Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report

Setting an example

Working with NGOs

60. Witnesses to this inquiry highlighted the importance of international collaboration on environmental projects, and the FCO's role in facilitating this. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) told us that in many of the countries in which it works around the world, FCO representatives have "played a hugely important role" in helping to establish important relationships with in-country institutions.[89] RBGE gave the example of China, where successive UK Ambassadors have taken an active interest in a partnership between RBGE and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which has led to the establishment of projects connected to plant conservation in line with the Chinese national biodiversity strategy. RBGE told us that "such campaigns serve as an excellent way of promoting scientific collaboration and public engagement with scientific issues".[90] IFAW also pointed to FCO in-country staff being "instrumental" in obtaining research permits for their international whale research vessel, "sometimes in difficult countries, and providing excellent support for the boat through its embassies".[91] This vessel is mainly engaged in using non-lethal techniques to study whales as part of the NGO's global campaign to resist attempts to resume commercial whaling, which is also an aim of the Government. 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.

61. The 2006 White Paper recognised the need for the FCO to deepen its working relationships with NGOs to "build a future based on shared values and interests".[92] The White Paper said that "as the links between domestic and international issues grow, co-operation between Departments of Government and with the private sector, NGOs and the public must deepen".[93] In written evidence to the Sub-committee, the FCO described how it is seeking to establish strategic partnerships and networks with NGOs in the UK and overseas in order to strengthen relationships, and to work towards common goals.[94] This will be facilitated through the development of "strategies for engagement with businesses, trade unions, NGOs, and faith groups, which recognise the achievement they can make to help achieve the Government's international environmental objectives".[95]

62. The Sub-committee asked the NGO witnesses what they would wish to see from such a strategy. IFAW stated that without the environment being an explicit foreign policy objective the development of a strategy would not necessarily improve links between them. It argued that where a common objective exists, "interactions form naturally".[96] The RSPB agreed but also argued that any strategy developed should emphasise the need to maintain long-term relationships with NGOs. Mr Buckley from RSPB told us that the RSPB feels very strongly about this due to the value that they have seen from themselves supporting NGOs for long periods of time, which can lead to such organisations becoming "very effective and relatively sustainable". Failure to maintain relationships with NGOs, in terms of funding or partnership, often leads to "boom and bust affairs where something happens for two or three years and then vanishes". Mr Buckley clearly thought that this was not the best use of resources.[97]

63. Iain Orr, from BioDiplomacy, told us that the FCO had worked quite well with NGOs on various occasions, although it could do "considerably more" to work with non-state actors.[98] He thought that the FCO often works successfully with NGOs at large international meetings, but that these relationships were not maintained on a day-to-day basis.[99] In addition he told us that, from his own experience within the FCO, NGOs and other stakeholders were not consulted early enough in the policy formation process.[100] IFAW agreed that the current relationship that it has with the FCO is unsatisfactory. Mr Papastavrou of IFAW described the relationship as "very haphazard and variable".[101] He thought that this variability was largely due to the development of personal relationships with individuals in the FCO, which enabled the NGO to benefit from the FCO and vice versa, but that the development of these contacts was not being led by any overall policy.[102]

64. The Sub-committee put these criticisms to the Minister, who said that he was not aware of a lack of interaction with NGOs. He argued that he spends "a great proportion" of his time engaging with NGOs, and said "[I could not] … achieve what I need to achieve… unless I have a proactive working relationship" with them.[103] He said that before visiting a country:

I sit down with the NGOs and talk through what the priorities of the visit should be across all of the issues that the NGOs might have and we then agree priorities for that visit. Then, when I come back, I set out what we have achieved and what we have not achieved, and the next thing I would do is set a work programme out for future visits or contacts, so I am very keen to work with NGOs and I am sorry if people feel that they have not received that kind of contact. I will take it in the way it should be taken and we will go back and look at it and see what more we can do.[104]

The Minister was asked what issues will be addressed by the NGO engagement strategy that is currently being developed, and he responded by saying:

For example, we will be engaging with them in terms of any new action plans […]. I think that the NGOs, the business representatives, the trade unions, all the alliances that need to be there are going to be included, so it is not just consulting them about what we want to do, but we want to consult them about what they think we should be doing. We want to fit them with the hat of actually developing the policy itself so that it is more than just a consultation, I would say it is a consultation plus where they have the capacity actually to influence at the start of the policy development the actual outcome of what that policy should look like, and I am keen for that to happen. There is a lot of skill, knowledge and commitment out there and it would be folly not to utilise it. That does not mean we will be able to agree everything, that will never happen, the NGOs always have their case to put and they put it vociferously and that is to be welcomed, it helps people like me to focus, but I give you an absolute assurance that, on all of the work we are doing now and in future work, they will be involved and invited to the table.[105]

65. 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.

Promoting sustainable development through FCO corporate activities

66. Iain Orr of BioDiplomacy argued to us that strong sustainable development messages can also be sent through the adoption of robust environmental estate and transport policies overseas, especially those that use the "best UK and local standards of energy and resource efficiency, recycling and design".[106] He went on:

This is particularly important for new buildings and renovations; and is not just a task for estate and transport budget managers. Whatever technologies are used (local will sometimes be best), commercial and public diplomacy sections should use this in their work, reporting back to UK industry and investors on innovations abroad from which we can learn and perhaps develop for wider use. Travel should be carbon balanced, with input on the value of different offset schemes being provided by the FCO climate change team (in consultation with Defra). Posts should be given flexibility in choosing schemes that suit local circumstances.[107]

67. The Sustainable Development Commission's review of the FCO SDS found that overall it was "impressed with the initiatives that the FCO is undertaking in relation to developing a more systematic approach to environmental management across the FCO estate, as well as incentives, support and encouragement towards more sustainable practices". The Action Plan expanded on the action that the FCO is taking to improve the environmental operation of its overseas estate. This included using feedback from an environmental management pilot project to model a system for the wider network, initially for 20 posts, and that major refurbishments and new builds on the overseas estate would be undertaken to a bespoke environmental assessment method developed by the Building Research Establishment from April 2007. In written evidence to us the FCO also said that it was "currently extending the coverage of [its] property management database to all [its] properties overseas, owned and rented alike. When complete the system will give [it] the information [it needs] to measure the full environmental impact of the overseas estate, and hence, the tools to mitigate this".[108] 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.

68. The FCO, in written evidence, told the Sub-committee that it was "working with REEEP (the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership) to offset the emissions generated by the air travel of UK based staff and Ministers". It also encouraged staff in Posts "to make a voluntary contribution from their travel budgets to an airline or other organisation to offset the carbon emissions from their air travel.".[109] The FCO offsetting scheme was set up before the creation of the Government's Carbon Offset Fund (GCOF), which offsets the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the majority of central government official and ministerial flights. The FCO chose to continue its offsetting arrangements with REEEP, rather than transferring to GCOF.[110]

69. 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.

70. Although it is important that the UK set a good example though overseas posts, Iain Orr, of BioDiplomacy, told the Sub-committee that "above all the UK's national housekeeping will determine posts' influence on environmental issues". He went on:

Embassies will be listened to with more interest and respect overseas when the UK has domestic success stories on recycling, good design, energy efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, access to environmental information, management of environmental risks and mitigation measures to tackle the unavoidable effects of climate change that are already in the pipeline.[111]

71. The Sub-committee asked an FCO official whether it was important to succeed domestically on environmental issues to provide the required diplomatic leadership to encourage international movement, specifically in relation to our domestic target for greenhouse gas emission reduction. He agreed that it was:

… the ability for the UK to sustain the leadership that it has shown internationally and given internationally, I think, is dependent on how people perceive actions which have been taken by the Government domestically to pursue its own domestic targets and to pursue the general policies in relation to emissions and reductions, so I think, as a general principle, you are right…[112]

72. 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.

89   Ev 71 Back

90   ibid Back

91   Ev 5 Back

92   Ev 50 Back

93   ibid Back

94   ibid Back

95   Ev 50 Back

96   Qu 17 [Mr Papastavrou] Back

97   Qu 17 [Mr Buckley] Back

98   Ev 15 Back

99   Qu 29 Back

100   ibid Back

101   Qu 16 Back

102   ibid Back

103   Qu 75 Back

104   Qu 74 Back

105   Qu 75 Back

106   Ev 15 Back

107   ibid Back

108   Ev 51 Back

109   Ev 51 Back

110   National Audit Office, Government Carbon Offset Fund, Note shortly to be published with the Environmental Audit Committee report on carbon offsetting. Back

111   Ev 15 Back

112   Qu 78 [Mr Wightman] Back

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