Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Minister, welcome to the Committee. Thank you for agreeing to appear before us. This room has got catastrophic acoustics; it was clearly designed with the intention that Betty Bothroyd would be the only person who could speak publicly in it. Just for the record, Michael Meacher is the Minister for the Environment and Sarah Hendry rejoices in what must be a very grand title, Head of Global Atmosphere Division. At some stage, perhaps not now, you can tell us what that means. Minister, the idea is that this is retrospective, in a sense; a catch-up on Kyoto, because obviously with the election and the recess we need to come up to date. I want to start with the Bonn agreement, because after the agreement you described it, I think, as "a brilliant day for the environment" and, perhaps not wholly surprisingly, the Friends of the Earth described the Kyoto Protocol has having been heavily diluted and the effect on the climate massively eroded. Having thought about it and, no doubt, discussed it with them, who is right?

  (Mr Meacher) You will not be surprised, Mr Chairman, to know that although there is a hype in the early morning after an all-night session, I still stand by my words. This is not a perfect deal, and I did not say that; I said "It's a brilliant day for the environment". The reason I said that is just imagine what the headlines would have been if we had not had an agreement. They would have been something like "Climate Change Talks Collapse", "World Drifting on Climate Change", "International Leaders Cannot Agree on Most Overarching Issue Facing This Planet"—whatever. We did get an agreement. It is watered down a bit, that is perfectly true, but the essence is still there. The bottom line in all of this is the level of reduced emissions. It will achieve—and I do not think this is a disputed figure—about 140 million tonnes of carbon a year reduction in the emissions of Annex 1 countries, that is the developed countries (about 32 of them), below 1990 levels. That is a cut of about 2.8 per cent. If the US had remained in on the same agreement it would have been about a 250 million tonnes of carbon a year cut, which is about 5 per cent, but the US is not in so it is 2.8 per cent. You might say that is modest but it is not by comparison with zero. It is by comparison with "business as usual" in the developed countries. If the Kyoto Protocol had never been signed and nothing were done, probably the increase would be 15, 20 per cent, possibly more. If the United States was there, probably 25 per cent. So a minus figure at all is a substantial change around to the normal pattern of the developed economies. That is very significant. It is true that the non-participants in Kyoto targets, that is the developing countries, are expected to increase emissions by something like two billion tonnes a year between 1990 and 2010, and 140 million tonnes is only 7 per cent of that. I am being fair and putting the other side. Nevertheless, I repeat, it is very important as a start. It will get us a good way towards the 5 per cent. If the United States comes back in, which is possible, we should get to the 5 per cent as we said at Kyoto, but of course we need to go a lot further towards the 60 per cent that the scientists say is necessary to achieve stabilisation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

  2. At the Bonn agreement there was a lot of discussion about "sinks" and a number of countries, including Japan, Australia and Canada, were particularly anxious to have recognised the contributions of sinks, and concessions were made. As a result of those concessions, how many countries signing up to the agreement at Bonn actually do seem to be engaged in the process of reducing emission, and how many appear to have been given alibis?  (Mr Meacher) First of all, sinks. The level is certainly higher than the EU would have liked. The EU countries, I think to their credit, have been first of all trying to exclude sinks from the CDM. We did not succeed in that and we have been trying to put a cap on the use of domestic sinks. We did succeed in that, and to that extent, I suppose, it is a mixed result. The maximum contribution from sinks to the effort required for the Annex 1 countries to meet their Kyoto commitment is only about 15 per cent. So, still 85 per cent of the effort required to meet the targets comes from other areas. That is not a bad result. You also asked how far other countries are beginning to take action. The truth is we do not know in enough detail. Once the Protocol is ratified, of course, the national registers of each of the signatory countries are then required to make annual submissions about the progress that we have made and that, of course, at each conference of the parties annually, will become a major topic of discussion: who is up to the target, who is well short of it, why, and what can be done to get them on track.

Mr Drew

  3. If we can go on to, obviously, the key issue of American involvement, can you give us an appraisal, as objectively as possible, as to where you think the Americans now are in the process, having dropped out of it? Clearly September 11 has changed attitudes somewhat. Is there now a realisation that they need to be part of the process if not the Protocol in time?  (Mr Meacher) Of course I can only give my opinion on this, and my knowledge of this is not necessarily any greater than anyone else's. I do think the United States was taken aback at the response to President Bush's rejection of the Protocol. I do not think they expected such a strong and persistent backlash. I think the United States was again very surprised and, indeed, put on the back foot by the fact that 177 countries in the world—every other country in the world—signed up at Bonn. I do not think they expected that. Of course, it does cause discussion in the United States, in the media and amongst leaders of the United States about the isolation that that puts the United States in. Whether 11 September, which shows that even the most powerful country in the world requires a coalition in order to deal with the overriding issue that we all totally recognise, means that they will also take a view that climate change, although a totally different order of episode, nevertheless also requires a global coalition—I would hope that that connection might be made, but it remains to be seen whether they accept that. I would say that the reasons President Bush gave for rejecting the Protocol—namely, that it would damage US growth and other developing countries were not taking action—are both grounds that we would strongly contest. First of all, we estimate (and, again, I do not think this is much disputed) that it might reduce US economic growth between 1990 and 2010 by something like 0.6 per cent, when there is an estimated projected economic growth over that period of 30 per cent. Secondly, yes, it does not require developing countries to take action, but, first of all, it is the Annex 1 countries that have caused the problem, particularly the United States which, with 5 per cent of the population, generates 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Also, other countries are reducing emissions anyway, they are required to do this, and when their national registries provide data on their progress it will be seen that many of the developing countries have made significant reductions in emissions—some might say, perhaps cheekily, rather more than America has so far. Thirdly, the facts are, as we all know, developing countries will not accept targets until the Annex 1 gives a lead. So I do believe that those grounds for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol by the United States are not well-grounded and I very much hope that they will have further thoughts about this.

  4. Can I just look ahead, then, to Marrakesh. Do you think the Americans will play a part there? Will they table amendments either to the process or to the Protocol? If they will not or do not, does that mean that Marrakesh is basically just treading water?  (Mr Meacher) No. First of all, the United States, I am sure, will attend. They have already committed themselves to providing their alternative to the Kyoto Protocol. They have said that they think it is flawed, we have said "Please tell us what you think should be done". They have given a commitment that they will bring forward alternatives. In the light of September 11 I think we do not expect them to do so by Marrakesh in early November, but we will certainly be raising the matter with them and asking within what timetable they will be bringing forward proposals. I think the purpose of Marrakesh (COP-7) is basically to conclude the loose ends which were left by Bonn. The issue of developing-country funding is very largely settled, the details of the operation of flexible mechanisms (and I will not go into the details now unless I am pressed) were largely settled at Bonn. On the question of sinks, again, there is largely agreement on this, although Russia may well be trying to re-open the question of their sinks allowances—they have formally requested to do that. Then the real issue at Marrakesh is the question of compliance. There are a number of detailed technical points on compliance. We believe that those should be manageable. The risk of Marrakesh is that the countries which were uncomfortable with Bonn—I leave aside the United States who decided not to be party to this—such as Japan, Australia, Canada and, to some extent, Russia, could seek to re-open some of the issues at Bonn. We would try to prevent that but there are still some loose ends, and those have to be tied up.

Phil Sawford

  5. In a week where we have seen floods again, very early on in the winter, the importance of Kyoto, I think, is pretty stark. What efforts are you making to get the US back on board with this at a time when the spotlight is on American foreign policy? What example does it show to other countries if they maintain their current stance?  (Mr Meacher) We are very keen to get the United States back involved in the process. I partly speak for the UK but I am sure there are many other countries in the EU and elsewhere who are, behind the scenes, encouraging the United States to re-think their position. The truth is President Bush did take a pretty strong position earlier in the year and, let us face it, it is difficult for the United States to make a volte face within any short time period. The encouragement or pressure to do so is constantly there. Now, what are the drivers for that? Apart from diplomatic discussions, there is the fact that the United States has said they will bring forward their alternative to Kyoto, and when they do, of course, we will then have on the table something on which we can argue with them as to its adequacy. That is very important. The other fact which I think is very important—probably the decisive one—is that the large corporations in the United States do not want to be excluded from the very substantial new world markets that are opening up. When they see their competitor companies in other major EU or Japanese countries taking advantage of these markets, I think the clamour to be involved will become quite strong. That takes time to develop, but I think it is a very powerful issue—after all, the Americans were more interested in Kyoto in 1997 with emissions trading than probably any other item. They have now, by the action they have taken, excluded themselves from it. The costs of doing that will become increasingly understood, and I believe it will act as a very powerful driver for re-thinking.

  6. On ratification, you mentioned Japan, Canada, Russia, and there is a sense that other countries are backing away a bit or they would want to amend that Protocol. Are we likely to reach the target which is to ratify it by September 2002?  (Mr Meacher) I hope so and I believe so. As the Committee will know, the requirement for ratification of the Protocol is that there has to be 55 countries signing up and they have to account for at least 55 per cent of global CO2 emissions by developed countries in 1990. If the United States is not going to be part of it, and I think realistically we do not think they will be part of it by the end of next year, then Japan and Russia have got to be committed and have got to be ready to sign. Both of those have strong incentives to do so. The Japanese, of course, regard themselves, understandably, if not the authors, the protagonists of the Protocol which was signed in Kyoto. On the other hand, they are extremely anxious to keep close to the United States and what they really want is yes, to sign up but only if the United States is prepared to do as well. It may be the events of September 11 have begun to cause some change there, and the signs are that the Japanese are willing and determined to sign up next year. In the case of the Russians, the Russians are certainly looking to get the most economic benefit out of Kyoto. That is why they have asked for their sinks allowance to be re-opened. Russia already has an extremely lax target which generates what is called in the trade "hot air", in other words a surplus of assigned amounts/units as a result of those lax targets which can be sold profitably to countries such as America who want extra credits to meet their target. Of course, now the United States has dropped out for the moment, the main buyer of those credits has gone. Russia, of course, may well decide to try and control the carbon market by restricting the access to hot air in order to keep the price of carbon high. However, the key point in this is that Russia cannot get a penny out of it unless they are party to the Protocol, unless they ratify. So the pressure on Russia, after all the huffing and puffing, to ratify is very strong. I do think the chances of ratification still remain high.

Mr Jack

  7. Chairman, we have heard a lot of very big numbers quoted and I wonder, particularly, if Sarah Hendry might help me, as a relative newcomer to this area, to put some of these big numbers and carbon reductions, temperature reductions into some kind of perspective, so that I might understand the risks involved of the United States not fully engaging in this process. I understand that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that world temperature rises could go up between 1.4 to 5.6 degrees centigrade by 2100. Then it went on to put forward a number of mitigating circumstances on a precautionary basis as to why that situation should be addressed. Could you just indicate to me, if you like, with and without the United States, how much carbon reduction will actually take place and what its effect will be in terms of reducing the temperature rises projected by the IPCC?  (Mr Meacher) Do you want me to have a bash at that, or do you want to go straight to Sarah? To be fair to Sarah, I have been involved in this a lot more than she has but she is involved totally in this and I have a few other things to do as well.

  8. So you are the sort of galactic head of atmosphere?  (Mr Meacher) Shall I have a try first and Sarah can come in if she wishes. The increase, as you say, of up to 5.6 per cent is truly stunning. An increase in global temperature of 5 degrees sounds very nice; we all get a bit warmer and we have the Riviera around Manchester for the first time in world history—which all sounds very good. The real problem is, and the way I put it in context is, that there has been a regular cycle of ice age and then interglacial periods; we are living within a very equable interglacial temperate period since the end of the last ice age about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago. That is probably going to change in the next 5,000 years when we go back to an ice age. In the last ice age an ice sheet came down between two to three miles thick on the North American continent to about New York, down the northern parts of Europe to somewhere around London and across the northern Siberian plain. The reason I mention that is because there was a change of temperature—a decline in global temperatures—of about 5 degrees. So an increase in temperature of 5 degrees is absolutely staggering. It would certainly mean that the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world were so burning hot they would be uninhabitable. The effects on population movement and wildlife and world crops are virtually incalculable. This is incredibly serious. Admittedly, that is the top end of what they now calculate is possible. But on a precautionary basis, we would be mad not to take very firm action to deal with this. The United States is a big part of this. I have already said they are responsible for a quarter of the cause of the problem. It is extremely important to get them involved again. The problem is their commitment to the US economy and, probably in the minds of many of their leaders, a genuine doubt about the science. I do not think they have probably given it a huge amount of attention—perhaps they have now compared to when they first came in—but, of course, not all the scientists totally agree about this scenario. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is 2,000 to 3,000 of the world's scientists from across the world; they are the most prestigious scientists you will find virtually anywhere, but there is a handful—and a few of them in the United States—who still believe that the phenomena which have appeared so far are within the range of cyclical variability of the general climate. Indeed, you can make out that case, except that if you do look at global temperatures over the last century/century and a half they have been very level and it is only in the last 50 years and projected forward for the next 50 years that we suddenly see a very sharp rise. What needs to be done? I think the imperative for action is unchanged. I do not believe that further intergovernmental reports from the panel are going to change that picture other than refining it further. I do not think the broad magnitudes are likely to alter a lot. It is a question of the political leaders being prepared to take on board the significance of that, whilst recognising, which we all do, that this is not saying "We are stopping economic growth", we are saying that they are ways of achieving that growth which are almost wholly compatible with, at the same time, limiting these climatic effects. The last point I would make (sorry, this is rather a long answer) is that the 5 per cent at Kyoto is only the start. What the scientists are saying is if you are going to stabilise and begin to reverse climate change phenomena you have to have a reduction in CO2 in the atmosphere of about 60 per cent. Again, that is a stunning statement to make. Indeed, my department is beginning to look at what are the ways by which that kind of reduction can be achieved, compatible with our economy and the kind of civilisation we have.

  9. Is it just a straight "We have 5 and 55 to go"? Have I understood it correctly?  (Mr Meacher) You have. That is correct. There is no question of just having a linear development. This is a hugely not just scientific and technological but political issue. My anticipation is that if we tie down COP-6 at Marrakesh and we do tie up these loose ends, at COP-8 and COP-9 we will re-open what is called under the Protocol the "adequacy of commitments", which is the target levels, and I would anticipate that we should be talking in the second or third commitment period (after 2008-2012 which is the first commitment period) of a reduction of, perhaps, 20, 25 even 30 per cent and beginning to get mind sets looking at that sort of order of reduction. I think to talk about 60 per cent at this moment is just not realpolitik, but w e have to ratchet up the targets in a sensible way as soon as we can.

Mr Mitchell

  10. Given these general studies about the effects of the 5 per cent climate change/temperature change at a specific point, the real question is what is the effect on Grimsby, as far as I am concerned.  (Mr Meacher) There will be fewer fish.

  11. We prepare food, I would not want it to be cooked before it leaves the factory. Just a serious point, and a small one: is not the universal condemnation by Russia of America a mixture of schadenfreude and hypocrisy, in the sense that other leaders in other countries want to excuse their own inadequate performance and commitment by heaping blame on America and it becomes a convenient way of doing that, when the real problem in the States is not the science, or whatever, it is the political structures of a system where you cannot take a decision at the centre and have it enforced uniformly, where power is fragmented and far more power rests with public opinion and the electorate than it does in our more centralised and more authoritarian systems?  (Mr Meacher) I am not sure whether our system is authoritarian. It is quite centralised.

  Mr Mitchell: Whatever Lola wants Lola gets.


  12. Can we concentrate on the climate, fascinating though this is?  (Mr Meacher) The politics of the United States is obviously central to it, and indeed the view taken by the President and his advisers and the view on Capitol Hill, even if it is a different political system to ours, is still dominant. I think the electorate in the United States, like the electorate in any other European country, does very much determine the leadership of the country, the scientists, and perhaps the NGOs the same. So there is no question that the issue really hinges around the collation of scientific data and the interpretation of it, which is tapered by the political leadership in the White House and on Capitol Hill. That is where we need to persuade. Do not forget that we had the Byrd-Nagle amendment in the Senate in 1995 which was advisory, it was not mandatory, but they voted 95 to nil against anything like the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol did not come in until 1997, but they were already opposed because of the way they thought that the world was conspiring to somehow undermine the American economy. That is absolutely not the case but it shows the need for beginning to change opinion. I do think opinion in the Senate as well as in Congress has begun, quite significantly, to shift already. One indication of this is that the motor car industry, which is very powerful in the United States, took the view immediately before Kyoto that this was the end of civilisation as they knew it. Once Kyoto had been accepted they began to realise that they were just as good as anyone else at building a hydrogen or fuel cell car, and that there were enormous markets open to them. Of course, they were very anxious to exploit those and they are still anxious to exploit them. They will realise that their capacity to do that is now being cut from under their feet, and I would imagine that they will be making this point known to the political leadership rather strongly.

Mr Borrow

  13. Austin just mentioned the issue of how the discredit of the United States has led to political difficulties in getting agreement. I just want to touch on the discredit of political views within the European Union and problems that have existed there and the arguments that have taken place over recent years on the Kyoto Protocol, to what extent you think it is possible to improve the decision mechanism within the European Union so that the European Union continues to become more effective as the key negotiating block within the Kyoto Protocol, and to what extent you ensure that the European Union comes to a common position without having disagreements breaking out within multilateral negotiations, which is what has happened in the past.  (Mr Meacher) Well, Mr Chairman, that is quite a poignant question, as far as I am concerned, because I was in the Chair in the Presidency in the latter half of 1998 when the European Union came to a settled view about their policy and agreed on targets and the allocation of those targets, which do vary enormously between a cut of 28 per cent in the case of little Luxembourg and an increase in the case of Portugal, I think, of 27 per cent. The average across the whole of the EU—weighted by the significance of different economies, of course—is a reduction of 8 per cent. The UK's responsibility is a reduction of 12.5 per cent. That is under the so-called "bubble" arrangements, to use a word which has developed, which means obligations under Article IV. It remains for the EU to ensure that its internal arrangements will deliver what we have committed ourselves to at Kyoto. I am sure we can. At every meeting of the EU Environment Council—and the next one is next Monday—we always have discussions on climate change and on the progress that we are making. We have the Commission which acts as a secretariat to keep track of different countries' performance, and I do believe that the EU—I will not say a water-tight—has a pretty well-organised system for ensuring delivery. The real problem, of course, is the other parties to the Protocol who vary in the degree of certainty of delivery. I think the EU has a secure position in this regard, although I am sure there will be laggards. There will be countries whose performance falls short of what they have committed themselves to, but the EU will have its own internal arrangements for bringing them to book.

  14. There is also a difficulty in the EU entering negotiations as a block. The very process of negotiations means you have to compromise from the agreed position where you start the negotiations. This obviously causes a strain then amongst the Member States as to how far you should be prepared to compromise. Are you confident that the EU is going to be a bit more effective to deal with those strains in the future?  (Mr Meacher) Again, I think the EU has a pretty good system here. At these meetings at Bonn and, again, the same at Marrakesh, I should think we spend only half our time talking to negotiating partners such as the United States, Japan and developing countries. The other half of the time is spent on what is called "EU Co-ordination". One learns to dread it. It goes on all the time. With every new nuance in the negotiation we have the Presidency, whoever it is, calling a meeting to discuss the line that has to be taken. That works pretty well. I do not know, otherwise, how 15 Member States can organise themselves better. I think it does work well. If you have an open and transparent Presidency—and that is nearly always the case—there is a full opportunity for objections to be raised, heard round the table, and a view taken. It is not done on the basis of votes, there is nearly always an emerging consensus which is genuine.

  15. Do you recognise the difficulty that does occur in the sense that the public in each Member State will be pressurising politicians to adopt a certain stance? Yes, the British Government is arguing, as far as possible, with the good guys in terms of the debate, but there is always the sense that at the end of the day the Member States have to reach agreement and it is possible to go back and say "We did our best but we can only push the EU so far in its negotiating position". Perhaps all 15 Member State governments can go back to their electorates and say the same thing. Somebody, in the end, is needed to bring about compromise within the EU. Is this a problem of transparency between the negotiations that take place internally in the EU and the declared position of each Member State in terms of their own electorate?  (Mr Meacher) I am not sure how far climate change targets are a major election issue in each country. I think in the last election in the UK I do not recall the climate change issue in terms of specifications like targets becoming an issue. Indeed, one of the things that distresses me is how well the electorate actually understands this process, because unless they understand it and take ownership of it they are not going to change their behaviour in the way we need them to change, in terms of energy efficiency, in terms of use of transport and in terms of willingness to make the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. It is not just for industry, it is for households to be aware of this process and committed to it. I suspect it is much the same in other Member States. The pinch was in those discussions in the latter half of 1998. It did take two days of solid negotiation before we got agreement to the targets within the EU bubble. Those are now fixed. They could be re-opened by a Member State but I think it is unlikely and I think other Member States would be extremely reluctant to accept changes, because of course if another State wants a reduction, everyone else in one form or another has to take an increase. I think they are regarded as more or less written in stone, the question is can they actually be delivered? We shall have annual communications—whatever the word is—annual statements, submissions of data to the Commission keeping track of each country. If countries begin to fall out of the projected path there will certainly be discussion as to why this is the case, what action needs to be taken and they will be very firmly pressed to come back on track.

Mr Todd

  16. The flexible mechanisms that have been set out so far, are they essentially a cop-out for wealthy countries to avoid some of the things that might be noticed by their electorates and instead purchase gains elsewhere in the developing world?  (Mr Meacher) That is probably the motivation of some of the countries who are keen on this, most notably America. However, of course, the American justification is a perfectly reasonable one, namely that from the point of view of the environment it makes no difference whether a pound or tonne of carbon is reduced in Chicago or in Calcutta. The important thing in world economy terms is that it should be done as cost-efficiently as possible. That is a very sensible, perfectly reasonable argument. It became an issue in the negotiations between the United States saying "You leave us to do it the way we think best and emissions trading is just as good" and the EU saying "Yes, but. Yes, it is reasonable we should be cost-efficient, but it would not be reasonable, in our view, for a country—let us take America, which is responsible for a quarter of total emissions—obtaining the great majority of its credits abroad." Action does have to be taken with regard to the causes of the problem: transport, energy use and fossil fuel consumption in the United States itself. That was our view. This arose over the rather ugly word of "supplementarity", namely, how much action should be taken domestically and how much from emissions trading. Our view was that at least half should be through domestic action. That is an arbitrary figure, but there is a difference between 50/50 and, say, 80/20, and we thought 80 per cent abroad 20 per cent at home was not adequate. It has not really been very well resolved. The formula at Bonn was that domestic action should be a significant element. You might not think much of that language, but I can tell you that it has been fought over like Passchendaele—endlessly fought over. That is the best we were able to get.

  17. You did, in an earlier answer, say that flexible mechanisms had been resolved, but your answer just now indicates that if the word "resolved" means defined in terms of their significance of use, one would question whether that is right. As you say, at Bonn a rather vague form of words was put in place as to how far these may be construed to achieve the outcomes that are imposed on individual nation states or trading blocks.  (Mr Meacher) I said it had been resolved in the sense that a compromise had been achieved which is not what the EU wants but which we think we can live with. It is not ideal. If you have got nearly 180 countries in the world and you have no means of compulsion and you can only make progress on the basis of consensus where all countries agree, you are not going to get everything you want. Obviously, there is a deal breaker, there is a point below or beyond which one is not prepared to go. Our judgment is that the formula on supplementarity whilst not very satisfactory was certainly not a deal breaker, and that is where it stands.

  18. What do you think "supplemental to domestic action" actually means?  (Mr Meacher) Our view is that that phrase means that the majority part should be domestic action. That is the interpretation that we have reached.

  19. So rather better than 50/50? So your view is that perhaps this deal was a little better than you might have thought?  (Mr Meacher) That is our view of it. It is not the American view of what the phrase means. "Supplemental to domestic action" is the wording of the Kyoto Protocol. The question then is "What does it actually mean?" I have indicated how the EU interprets that phrase, but the United States does not accept that it means that at least half of the action must be domestic. They are saying that there are many sources of reductions, and supplemental to domestic action is not supplemental to half being domestic, but supplemental to a variety of other ways of achieving the reduction. It has all become rather theological, I am afraid, but since the United States is not there for the moment it does also become rather academic.

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