Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The environment plays a complex and important role in conflict and its resolution. Sustainable development, climate change mitigation and environmental protection should therefore be considered security issues of critical importance to the UK Government and FCO. The UK must be a proponent of a strong, coordinated, multilateral environmental system able to avoid situations in which environmental degradation might lead to instability or conflict. International action on environmental challenges might also prove to be an important tool for fostering closer international relations. (Paragraph 14)

2.  The Committee welcomes the Foreign Secretary's robust statement in the Sustainable Development Action Plan regarding the importance of sustainable development to international peace and prosperity. The significance the Foreign Secretary places on respecting environmental limits, on addressing climate change, and on the need to deal with the links between trade, poverty and the environment, satisfies the Committee that these issues are being taken seriously by the FCO. However, as the Foreign Secretary states, "the challenge we face is a big one". Words must therefore be backed up by an FCO institutionally equal to the challenge, in terms of skills and resources, to enable real progress to be made. (Paragraph 17)

FCO Policy

3.  We agree with the Government that it is right for the FCO to have a focus on both climate change and environmental governance issues. The work that the FCO is conducting to ensure the better management of fisheries and forests is particularly important. Nevertheless, although this particular focus might enable the FCO to make efficiency savings, it risks the neglect of other, also critical, environmental issues. Given that the UK's ability to contribute successfully in meeting a number of international environmental challenges will largely be down to the skill and assiduousness of the FCO, the lack of a wider commitment to the environment risks the UK being ineffective in its response. It is essential that the FCO widen its focus to encompass those international environmental challenges where strong diplomacy will be part of the solution, such as biodiversity loss. (Paragraph 26)

4.  Evidence from JNCC and IFAW suggests that the FCO has a declining role in international negotiations on biodiversity, which could have a damaging impact on our influence in such fora. We recommend that the FCO initiate an urgent review, with DEFRA and JNCC, to assess whether delegations are being provided with the level of diplomatic support that they require to achieve the UK's aims. (Paragraph 29)

5.  Given the importance of improved staff knowledge of sustainable development in meeting sustainable development objectives, it is essential to ensure that training results in real knowledge improvements. If, as the Minister told the Sub-committee, the success of such training is now measured through a sophisticated internal assessment process, it is surprising that the FCO has not sought to trumpet this achievement though the Sustainable Development Action Plan. The next Action Plan should explain fully this process as well as provide targets to enable progress in this area to be charted. (Paragraph 34)

6.  The Sustainable Development Action Plan appears to have failed to address the SDC recommendation to "continue to explore the opportunities for joint working with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in relation to natural resource protection and conflict and reflect these in future [Action Plans]". Opportunities for closer working between the two departments on the environment-conflict interface should include, jointly with DFID, an assessment of the role environmental protection and management, and sustainable development, can play in limiting the environmental conditions that can exacerbate conflict and how this could feed into Global Conflict Prevention Pool work. It should also consider the role that environmental protection and restoration can play in reconstruction efforts. The next Action Plan must detail how the FCO will take forward this work. (Paragraph 38)

7.  The 2006 White Paper strategic priorities were identified by the Government, as a whole, as the most pressing international issues that it must address. We thus welcome greatly the Foreign Secretary's inclusion of climate security as a new UK international priority, and the acknowledgement therefore of the critical importance of this issue. We commend also the Foreign Secretary for demonstrating the UK's commitment to this issue through her robust argument for the consideration of climate change at the UN Security Council. Despite this we believe that wider environmental issues should be better reflected in the UK's international priorities, particularly given the growing evidence of the threats associated with continued environmental degradation. A new international priority placing a greater emphasis on the need to ensure environmental protection must be added, to stress the key strategic importance of this issue for the whole of Government. This should complement a new international environmental strategy to focus Government-wide action. (Paragraph 42)

FCO capacity on the environment

8.  We feel that the better integration in the FCO of sustainable development with business, and climate change with energy policy, is positive and could lead to the development of policies that better account for sustainable development issues. However, we are concerned that, as a result of restructuring, the FCO has lost its environmental nexus, and has decided to lower the resources given over to a number of international environmental issues. We recommend that an environmental policy group is re-established to drive forward an environmental agenda in the FCO, as well as to provide the central environmental expertise that existed prior to the restructuring. We are particularly concerned that failure to do this will impact on the UK's ability to influence environmental negotiations in international fora. (Paragraph 46)

9.  We welcome the FCO's training programme to ensure better that all staff become conversant in sustainable development and environmental issues. Nevertheless, we have heard during the course of this inquiry that the specialist skills that the FCO requires in the field of environmental diplomacy are lacking. We are of the opinion that these skills can only in part be addressed by FCO staff and by other Government departments through secondments. Given the complex and specialised nature of this work, and the FCO's own admission that its internal corps of civil servants working in this area are not able to develop their expertise quickly enough, we call for a large increase in the use of externally-appointed environmental specialists. In addition, to ensure that the unique abilities that FCO officials develop can be aligned with environmental expertise, it is essential that career diplomats with an environmental focus are developed; an environmental 'career anchor' must therefore be re-established. Our earlier recommendation that an environmental policy group be established could provide the location for this 'anchor'. The appointment of John Ashton as Special Representative on Climate Change, and the FCO's assertions as to the importance of this appointment for driving the climate change agenda forward, could be taken as an implicit recognition that the current structure is inadequate to the task of international diplomacy on environmental issues. (Paragraph 52)

A new international environmental strategy

10.  Failures in the Government-wide Sustainable Development Strategy, Securing the Future, might explain the lack of consideration given to a number of international environmental issues in FCO sustainable development documents, which are based upon it. However, although it has its shortcomings, we were surprised to notice that the 2006 White Paper, Active Diplomacy for a Changing World, also a Government-wide strategy, does not refer to or explain its links with Securing the Future. This is a considerable oversight, and demonstrates the continuing lack of coordination on sustainable development issues across Government. (Paragraph 58)

11.  Securing the Future highlighted the fragmented state of natural resource protection policy, and the negative impact that this has on the UK's ability to meet environmental challenges. DEFRA has stated that it will seek to address this through the development of a coherent approach to the natural environment, which will also take into account the UK's international impact. However, we are concerned that the international dimension will not receive the focus it requires in this domestic strategy, and might fail to incorporate issues including security, foreign policy, trade and development. Therefore, a new international environmental strategy must be developed, owned and delivered by a number of departments, including FCO, DEFRA, DFID and DTI. (Paragraph 59)

Setting an example

12.  We commend the support given by FCO staff to conservation and environmental projects and NGOs internationally, both financially and diplomatically, where such cooperation is in line with our international environmental objectives. Such support also sends a strong message to host countries that these issues are a priority for the UK Government. (Paragraph 60)

13.  We welcome the Minister's strong statement on the need to work closely with NGOs in order better to make progress on mutual objectives, and to engage with NGOs at an earlier stage in the policy formation process. Nevertheless, on the basis of the evidence that we have received, a disconnect between the FCO and environmental NGOs still remains. We anticipate that the strategy for engagement with NGOs currently being developed will go someway to address this, but we are not convinced that without a re-evaluation of overall FCO priorities to have a more explicit environmental focus the necessary changes will occur to ensure that this happens at all levels. Through such a re-evaluation, and the changes that we recommend in this report regarding, inter alia, the provision of specialist environmental expertise from outside the FCO and the development of FCO civil servants with a career focus on the environment, we believe that longer term, more beneficial, relationships will develop between the FCO and environmental NGOs. (Paragraph 65)

14.   We applaud the FCO's demonstrated commitment to improving environmental management across its overseas estate. The promotion of sustainable practices through their application in the overseas estate is also essential in building support for, and exhibiting, the UK's commitment to best practice in sustainable development. (Paragraph 67)

15.  The voluntary nature of carbon offsets from overseas posts' flights is an anomaly that needs removing. It runs contrary to domestic Government policy and leaves the UK Government open to criticism that it is failing to address the climate change impact of its own operations. The implications of this irregularity are particularly serious, and incongruous, given the FCO's diplomatic role in negotiating international agreements on climate change. (Paragraph 69)

16.  The UK must succeed domestically on the same issues that we wish to succeed internationally, to provide the political leadership required to encourage more sustainable action by other countries. This includes meeting our international commitments in areas such as the prevention of biodiversity loss and domestic commitments on greenhouse gas emissions. Although the UK will meet its international commitments under Kyoto, we argue that this only represents a step in the right direction and does not necessarily reflect the scale of effort required to meet the challenge of climate change. We are therefore concerned that the UK might fail to reach its more demanding domestic target, and that this failure also will result in the loss of the political leadership demonstrated by the UK through the adoption of the target. (Paragraph 72)

UK Overseas Territories

17.  We welcome the fact that FCO and DFID have, in the short term, increased their financial support for better environmental management in the UKOTs, but we are concerned that this has not been undertaken on the basis of an analysis of need. Research by the RSPB suggests that even with this funding increase a considerable funding shortfall will remain in the UKOTs for biodiversity protection. (Paragraph 78)

18.  We are disturbed that witnesses have stressed to us that departments other than FCO and DFID do not provide the level of support to the UKOTs that is required. Although DEFRA does provide some direct and indirect support, the level of this does not fill the specialist environmental gaps that are apparent in the UKOTs. We recommend firstly that DEFRA be involved at the highest level in reviewing the Environment Charters. The Inter-Ministerial Working Group on Biodiversity should provide the focus for this review to ensure coordination between departments. It is necessary for this review to assess whether both the Government, and the governments of the UKOTs, have met their respective obligations under the Environment Charters and Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Secondly, DEFRA should be given joint responsibility towards the UKOTs. This should be reflected in an updated UK International Priority, to include environmental protection alongside security and good governance in the UKOTs. This will also have to be reflected in DEFRA's Comprehensive Spending Review settlement. Finally, as part of the Environment Charter review, the case for larger and more routine funding must be explored. Given that the Treasury is currently conducting a spending review, it is imperative that this funding analysis feeds into, and influences, the Treasury's ultimate decision as to spending allocations for FCO, DFID and DEFRA. (Paragraph 83)

19.  If the Government fails to address these issues it will run the risk of continued environmental decline and species extinctions in the UKOTs, ultimately causing the UK to fail in meeting its domestic and international environmental commitments. Failure to meet such commitments undermines the UK's ability to influence the international community to take the strong action required for reversing environmental degradation in their own countries, and globally. (Paragraph 84)

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