Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report


The terms of this inquiry

1. The Environmental Audit Committee established a Sub-committee in February 2006 to explore concerns that Government policy on trade and development was failing to incorporate adequately the need for sustainable development and environmental protection. The Sub-committee has conducted a series of inquiries scrutinising the Department for International Development (DFID), the World Trade Organisation and UK trade policy, and the Government's response to the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

2. In general, these inquiries have highlighted the need for more coordinated action to identify and mitigate the negative impacts of trade and development policies. They have also highlighted the range of benefits that could be expected from a more sustainable approach, such as ensuring that development in developing countries will be long-term and not transitory, and ensuring that there is an increased trade in energy efficient technologies leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

3. This final short inquiry examined the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in delivering the UK's international environmental objectives. Although the FCO is often not the lead department on sustainable development issues, it has a crucial role to play in building international support for UK policy objectives. FCO activities in this area include political dialogue and lobbying and direct funding of sustainable development projects in other countries. It also has a direct responsibility, jointly with DFID, towards the environment in UK Overseas Territories.

4. This inquiry, chaired by Colin Challen MP, received written memoranda from a range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the FCO. The Sub-committee also took oral evidence from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), BioDiplomacy and Ian McCartney MP, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for Trade and Industry. We are grateful to all those who contributed to the inquiry.

Why is the environment relevant to the work of the FCO?

5. The purpose of the FCO is "to work for the United Kingdom's interests in a safe, just and prosperous world".[1] The environment is relevant to the FCO for two main reasons. Firstly, as the UK's primary representative abroad, the FCO must have the appropriate knowledge and skills to be able to help deliver the Government's international environmental aspirations. This is particularly important due to the direct consequences for the UK of many international environmental degradation issues, such as climate change, and the UK's inability to deal with these unilaterally. Secondly, the environment and sustainable development are important components of any solution to the UK's other international priorities, including those to deliver poverty reduction, manage migration, limit terrorism, and prevent and resolve conflict.

6. The links between environmental degradation and poverty are explored extensively in our earlier reports including Trade, Development and Environment: The Role of DFID[2] and Outflanked: The World Trade Organisation, International Trade and Sustainable Development.[3] The importance of addressing environmental issues in development policies can not be overstated. The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board found that development policies aimed at eliminating poverty may well be "doomed to failure" if the natural environment does not receive adequate protection.[4] This view was also taken by the UN Millennium Project which found that long-term success in meeting Millennium Development Goals (to quantifiably reduce extreme poverty) will be "transitory and inequitable" without environmental sustainability. It went on that "[t]he paramount importance and clear urgency of environmental sustainability dictates immediate actions at all scales - and the political, social, and ?nancial will be necessary to sustain those actions".[5] Therefore it is clear that the FCO must focus on the environment and sustainable development if it is to work towards eliminating poverty.

7. Environmental degradation and natural resource pressures may also link via poverty to increased social discontent, and might therefore create the conditions in which violent conflict can take hold:

Persistent levels of poverty, particularly when associated with profound deprivation, perceived injustices and forms of social exclusion, are likely to create the grounds for increased social discontent. This may create conditions for the onset of violent forms of conflict. However, materialisation requires some form of organised collective action. Although the chronically poor are not typically found to be involved in organised socio-political actions, chronic poverty may create triggers for mobilisation of masses as recruitment may be easier amongst those with lesser voices.

Chronic poverty may lead individuals to become soldiers/fighters as a form of coping with poverty itself (e.g. Humphreys and Weinstein, 2004), as well as gain access to economic and social advantages (e.g. Verwimp, 2005). However, different forms of conflict may be triggered by different circumstances and different actors. This hypothesis requires much more rigorous testing.[6]

8. A number of studies also draw a direct link between environmental degradation and an increasing likelihood of violent conflict. Richard Tarasofsky, Chatham House, told the Sub-committee that "the links between environment and international security policy have become increasingly discernable over time".[7] He pointed to literature describing the links between scarce natural resources, such as water, and increasing insecurity and instability.

9. These issues were expanded upon in an E3G working paper, Sustainability and foreign policy, by Nick Mabey, former Head of Sustainable Development in the FCO's now closed Environmental Policy Department. This stated that international environmental problems might lead to a number of situations:

In an optimistic scenario, problems like climate change encourage global cooperation, innovation and creativity, and inspire governments to act wisely to minimise impacts on the poorest and weakest in society. However, it is also possible that resource scarcity and environmental stress will drive countries and societies into the politics of insecurity, exacerbating existing divides of ethnicity, community, caste, income and region as groups struggle to maintain their ability to use resources to the exclusion of others. The challenge for policy makers is to avoid the second scenario by building popular support for a serious and progressive agenda for managing the costs and consequences of our acute environmental interdependence.[8]

10. Nick Mabey's paper also drew attention to the role of "politicised revenue allocation from natural resources based around ethnic, religious or regional lines" in driving major conflict. Shifts in such revenue allocations as a result of climate change might lead to destabilisation of regions as traditional resource sharing agreements become inadequate to different groups needs. For example, currently one third of the global population live in areas experiencing moderate to high water stress. Future population growth and a rising demand for water mean that millions more people are expected to be living in water stressed regions. However, alongside these demographic trends, climate models also indicate that the effects of rising global temperatures will greatly vary the distribution and characteristics of precipitation, leading to even greater numbers of people experiencing water shortages. A study quoted in the Stern Review indicated that a rise of 2 degrees Celsius will result in 1-4 billion people experiencing increased water stress by 2080, dependent upon how fast the population increases.[9] The regions where such shortages are likely to occur are concentrated in areas that might be more prone to conflict due to existing tensions, including Africa and the Middle East.

11. Conflict and environmental degradation or change are also likely to lead to increased human migration which can, in itself, lead to further conflict. Nick Mabey argued that migrations due to recent drought in South-West Asia have been linked to increased tensions in Kashmir and the recruitment of displaced people into terrorist organisations.[10] In addition to shifts in regional climate, climate change might lead to the displacement and migration of many millions of people as a result of sea-level rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001 found that sea level could rise between 9 to 88 cm by 2100.[11] An increase of 100 cm would result in the loss of one fifth of Bangladesh's land area leading to the displacement of 15 million people. The movement of so many people might exacerbate existing tensions concerning migration in the area, which have already led India to construct a 2500 km fence along its entire border with Bangladesh.[12]

12. On a more positive note, the environment can also be used as a diplomatic tool to aid in conflict avoidance. The RSPB explained:

[W]e believe that biodiversity conservation can be a force for unity, promoting collaboration between otherwise hostile countries and offering a chance for the UK to promote a positive image in countries where overall our relations with governments are problematic. Environmental challenges ignore political boundaries, bridge religious and ideological divides, encourage local and non-governmental participation, and extend community building beyond polarising economic linkages. The RSPB is supporting successful conservation work by emerging NGOs in a number of countries where civil society has traditionally been discouraged or stifled.[13]

13. Chatham House agreed that the environment can form part of a solution to armed conflicts. It pointed to the creation of a "peace park" protected area between Ecuador and Peru, agreed as part of a package to end a border conflict, and secret negotiations between Syria and Israel about the possibility of a protected area in the disputed Golan Heights. Chatham House asserted that "'environmental peacekeeping' is increasingly part of the toolkit in resolving insecurity".[14]

14. 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.

1   "About us", FCO Website, 8 March 2007, Back

2   Environmental Audit Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2005-2006, Trade, Development and Environment: The Role of DFID, HC 1014 Back

3   Environmental Audit Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2005-2006, Outflanked: The World Trade Organisation, International Trade and Sustainable Development, HC 1455 Back

4   Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board, Living beyond our means; Natural Assets and Human Well-being; Statement from the Board (Washington, 2005), p19 Back

5   UN Millennium Project, Environment and human well-being: a practical strategy (2005), p27 Back

6   Patricia Justino, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Chronic Poverty Research Centre Working Paper 61, On the Links between Violent Conflict and Chronic Poverty: How Much Do We Really Know? (2006), p13 Back

7   Ev 68 Back

8   Nick Mabey, E3G working paper, Sustainability and foreign policy (2007), p6, Back

9   HM Treasury, Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, October 2006, p63 Back

10   Nick Mabey, E3G working paper, Sustainability and foreign policy (2007), p15 Back

11   Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers: A Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2001), p16 Back

12   The Times, 28 December 2005 Back

13   Ev 1 Back

14   Ev 69 Back

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