyone else, we are not going to end up with a whole set of new legal international instruments of the kind which were secured in Rio. So I do not think we are going to be able to come out of Johannesburg with a product of that kind. That actually makes it much harder to articulate the benefits of Johannesburg to the UK electorate, who will be looking for something quite concrete rather than for opportunities for politicians to get out there and talk their way through the sustainable development agenda. It is going to be very difficult. In that respect, we share the challenge with DEFRA and others of saying, "How are we going to make this relevant to people here in the UK? What can we do to make Johannesburg a living bit of the calendar so they can find their own way of relating to it." I have already said we have a meeting coming up next week, we have a big discussion as to how we are going to play our part in that communication challenge. Unfortunately, it will not come about by saying, "Here is this convention or that treaty or this instrument which will suddenly move the whole debate further forward." It is not going to happen like that.


  249. Have you had any part in the communications strategy so far? Have you had any discussion with DEFRA, because they have already started, as you know? We have had, as MPs, letters a month or so ago—some people say that is already too late—have you had any discussions?
  (Mr Porritt) We have indeed.

  250. What part have you played in that?
  (Mr Porritt) Personally?

  251. Or the Commission.
  (Mr Porritt) The Secretariat has had meetings with both the SDU and EPINT to talk about what role there is for us in this communications strategy they are developing. We see ourselves as very much a supporter of that. Because of our UK remit we think we do have a role interpreting the Johannesburg stuff and making it relevant for people back here in the UK. In our Review, which we sent you, Chairman, just to give you an example of how we are trying to do this, in the Review we published last year we took these big picture issues like low turn-out at elections, riots in English towns, climate change, flooding, which are very much in the headline news and said, "These do touch people's lives, they really do and they are, whether you are necessarily owning this bit of it or not, all about sustainable development, about more sustainable ways of creating and distributing wealth here in the UK." So we have already taken on the big challenge of trying to re-interpret conventional media coverage of issues through a sustainability prism, and that is the same sort of challenge we are going to try and take up in Johannesburg.

  252. This (indicating) is the report you are referring to?[5]

  (Mr Porritt) That is the report I am referring to, yes.

  253. How many people saw this? How widely was it circulated?
  (Mr Porritt) 5,000? 4,500 I am told. We would love our communications budget to be substantially enhanced. Is this the point where I make the plug about under-funding? Well, Chairman, I think the Sustainable Development Commission is badly under-funded to take on this communications challenge and we would very much like to talk to Government about it.

  Chairman: So is the Environmental Audit Committee! We are very badly under-funded!

Mr Thomas

  254. In the light of what you said about the communications problem I wonder whether your work in the UK is going to be effective at all. Are you not going to carry on flooding your sustainable development message which is already worked out, or nearly worked out, responding to the UK Government's agenda—and there might be another agenda there about taxation and so forth on climate change, which is the task which faces us all? Is Johannesburg going to make a blind bit of different to your work as a Commission?
  (Mr Porritt) Yes, it is.

  255. But you are not sure what yet?
  (Mr Porritt) Many other people sitting in this chair coming from the environmental movement will be very, very cynical about all this globe-trotting, international agreement diplomacy, and they say it is all just opportunities for politicians to parade, it never really does anything—

  256. I am not questioning it from that point of view, but if we do not have anything new coming out of Johannesburg, if it is just going to be a re-evaluation—
  (Mr Porritt) I think there will be some genuinely new things. I am aware, for instance, of some of the new things coming forward in the UK initiatives on water, forestry, energy, tourism and finance. In the finance initiative there is a small but significant new product called the London Principles which the UK Government is going to seek to persuade all large private sector interests in the financial services sector to adopt as a set of operating principles as they relate to developing countries. So there will be some new things, but I cannot pretend that our work programme has been significantly influenced by Johannesburg. Our work programme was developed on the basis of what we thought were priority areas for the UK and we will now seek to make whatever contribution we can to the Johannesburg agenda.

Mr Challen

  257. I do apologise for missing the first part, I had another engagement, so this may already have been covered. I hear what you say about the abuse of the word "globalisation" and agree with you on that point but I wonder if I can ask whether you feel trade liberalisation is having a benign effect or not on this process, particularly as we seem to be redefining sustainable development a little away from the environment and more towards anti-poverty strategies and so on? Could it be that tackling poverty is now just a new, trendy way of saying that we need to be selling more of our services particularly into poorer countries? There have been some examples. I think the WDM talked about water services in Ghana as one example of how things are being done correctly. Clare Short has said in a Parliamentary Answer that what we need is proper privatisation backed up with good regulation. It seems to me we have plenty of people, transnationals and so on, ready to privatise anything they can get their hands on, but we do not have the capacity for good regulation, and we are just going to be continually finding there is a mismatch. Would you comment on that set of assertions?
  (Mr Porritt) Chairman, I think I have probably over-stepped my role as Chairman of the Commission on so many occasions today. I am just beginning to think about the implications of this.


  258. I do not think the Commission will mind.
  (Mr Porritt) I hope the Commission will not mind but I think I ought to be constrained in giving an answer to that by virtue of the fact we have never talked about it on the Commission, let alone actually come up with a collective opinion on it.

  259. Perhaps you could go into Porritt-mode.
  (Mr Porritt) All I would say is that it is impossible to imagine how we are going to arrive at a sustainable global economy without a very powerful role being played by the private sector. If that aligns me with what Clare Short was saying, then I am with her on that front because I just cannot see it. If you look for instance at the water issue which both she and the WDM have endlessly referred to, a lot of the resources for dealing with those issues—the sanitation issues, access to better water—do lie in the private sector not necessarily in government aid flows or NGOs. How are we going to liberate that energy within the private sector to bring those assets to bear on what is an unbelievable set of needs which have to be addressed in developing countries? That is the big issue. Quite honestly, at the moment the globalisation debate has gone off track because most people in developing countries look at the way the private sector has sought to squeeze value out of the water assets and said, "No, thank you very much." The water summits have very clearly demonstrated that unless the private sector is prepared to engage on a different basis, it is not going to be a welcome partner in bringing water services, sanitation services, to many people in the developing world. It is not that the role of the private sector is not a legitimate role, it is the basis on which that role is mediated in many of these countries. That is the issue. It seems to me futile to talk about whether there is or is not a role for the private sector. Obviously there is a role.

5   "Review. Headlining sustainable development", Sustainable Development Commission, November 2001. Back

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