Monday 24 February 2003

Prime Minister’s speech on sustainable development

24 February 2003

Prime Minister Tony Blair has said a broad common agenda and effective global institutions are essential to deal with issues of climate change and sustainable development.

In a speech in London Mr Blair said the Government’s challenge is to continue to ‘integrate the goal of environmental modernisation into our vision of Britain’.

Read the Prime Minister’s speech on sustainable development in full

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The recent divisions in international relations are plain. I remain hopeful we can pull people round to a common position. But in reality they mask a deeper and more worrying divide. The world is in danger of polarising around two different agendas. On the one hand there are the very clear and dangerous threats of unstable states developing or proliferating weapons of mass destruction and the evil of terrorism exemplified by September 11th. These are the issues, if you like, of immediate security. They are a threat we can see confronting us directly and now.

On the other hand, there are the issues that affect us over time. They are just as devastating in their potential impact, some more so, but they require reflection and strategy geared to the long-term, often straddling many years and many Governments. Within this category are the issues of global poverty, relations between the Moslem world and the West, environmental degradation, most particularly climate change.

The trouble with long-term issues is that they seldom fit political time-scales. The impact of some of the measures we announce today will not be felt under this Government, or even this generation. We have to do what is right for the long-term. The truth is investment now to meet the challenge of these issues is worth every penny in the long-term.

But the polarity is there. And it is dangerous. It divides sometimes along left/right lines. It divides along North/South lines. It divides the US and its allies from the rest. It can lead to people striking positions that are wholly counter to their professed beliefs. One of the saddest things in politics was to see some African countries decry attempts to isolate MrMugabe as neo-colonialism when on any rational basis his rule is impoverishing millions of black Zimbabweans, taking away their democratic rights and hugely undermining our concerted attempts to partner Africa out of poverty. Why did they do so? One reason is because if "the West" wants it, it must be resisted.

The only answer is to construct a common agenda that recognises both sets of issues have to be confronted for the world’s security and prosperity to be guaranteed. There will be no lasting peace whilst there is appalling injustice and poverty. There will be no genuine security if the planet is ravaged by climate change. Yet we know we cannot wait to tackle terrorism and WMD. They are affecting us now and have to be dealt with now.

The whole of British policy since 1997 has been geared to trying to establish such a consensus. It is why at the same time as being prepared to take military action to fight terrorism or ethnic cleansing or states with WMD, it is the UK which is increasing its aid substantially as a percentage of GNI; doubling it to Africa to reach £1 billion in 2005; working with countries and pharmaceutical companies to tackle AIDS; leading the way on Kyoto and climate change; and trying to influence for the better the MEPP which is the single biggest source of mistrust between the West and the Arab and Moslem world.

Of these issues, it is global poverty and environmental degradation that come together in the cause of sustainable development. Today I want to argue that we have not yet been nearly bold enough; and that real investment now to tackle the causes of poverty and degradation would not only yield enormous benefits to us in years to come; but they could be such a strong signal of our determination to pursue justice in an even-handed way.

At Rio in 1992 sustainable development was put squarely on the world agenda.

Last year in South Africa the international community met again at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. A lot more was achieved than was recognised. I pay tribute to the hard work of the UK team, under the leadership of Margaret Beckett, and to the enormous efforts made by business, community groups and NGOs. We agreed action on areas such as sanitation and water, renewable energy, biodiversity, and oceans.

But in truth we are still not meeting the scale of the challenge.

In thirty years’ time there will be two billion more people on the planet. Already 40% of the population is short of fresh water; on current trends this will rise to 50% by 2030, in west Asia it will be 90%. One-third of the world’s fish stocks and one-quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with extinction. There are already over a billion urban slum dwellers. With the population of the world’s cities due to rise by another billion by 2010, this will only increase. The World Bank recently estimated that nearly one fifth of preventable disease in the developing world is caused by environmental factors, such as urban air pollution and unclean water.

The World Summit did much to address these issues. But it is becoming clear that we have a profound choice as an international community: continue to make modest progress; or act decisively.

We need a new international settlement that enables us as nations, acting collectively, to address these issues: to help the poorest countries develop; to promote a fairer allocation of wealth and opportunity. That should comprise, amongst other things, the $50 billion facility proposed so imaginatively by Gordon Brown; the partnership for Africa - NEPAD, which we must take forward decisively at the G8 in June; a successful WTO round which truly opens up the markets of the developed world to developing nations. Real progress on these things would be immense.

And we also need a new international consensus to protect our environment and combat the devastating impacts of climate change.

Today, I want to make the case for that new covenant between nations. I do so firmly in the belief that tackling climate change or other environmental challenges need not limit greater economic opportunity nor higher living standards for the poorest in the developing world. This - to me - is the essence of sustainable development. Economic development, social justice and environmental modernisation must go hand in hand.

Climate change was not on the agenda of the World Summit. Yet it remains unquestionably the most urgent environmental challenge.

The facts are clear. The number of people affected by floods worldwide has already risen from 7 million in the 1960s to 150 million today. Globally, 2002 joined 2001 and 1998 as the hottest years on record, and our own world-renowned Hadley Centre has predicted that global warming could strongly accelerate over the next few decades.

Worldwide, damage from extreme weather events last year reached $55 billion. The United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that economic losses from severe weather events have doubled every decade. At this rate annual losses will reach $150 billion within ten years.

And the longer term? The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates global warming by up to 6 degrees this century - the impacts devastating, particularly in the developing world. We face a situation in which 50 million people in Asia could be killed or displaced by floods, further swathes of Africa could be reduced to desert, accompanied by massive deforestation in central and South America, and huge increases in disease, particularly malaria. And it is the poorest countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, which will suffer the most devastating effects of these changes.

In Kyoto, five years ago, we signed up to targets and timetables to address climate change. In Britain we pledged to meet a target of 12.5%. This was a spur for action - the climate change levy; the first economy-wide national greenhouse gas emissions trading system; a reform of company car taxation to a new green system. Today I can tell you that Britain is well on the way to meeting its target.

But whilst Kyoto was an enormous achievement, it is simply not enough. Global emissions of greenhouse gases have risen 10% since 1990, with a 35% increase in developing countries. At best Kyoto will mean a reduction of 2% in emissions. That is better than emissions just continuing to rise and rise. But we know now, from further research and evidence, that to stop further damage to the climate we need a reduction in 60% reduction world-wide. The Royal Commission on Environmental Protection found just that: a 60% reduction by 2050 was essential.

So it is clear Kyoto is not radical enough. But it is at the moment the most that is politically achievable. And even the Kyoto targets have proved controversial with some countries, notably America. Many see it as a threat to the pursuit of economic growth.

I believe this needn’t be the case. If we harness new technology the evidence is mounting that we can achieve a target of 60% - and at reasonable cost.

A few months ago, I asked a team of experts from Imperial College here in London to produce a report saying how the world could reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases. I found the report fascinating - and startling. It said that by using known technologies or those very close to market, the world could reduce emissions by over 60%. This would not involve huge shifts in the economy, or enormous changes in lifestyles. It would allow developing countries to increase emissions, in the medium term, on a conventional development path. And it could be achieved gradually, over a period of years.

Solar energy alone, for example, could supply world energy demand using 1% of the land currently under crops and pasture. There is also huge potential from wind, wave and other renewable technologies. Tidal sites already identified around the UK coast could provide up to one-sixth of our electricity needs. In a joint venture between Southampton University, the DTI and the European Commission, there will be a large-scale test of the technology this summer, off the Devon coast.

Improving the efficiency with which we operate our energy processes also offers enormous savings - up to half our energy use could be saved by the use of known efficiency techniques.

The ability of hydrogen to replace fossil fuels, especially in transport, will also transform our energy system - and offers a vision of a transport system that is completely clean - with no exhaust emissions. Of course, this is still some way off. We need to make further advances on technology and infrastructure before it can become a reality. But possibilities exist now to manufacture hydrogen from natural gas or biofuels, which coupled with fuel cell technology, could offer a reduction in emissions of up to 50% compared to conventional vehicles. And when I meet the heads of the major car companies, they tell me that these new advances are not far away. As Dave King said in his brilliant Zuckerman lecture, the possibilities for scientific advance are there. But they do require urgent investment.

Are these solutions expensive? Not against the scale of the problem. And it is a myth that reducing emissions makes us poorer. The UK’s economy has grown by nearly 17% since 1997 - in that time, emissions have fallen by 5%. The picture on resource use is also encouraging. Recent European research showed that the UK’s total resources requirements grew by just 13% between 1970 and 1999, whilst our GDP increased by 93%. We in Britain have shown that it is possible to break the relationship between economic growth and ever-rising pollution. And through further reductions in resource use, we will benefit our economy, business and the environment.

I believe that these conclusions are so important that they should lead to a step change in the UK’s energy strategy over the next 50 years, as the Energy White Paper will show later today.

Of course there is little point in the UK acting alone. We need a concerted international effort. As a first step, we are working intensively with our European partners to agree a 60% target for the EU as a whole. I wrote today a joint letter with the Prime Minister of Sweden to the Greek Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, in his capacity as President of the European Council. In it we confirm our ambition to reduce emissions in the EU by 60% by 2050, and our commitment to policies that will demonstrate how we can achieve it.

We will continue to work also with our new partners from Central, Southern and Eastern Europe, who with us, will help extend the EU’s commitment to sustainable development further across the continent. And we will continue to make the case, to the US and to others, that climate change is a serious threat that we must address together as an international community.

I want to say today in terms: that for Britain we will agree the Royal Commission’s target of a 60% reduction in emissions by 2050. And I am committed now to putting us on a path over the next few years towards that target.

I know that the Sustainable Development Commission and others will hold us to account on this, as you have recently done on our climate change programme. I welcome that. It is vital that we deliver on these targets, and that we review our strategy and policies at every stage.

And there are clear economic advantages for Britain in taking the lead. We have enormous potential in this field - in our universities, our research institutes, our businesses.

Science and technology are vital. That is why, in partnership with governments, businesses and NGOs, we are working to find new ways of removing barriers to investment in these technologies. I set up the Carbon Trust two years ago, as a business-led organisation charged with bringing forward cutting edge climate change technologies. Today I am pleased to announce its first large portfolio of projects - including fuel cells, wave power, photovoltaics and CHP - which together will amount to £70m in combined public-private investment.

We will also set out later today our ambition to double the amount of energy supplied by renewables.

And I believe that this investment is not only good for the environment, but will also benefit our economy and communities. Indeed, in our drive to improve energy efficiency, to shift to renewable energy, and to help the fuel poor, new employment opportunities have been stimulated across the country.

For me this strikes at the heart of what sustainable development means in practice. At its core, modern social democracy stands for a high wage, high skill society, supported by decent environmental and social standards.

We shouldn’t forget that one of the first great Labour modernisers, Keir Hardie, included the reforestation of Lancashire as one of the ten proposals in the first Labour manifesto. Or that we are now considering proposals to create the first National Parks in 50 years. The environment is as much a part of the progressive left tradition as the economy and public services.

And it is through our actions we demolish the myth that sustainable development is only important for the well off - or that it is only the wealthy that have the time and resources to be green.

I believe the environment, not just globally, but locally, in our towns and cities, is overwhelmingly an issue of concern for the poorest citizens in our communities. It is the poorest that live in the worst housing, and are the most affected by traffic pollution, live closest to landfill sites and have the worst graffiti and litter problems.

The Social Exclusion Unit has analysed the concerns of people living in the 10% most deprived wards in England. Overwhelmingly they listed pollution, the appearance of their estate, and public transport as major concerns. In spite of efforts to clean up our industrial areas, poorer people are twice as likely to live near polluting factories. Children from families on low incomes are five times more likely to be killed by road transport than children from affluent areas.

We are acting now to improve quality of life by tackling poor local environments, particularly in areas of higher social deprivation. In addition to the large amounts invested in inner city regeneration, we have made available £200 million for improving streets, parks and public spaces in the Communities Plan launched by the Deputy Prime Minister earlier this month. And we have introduced the Anti Social Behaviour Bill and the Street Crime initiative with the express aim to deliver safer, less threatening streets. By raising the standards of our local environments overall, we have the greatest impact on the poorest areas.

All these policies have sustainable development as a guiding principle. But we must do more to embed this at the heart of policy-making. That is why I believe that the report on sustainable development in the UK that is published today is so important. The UK was the first country in the world to publish a comprehensive set of indicators of sustainable development. And the first country to report annually on our progress against those indicators.

Many inside government felt we were taking a big risk - that the indicators wouldn’t go in the right direction. Some of them are not. But they show clearly the direction we should be moving in.

This is a bold experiment. And I think it is right that Defra have decided to review the set of indicators in consultation with individuals and experts like yourselves, to determine whether we have got it right. But most importantly I think it is vital that we don’t stop trying.

The challenge for this Government today is in continuing to integrate the goal of environmental modernisation into our vision of Britain. To combine greater economic development with better environmental impact - bringing the environment, economic development and social justice together.

I believe our approach offers the best hope for reversing the conditions that lead to hunger and division, and for building a more prosperous, just and stable world.

Ultimately this is about our world as a global community - a cliché perhaps but true. Interdependence is the defining characteristic of the modern world. What we lack at present is the common agenda that is broad and just and global institutions to execute it. That is the real task of statesmanship today. And the time-scale is urgent.


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