Environmental Audit Committee

23 May 2007

International environmental diplomacy: the UK must lead by example

The environment plays a complex and important role in conflict and its resolution, and therefore sustainable development, climate change and environmental protection must be considered security issues of critical importance to the UK Government and to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in particular. The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) examines these issues in a report published today entitled Trade, Development and Environment: The Role of FCO. Given increasing knowledge of the risks associated with climate change and environmental degradation, the EAC found that the FCO has a more important role than ever to play in building international support for, and helping to deliver, UK international environmental objectives. In particular, the FCO has a pivotal role where diplomacy is critical to achieving success, such as in international negotiations on biodiversity and climate change.

The EAC acknowledges that the FCO is doing some good work on a number of international environmental issues, and commends the Rt. Hon Margaret Beckett MP, the Foreign Secretary, for making climate change a key international priority for the FCO. The recent appointment of a Special Representative on Climate Change and the Foreign Secretary's robust argument for the consideration of climate change at the UN Security Council is evidence of the diplomatic effort that the FCO is putting behind this issue.

Nevertheless, the EAC has major concerns that the FCO is neglecting a number of key international challenges including biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. The EAC is concerned that the structure of the FCO is not up to the task of dealing with the challenges posed by international environmental degradation. In addition, the EAC found that the UK Government's likely failure to meet its domestic target on reducing carbon emissions, as well as certain actions relating to biodiversity protection, might undermine our ability to address these issues on the international stage.

Colin Challen MP, Chairman of the Sub-committee heading the inquiry, said:

"The FCO has an important role to play in helping the UK to achieve its international environmental aspirations. Through the FCO's understanding of the political, cultural and social circumstances abroad, and its extensive network of diplomats, it can play a pivotal role in helping the UK to influence the international agenda in areas such as trade, biodiversity and climate change."

It is because of this that we are concerned that the FCO might not be up to the challenges posed by environmental degradation. Although there has been welcome progress in some areas, such as climate change diplomacy, the FCO appears to have a limited capacity to integrate fully environmental considerations into its work. Failure by the Government to address this might lead in certain cases to a world more at risk of instability and conflict.

Further to this, it is paramount that the Government demonstrates international environmental leadership by meeting its existing environmental commitments. For example, the Government's likely failure to reach its own target on carbon emission reductions and its failure to support adequately biodiversity protection in the UK Overseas Territories, contrary to international agreements, will ultimately undermine our ability to influence the international community to take the robust action that is required."

Notes for Editors

This is the first time since its creation in 1997 that the EAC has scrutinised in detail the FCO and its environmental policies. The inquiry comes as the last in a groundbreaking series of four inquiries that looked at a wider range of environmental issues than those more usually considered the preserve of the EAC, in order to provide a seamless assessment of the environmental impacts of UK international policy on trade and development. The earlier inquiries scrutinised the World Trade Organisation and UK policy on international trade, the role of the Department for International Development, and the impact of the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Some further conclusions of the EAC report are set out below:

FCO Policy

€ Although the FCO is doing some good work, evidence suggests that overall the FCO is placing less of an emphasis on non-climate related environmental challenges. This could have a damaging impact on our ability to tackle some international environmental issues such as biodiversity loss.

€ The FCO appears to be failing to explore the links between natural resource protection and conflict prevention and resolution.

€ As a result of restructuring the FCO has lost much of its environmental expertise. The training of FCO staff, and secondments from other departments, can only in part address this shortfall. Therefore the FCO should expand greatly the proportion of externally-appointed environmental specialists in its employ. In addition, career diplomats with a environmental focus must be developed.

The Government must do more

€ The UK's international environmental policy is fragmented, which has a negative impact on the Government's ability to meet international environmental challenges. A new international environmental strategy must be developed, adopted and owned by a number of departments, incorporating issues including security, trade, foreign policy and development.

€ To enable the UK to be effective at international environmental diplomacy it is crucial that the Government demonstrates its commitment to sustainable development principles though all its actions, and in particular it must not renege on international and domestic environmental commitments. Therefore the EAC believes that, although the UK will meet its international targets under Kyoto, failure to reach its more demanding domestic target on carbon emission reduction, will result in the loss of the political leadership demonstrated by the UK through its adoption. The consequences of missing this target are all the more negative as current scientific information indicates that the Kyoto targets fall well short of the scale of effort required to meet the challenge of climate change.

€ The Government is also undermining its position on international biodiversity protection by its failure to tackle adequately the risk of continued environmental decline and species extinctions in the UK Overseas Territories.

The report published today by the EAC is its Fifth Report of Session 2006-07, Trade, Development and Environment: The Role of FCO, HC 289.