Environmental Audit Committee

26 March 2002

The World Summit on Sustainable Development - the turning point for a better world?

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), taking place in Johannesburg later this year, will provide a unique forum to provide the ultimate, overarching framework for the integration of trade, development, environment and social agendas so that we are better placed to tackle global issues such as poverty and environmental degradation.  Unfortunately, there is a real danger that the Summit will merely present an opportunity for many nations to engage in a bewildering array of discussions relating to these issues rather than exploring the interface between them and key action that can be taken-which is where the real value of the Summit lies.

The UK is preparing well for the Summit and is seeking to ensure that the agenda is sharply defined to avoid this danger.   However, back home, despite the creation of the appropriate infrastructure to deliver sustainable development, progress towards this goal is frustratingly slow.  The latest UK quality of life indicators illustrate this point yet the Government seems determined to pretend otherwise.

These are the overall findings of the Environmental Audit Committee's latest report published today, as the third preparatory meeting for the Summit continues in New York.   John Horam MP, Chairman of the Committee said:

"There is a risk that the WSSD will not be the turning point that the world needs unless a clear, true sustainable development agenda is rapidly agreed.  It is vital also that Tony Blair persuades President George W Bush to attend. Margaret Beckett is leading the UK's effort well, but domestically our efforts are characterised by too little achievement and too much spin."

The Committee also reaches the following conclusions in its report:

1. We support the Government's decision to push issues such as poverty eradication and access to clean water as leading candidates for the WSSD's agenda rather than issues such as climate change and biodiversity where frameworks of action have largely  been agreed.  WSSD does not start with a clean sheet and it is important that these elements of the Rio process are built upon and not forgotten in the Summit discussions (para 21).

2. There is a need to resolve tensions between environment and development stand-points, as displayed to the Committee by Jonathon Porritt and Clare Short. (para 24).

3. We are concerned that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is seeking to portray the latest quality of life indicators as demonstrating improvement in UK quality of life when in fact the picture is mixed.  Areas such as land-use, traffic and violent crime show worrying trends (para 86).

4. We are disappointed  that the UK Government's progress report for the Summit is little more than a list of every UK initiative related to a social, economic or environmental policy.  It contains no critical assessment of where the UK has got to in the implementation of Agenda 21 and is not the warts and all assessment that the UN is seeking (para 87).

5. The Government has put in place much of the machinery necessary to generate policies with sustainable development at their heart.  However, these are far from delivering their full potential because few departments consider sustainable development to be central to their activities (para 102).

6. It is important that Ministers across Government take on a leadership role in explaining and articulating sustainable development as it relates to particular policy areas.  We fully endorse the Sustainable Development Commission's suggestion that each Cabinet Minister should make a key note speech on a sustainable development theme in the run up to the Summit (para 109).


i) The Committee today published its third report of this session, HC 616, The UK Preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

ii) The third preparatory meeting for the Summit, PrepCom3 is taking place in New York from 25 March -2 April.

ii)  The Committee is not hosting a press conference for this report.  However, Members of the Committee will be available for comment.  Please contact the EAC office to arrange this.

iii) WSSD is taking place from 26 Aug - 4 Sept in Johannesburg, South Africa.

iv) The Johannesburg Summit is being looked to as the culmination of a series of recent international discussions which include the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation in Doha in November 2001 and the UN Summit on Financing for Development (FfD) which took place in Monterrey (Mexico) last week.

v) For more details of the Summit and UK preparations see http://www.johannesburgsummit.org  and http://www.sustainable-development.gov.uk