Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report

FCO Policy

15. There are three FCO policy documents of principal importance to this inquiry: the FCO Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS), published in March 2005; the White Paper Active Diplomacy for a Changing World, published in March 2006; and the FCO Sustainable Development Action Plan, published in January 2007.

Sustainable Development Strategy and Action Plan

16. The SDS was published shortly after the Government's own overarching Sustainable Development Strategy, Securing the Future. The SDS indicates how the FCO will work to achieve the UK's international sustainable development objectives, as outlined in Securing the Future.[15] The general themes that the FCO sought to address in the document included the delivery of certain commitments made at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), such as promoting better environmental governance and the Partnership for Principle 10,[16] and reducing poverty though the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The SDS focused on how these objectives could be achieved through a variety of avenues including our diplomatic posts overseas, with international organisations such as the UN and in partnership with NGOs.[17]

17. Witnesses to this inquiry were, in general, complimentary about the SDS and the Action Plan which implements it. Iain Orr, BioDiplomacy, argued that the forward to the Action Plan, written by the Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP, the Foreign Secretary, was "clear and forceful".[18] We agree. 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.

Are environmental priorities too focused?

18. Although in general witnesses were impressed by the SDS and Action Plan, they had reservations that the documents fail to address all the international environmental issues that they ought to. RSPB stated that it found the SDS to be a "laudable document", commending the priority given to issues including climate change and illegal logging.[19] However, it raised concerns to us about what it perceives to be a lack of profile given to biodiversity in the document. The RSPB elaborated on this in its written evidence:

…the FCO Sustainable Development Strategy gives low priority to biodiversity conservation, even though this is acknowledged everywhere as one of the critical issues facing the Earth. Although specific aspects such as illegal logging are flagged up, there is no mention of the huge loss of species that is currently occurring, and there is an assumption perhaps that conservation work will be done by others.[20]

19. The Minister in oral evidence to the Sub-committee said that the FCO is not "under any circumstances… underplaying or downplaying [biodiversity]… it is a critical part of the work we are doing".[21] He pointed out that the FCO is represented on the Inter-Ministerial Working Group on Biodiversity, which coordinates action on biodiversity across government. Scott Wightman, Director of Global and Economic Issues at the FCO, told the Sub-Committee that his department is focusing on those issues where it feels it adds the "greatest value and achieve[s] the greatest degree of impact".[22] As a result, the FCO has decided to concentrate on climate change and environmental governance, which should, it is argued, have "a major impact on protecting biodiversity in the medium to long term".[23] The FCO accepted that in the past it has supported a range of smaller biodiversity-related projects, but that it has now come to the conclusion on the basis "of expert advice on the effectiveness of our programmes from Stephen Bass, the former Chief Environmental Adviser at DFID, that the most effective way in which [it] can intervene is more at the policy, regulatory and legislative level". It feels that "by focusing… efforts on enhancing the quality of environmental governance both at the international level and also at the national level, [it] can have a much broader impact on biodiversity across the board rather than on specific activities".[24] The Minister stressed that this did not preclude specific work on biodiversity. He pointed to the use of FCO negotiating skills and contacts in ensuring the successful conclusion of the Heart of Borneo Initiative "to protect one of the rarest and largest ecosystems in the world", and added "that is where our skill and knowledge is, that is where our capacity is".[25]

20. WWF told the Sub-committee that, the FCO had indeed provided valuable support in delivering the Heart of Borneo Initiative, although this appears to have been primarily due to the initiative of in-country staff rather than as a result of an overarching strategy:

The FCO recently gave WWF a £25,000 grant for the preparation of the Heart of Borneo Government plan. We believe that this grant was instigated by the UK ambassador to Brunei via the regional office in Jakarta.

In addition, the FCO in Jakarta and Brunei worked behind the scenes to secure the EU statement of support following the Declaration (earlier this year) on the Heart of Borneo.

The UK Embassy in Brunei has been the prime source of support from the FCO, and the ambassador has had frequent communication with the Brunei Government and hosted dinners on behalf of the Heart of Borneo. He has also co-ordinated with his counterparts in Malaysia and Indonesia.[26]

21. We asked the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the Government's statutory advisor on UK and international nature conservation, whether it accepted that the FCO had placed the correct emphasis on the need to address biodiversity decline, and related issues. Marcus Yeo, Director of Resources and External Affairs JNCC, told us that his impression is that, in reading FCO documents, "global environment issues could have a rather higher profile within the FCO. For example, only two of the ten international priorities contained in the White Paper explicitly mention the environment. Those are the priorities to do with sustainable development and climate change". He pointed out that "despite the global importance of the Overseas Territories for biodiversity for example, the priority associated with the territories only refers to ensuring security and good governance; it does not mention the environment at all". JNCC told us that most of the international priorities are "solely concerned with social or economic issues", and that the environment does indeed "need to have a higher profile within the FCO and that environmental issues need to be better integrated with other concerns".[27]

22. RSPB claimed that it is inappropriate for the FCO to neglect biodiversity on the basis that it is working on other issues that should protect biodiversity in the long run. It stressed that biodiversity protection has a critical role to play in itself. Sarah Sanders, RSPB, cited the situation of the Overseas Territories as an example of this:

Looking at it from the perspective of the Overseas Territories, most of which are small islands so they are considerably threatened by climate change, you cannot address climate change issues and you cannot adapt to climate change without looking at conservation and biodiversity and natural resources. If you are looking to reduce vulnerability and there are huge areas of mangrove and coral reefs, they all need to be protected and you cannot separate the two.[28]

23. The need to deal with other environmental issues, including biodiversity, alongside climate change was highlighted in a recent article by Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. He stated that "unless biodiversity loss and climate change are tackled together and with equal priority, the impact of both on the lives of future generations could be very much worse".[29] He argued that the protection of ecosystems from threats other than climate change, such as pollution, raises their likely resilience to any climate change that might occur thereby lowering the impact of climate change on those people who might rely on that ecosystem. He highlighted coral reefs as an example:

Increased sea temperatures [as a result of climate change] have been linked to episodes of "bleaching", in which the delicate balance between coral organisms and the algae on which they depend is upset, and the vibrant underwater communities turn quickly into virtual deserts. The degradation of tropical reefs, however, has been the result of a combination of human pressures acting together: coastal pollution has raised nutrient levels and promoted over-growth of algae, deforestation has dumped eroded sediments onto reefs and smothered them, and overfishing has removed algae-grazing species from the food chain and left the reefs vulnerable to change. Reducing these other sources of stress to the reefs may well make them less likely to succumb to the added pressure of climate change, and so protect human communities dependent on coral ecosystems for tourism income, seafood and protection of coastlines.[30]

24. In addition to helping lessen the impact of climate change, the preservation of natural ecosystems and biodiversity can also act to prevent the further release of greenhouse gases. The Stern Review pointed in particular to the importance of preserving forests due to some estimates that suggest deforestation causes more than 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the whole of the global transport network.[31] Other natural ecosystems are also significant carbon stores. For example, although they cover only 3% of the Earth's surface, peat bogs hold twice as much carbon dioxide as all forests (which cover ~30%).[32], [33] The conservation of larger numbers of species might also help us to adapt better to the negative impacts of climate change: for example, drought resistant crops could reduce the impact of changes in rainfall.[34]

25. Chatham House told us in written evidence that the FCO should engage in certain international environmental issues where more diplomatic effort is required to ensure progress:

There would be little benefit in assigning the FCO with overall responsibility for engaging in all environmental issues. But ones where there is a need for a sophisticated diplomatic strategy to leverage innovative bargains among a wide set of actors, combined with a higher-than-usual political weight, could merit greater attention by the FCO. These could be some of the environment and security problems alluded to above or even more global environmental challenges that current approaches are failing to effectively confront, such as biodiversity loss.[35]

26. 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.

International environmental negotiations

27. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) told the Sub-committee that the FCO has lowered the amount of resources that it now puts into biodiversity-related work. Vassili Papastavrou, of IFAW, explained that this might have a negative impact on international biodiversity conservation. He pointed to the pivotal role that the FCO has played in the past in negotiations on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).[36] He claimed that as a result of this shift in resources it is now "questionable whether the FCO would have the capacity or expertise to play a similar role today".[37]

28. The JNCC was also concerned that FCO involvement in international environmental negotiations had declined. It stated that "FCO staff now less frequently form part of UK delegations to multilateral environmental agreements and the number of contacts within the FCO with whom we deal on environmental issues is reduced".[38] The JNCC stressed the important role that the FCO plays, not only in lobbying to create support for UK positions during international negotiations, but also in lobbying through its overseas posts prior to negotiations. It also drew the Sub-committee's attention to the FCO's role in gathering intelligence on the views of other countries, so that when JNCC attends negotiations it is "able to know which countries [it] may wish to target, to persuade, or where other countries would be more difficult to persuade".[39] The Sub-committee asked the JNCC why, given the important nature of this involvement, the FCO had decided to play a smaller role in international environmental negotiations. It simply responded that the FCO was aligning its structures and priorities "with the 2006 White Paper and [its] Sustainable Development Strategy".[40]

29. 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.

Sustainable Development Commission review

30. In October 2006, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) undertook a review of the FCO SDS. This found that the FCO had "set a good standard" with its first SDS and that it had demonstrated a:

…good understanding of the impact of a sustainable development approach on foreign policy whether in terms of the potential for resource management to lead to conflict or as a key tool of public diplomacy. The department also acknowledges the need to lead by example in its own operation around the world.[41]

31. In particular the SDC supported the SDS' focus on climate security. Nevertheless, the SDC recommended that for the FCO to maintain and build on the strategy, further work was required. This included: stronger targets with specified outcomes; further information on how the FCO will assess progress on mainstreaming sustainable development into policy making; work to ensure that the SDS is owned by staff; demonstration of top-level commitment to sustainable development; and an indication of how the FCO is "going about sustainable development 'proofing' of its work".[42] The FCO stated that it responded to these recommendations in the latest Action Plan, published in January 2007, by "focusing on where we can add most value. The Plan includes activities to raise awareness of sustainable development across the FCO, to ensure that it is embedded in all our work".[43] We have not attempted to assess fully whether the Action Plan has incorporated in full the SDC's recommendations. However, we have identified two areas in which we feel that it has not fully addressed the SDC's recommendations.


32. The SDC criticised the FCO SDS for targets that "rarely indicate the required outcome", with most referring to "'supporting', 'encouraging' and 'engaging'".[44] The SDC argued that this lack of clarity "limits the ability of both the FCO and its external stakeholders to track or assess progress effectively".[45] The SDC described how the UK SDS commits the Government to "ensuring that staff have an understanding of how to apply sustainable development principles as a key part of policy skills for the future and that all policies are properly appraised against the new principles of sustainable development". The SDC found that the FCO SDS acknowledges that all FCO staff need to understand the importance of sustainable development and how it links to their wider work. Nevertheless, the SDC said that "it is not clear how far current training addresses its use and application in terms of adapting approaches to policy making". It therefore called for future sustainable development action plans to include targets relating to "policy making skills and sustainable development and some measure of the FCO's 'mainstreaming' success".[46]

33. It can be argued that the FCO has failed to address this issue. For example, although there is a welcome action to run three one-day training modules for staff on sustainable development, energy and climate security, no accompanying targets have been set, such as the number of staff who might be expected to attend.[47] There is also no indication given of how the success of this programme will be assessed. In addition to this, the action to redevelop the FCO's intranet site on sustainable development "so that it becomes the definitive one-stop shop for our network of SD attachés in posts overseas for news, policy briefings, resource information and contacts on SD", is not accompanied by a specified time scale over which this should be expected to happen.[48]

34. The Minister was asked how his department measures progress in raising staff capacity. He responded that they have a staff assessment process whereby "everybody gets an individual assessment of their role and their work". He argued that this assessment process is a "sophisticated approach where we can tell how our investment is working".[49] 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. We return to the issue of staff capacity in sustainable development-related issues later in this report.


35. As outlined in earlier chapters, the environment can play a critical role in creating the conditions in which conflict can flourish. It is therefore likely that efforts to bring stability to a region will also have to tackle the environmental drivers of conflict. A UNEP report considered the links between environmental degradation and conflict in Afghanistan:

…the long-term consequences of nearly 25 years of war and overexploitation of Afghanistan's once rich natural resources created grave environmental threats. These included surface and groundwater scarcity and contamination, massive and ongoing deforestation, desertification of important wetlands, soil erosion, air pollution, and depleted wildlife populations. In addition, the prolonged lack of water and the rapid disappearance of half of the country's forest and woodland cover turned thousands of people into environmental refugees. This has led to increased population pressure on over-burdened urban areas and could generate new small-scale conflicts over access to scarce resources. National capacity to address these problems is severely limited as a result of the collapse of local and national forms of governance and resource management.[50]

36. Although UNEP has been working to improve environmental capacity in Afghanistan, and the UK is a major funder of UNEP, specific development work undertaken by the UK appears to have neglected the need to address these environmental issues. For example, DFID's efforts on environmental sustainability in Afghanistan have focused on the development of agriculture, and in particular, "irrigation rehabilitation, farm and non-farm training, agriculture inputs, illiteracy, roads and access to markets".[51] Although important, these programmes by themselves might not necessarily lead to more sustainable agricultural practices or prevent further environmental degradation.

37. Although the foreword to the Sustainable Development Action Plan makes it clear that the environment plays an important role in the FCO's objective of helping to prevent and resolve conflict, it provides little in the way of direct explanation of how the FCO will use environmental management to do this. Of course, other actions in the plan might be expected to address indirectly the links between the environment and conflict including action on international corruption, bribery and illegal logging. Nevertheless, given the explicit acknowledgement that the environment can play a pivotal role, we believe that the Action Plan should seek to address this issue more unequivocally, especially as the SDC review highlighted this as an issue.[52] Failure to deal adequately with environmental issues in conflict is also apparent in other government documents. For example, the Government established Global Conflict Prevention Pools (GCPP) in 2001 to enable a coordinated approach to conflict prevention and management by the FCO, DFID and MoD. They seek to bring UK diplomacy, defence and development together into a common strategy.[53] Although the need for sustainable development and natural resource protection is touched upon in documents relating to the GCPPs, the lack of prominence given to them implies that these issues are not being seen as an integral part of conflict prevention and resolution.

38. 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]".[54] 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.

Active Diplomacy for a Changing World

39. The 2006 White Paper Active Diplomacy for a Changing World established a new set of international strategic priorities for the UK Government. This represented an update on earlier priorities outlined in a 2003 White Paper, with more of an overt focus on environmental protection through the inclusion of a priority of "promoting sustainable development and poverty reduction underpinned by human rights, democracy, good governance and protection of the environment".[55] Further to this the Foreign Secretary in June 2006 added an additional priority of "achieving climate security by promoting a faster transition to a sustainable, low carbon global economy" in order to strengthen its "commitment to promoting sustainable development and tackling climate change".[56] The FCO told us that this "highlighted the importance of the environment and natural resources for development and recognised environmental degradation and an unstable climate as major threats to the UK's ability to secure its political, security and economic objectives".[57]

40. Nevertheless, the JNCC argued to us that global environmental issues could have a higher profile in the White Paper:

…only two of the ten international priorities contained in the White Paper explicitly mention the environment. Those are the priorities to do with sustainable development and climate change. So, despite the global importance of the Overseas Territories for biodiversity for example, the priority associated with the territories only refers to ensuring security and good governance; it does not mention the environment at all…

It is certainly true that most of those international priorities are solely concerned with social or economic issues. We believe that it is really important that government and FCO do not treat environmental issues in isolation; they are intimately entwined with social and economic issues. That, after all, is at the heart of the concept of sustainable development. We would therefore recommend that the environment does need to have a higher profile within the FCO and that environmental issues need to be better integrated with other concerns.[58]

41. We are concerned that there is some justice in the JNCC view that international environmental issues were not adequately considered—the 2006 White Paper analysis of trends failed adequately to describe the likely importance of natural resource degradation and pressures. This is despite the Paper being published in March 2006, a full year after the publication of the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment which found that environmental degradation is leading to, inter alia:

  • rapidly increasing costs
  • an increase in the likelihood of dramatic and abrupt ecosystem changes with devastating and permanent impacts
  • the likely failure of achieving Millennium Development Goals to eradicate poverty, and might even undermine the progress that has already been made.[59]

42. The 2006 White Paper acknowledged that "we need to tackle shared global challenges, in particular… the loss of natural resources and biodiversity",[60] although it did not elaborate on how action will be taken forward directly on this front, focusing instead on climate change and good governance. Biodiversity only receives one other mention in the document—in relation to the Overseas Territories. It should be stressed that these 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.

15   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK International Priorities: The FCO Sustainable Development Strategy, March 2005, p3 Back

16   Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration 1992 established that public access to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice, are key principles of environmental governance. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development these principles were reaffirmed, with the Partnership for Principle 10 being established to better enable progress towards these goals. See: Back

17   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK International Priorities: The FCO Sustainable Development Strategy, March 2005 Back

18   Iain Orr (2007),  Back

19   Qu 1 [Mr Buckley] Back

20   Ev 2  Back

21   Qu 72 Back

22   Qu 73 [Mr Wightman] Back

23   Qu 73 [Mr Wightman] Back

24   ibid Back

25   Qu 73 [Mr McCartney] Back

26   Ev 76 Back

27   Qu 39 [Mr Yeo] Back

28   Qu 9 [Ms Sanders] Back

29   "It's not just about climate", BBC News Online, 2 March 2007, Back

30   "It's not just about climate", BBC News Online, 2 March 2007, Back

31   HM Treasury, Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, October 2006, p536 Back

32   "Address by Dr Ahmed Djoghlaf", Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 19 March 2007, Back

33   "Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005", Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2006, Back

34   "Biodiversity and climate change", Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 20 March 2007, Back

35   Ev 69 & 70 Back

36   Qu 1 [Mr Papastavrou] Back

37   Ev 4 Back

38   Ev 25 Back

39   Qu 45  Back

40   Qu 68 Back

41   Sustainable Development Commission, Strategic Assessment: Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Sustainable Development Strategy 2005, October 2006, p5 Back

42   Sustainable Development Commission, Strategic Assessment: Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Sustainable Development Strategy 2005, October 2006, p5 Back

43   Ev 36 Back

44   Sustainable Development Commission, Strategic Assessment: Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Sustainable Development Strategy 2005, October 2006, p18 Back

45   ibid Back

46   Sustainable Development Commission, Strategic Assessment: Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Sustainable Development Strategy 2005, October 2006, p39 Back

47   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK International Priorities: The FCO Sustainable Development Action Plan, January 2007, p35 Back

48   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK International Priorities: The FCO Sustainable Development Action Plan, January 2007, p36 Back

49   Qu 84 Back

50   United Nations Environment Programme, Afghanistan's Environmental Recovery: A post-conflict plan for people and their natural resources (Kenya, 2006), p2  Back

51   "Country profiles: Afghanistan", DFID website, May 2007, Back

52   Sustainable Development Commission, Strategic Assessment: Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Sustainable Development Strategy 2005, October 2006, p8 Back

53   Conflict Prevention Pools, Foreign Office website, 14 March 2007, Back

54   Sustainable Development Commission, Strategic Assessment: Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Sustainable Development Strategy 2005, October 2006, p8 Back

55   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Active Diplomacy for a Changing World; The UK's International Priorities, CM 6762, March 2006 Back

56   Ev 35 Back

57   ibid Back

58   Ev 28 Back

59   Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, HC 77 Back

60   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Active Diplomacy for a Changing World; The UK's International Priorities, CM 6762, March 2006, p35 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 23 May 2007