“The proposals and policies, taken as a whole, must be such as to contribute to sustainable development.”
Let me make it clear that I am passionately committed to sustainable development. I do not wish to remove the subsection from the clause, but I am advised that such a suggestion is a means by which we can discuss matters. I want to find out what the Government mean by sustainable development, hence my proposal that we remove those words from the Bill. My remarks will be brief because I want to hear the Government’s interpretation of “sustainable development” and to know what their policies and proposals, taken as a whole, will look like if we are to ensure that they contribute to sustainable development.
I shall define what sustainable development is not. What is unsustainable development? I like the definition that an unsustainable situation is one where the natural capital—the sum total of nature’s resources—is used up faster than it can be replenished. Sustainability requires that human activity uses nature’s resources only at a rate that can be replenished naturally.
Inherently, the concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity. Theoretically, the long-term result of environmental degradation is the inability to sustain human life. Such degradation on a global scale could imply the extinction of humanity. I will not go down that route, which I explored in detail last week in the context of biodiversity and rain forests.
I am passionately committed to sustainable development because it is one of the main things that I spent a lot of time negotiating at Rio. When, as a Minister, I had to negotiate a working breakfast with the Chinese at 7 am, with the Indians at 8 am and with the Americans at 9 am, I needed a sustainable biodiversity system myself to survive. Agenda 21 was one of the key documents that was signed and we negotiated every word of it. As an incoming Minister, I had no idea of the importance in UN-speak of getting each word correct. If we had accepted the sloppy word, it would have meant £3 billion extra being paid into some fund. Our representatives were cautious as we negotiated the words.
Since 1992 in Rio, the term “sustainable development” is thrown about everywhere. With all due respect, I have a parish council that puts down a new little park bench on the grass with a couple of daffodils and says that it is fulfilling Agenda 21, the sustainable development agenda. In some ways, the term is being diminished. There is utter confusion about its meaning.
With due deference to the current Government and to the Government of whom I was privileged to be part, I believe that the Brits are pretty good at defining such matters. I left Rio understanding the meaning of “sustainable development”, and I am certain that the Government have a clear concept of its meaning. We should impose more on the rest of the country and the rest of the world, because our concept is probably right.
My right hon. Friend is making another important point. I wholeheartedly agree with him. “Sustainable development” is widely misused. A large part of the problem is that it has been confused with the term “sustainable growth”.
I beg your pardon, Mr. Cook, for my discourtesy.
The problem is that sustainable development has been confused with sustainable growth. Often, when people use the term “sustainable”, it has nothing to do with environmental sustainability, but means growth that will go on and on and never end.
My hon. Friend is right, and that could be a justifiable definition of “sustainable development”. I conclude with these remarks. The term is in the Bill, but it is not defined—I cannot find a definition of “sustainable development” in the Bill. I suspect that this subsection is one where Government advisers will say “Well, Minister, if it is deleted, so what? It does not remove anything from the Bill. If it stays in, so what? Who cares? It does not add anything to the Bill either.”
I want the provision to mean something, so when people look through the Bill and come across the 12 pages on carrier bags and the bit on waste and garbage—they will not see any mention of rain forests or biodiversity—they will at least see “sustainable development” and say, “Ah! That means X.”
Clause 13 is an important part of the Bill. It requires the Government to prepare a programme of emissions reductions in order to stay within the carbon budgets established by the Bill. However, we must be mindful that in order to reach macro-level targets, by which I mean national and international level climate change mitigation, many micro-level projects must be carried out. There is a responsibility on us, as policy makers, to ensure that we do not undermine the natural environment at a local level in the process of trying to save it on a global level.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and I tabled our amendments to get the Government to explain exactly how they interpret sustainable development, taken as a whole, as opposed to assessing each individual policy and proposal on the grounds of its unique sustainability criteria. My right hon. Friend did an excellent job if raising the issue of sustainable development as a term. I wholeheartedly agree with him that the term is often meaningless and is sometimes used as greenwash. I am not suggesting that that is the case with this Bill, but it happens frequently elsewhere. A definition of sustainable development would help to inform the wider debate around environmental issues as a whole, and perhaps bring some clarity and rigour back to our language on this most important of debates nationally.
Amendment No. 55 would require the removal of the phrase “taken as a whole”, which currently appears in line 13 of clause 13. Its removal would require each individual mitigation option to be assessed against the principles of sustainability, rather than assessing proposals and policies only as a whole in the round. That would allow a Government to appraise the different mitigation options available and choose accordingly, rather than only viewing the sustainability of a policy on a macro level.
One need look only at the unfortunate example of biofuels to see that just because the ultimate Government objective is sustainability, it does not mean that the policy goals to get there are themselves, largely through perverse or unintended consequences, inherently sustainable. It is all well and good to say that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, but surely everyone in Committee agrees—I know that my right hon. Friend agrees—that it is nothing short of sheer madness to chop down the world’s single most precious natural resource, the pristine rain forests, in the name of the environment to achieve a nominal biofuel target.
While reducing emissions from vehicles is an important part of reducing our overall carbon pollution, if we can only meet the requirements of the biofuels directives at the price of the Borneo rain forest, it would be a Pyrrhic victory—target—indeed. A more sustainable option, for example, would be to improve the fuel efficiency of our cars and make significant transport emissions reductions, while at the same time developing a biofuels policy that does not accelerate the destruction of the lungs of the earth or contribute to the extinction of the orang-utan or less cuddly species.
We understand that there will be difficult choices in assessing our options for decarbonising the economy—it will not always be a win-win situation. However, as responsible stewards of today’s environment, as well as tomorrow’s world, we want, as far as it is possible to do so, to ensure that those choices are made transparently and on the basis of a clear definition of sustainability, rather than exclusively through the lens of cost-effectiveness or the overarching 2050 emissions-reduction targets.
For that reason, Conservative Members in the other place successfully argued for the requirement that the Government’s programme of action should meet the carbon budget in the Bill and be underpinned by the principles of sustainable development. In doing so, the Government saw fit to introduce a caveat into clause 13, which states that policies to achieve our interim and long-term targets “must”, when
“taken as a whole...contribute to sustainable development.”
In light of that, will the Minister clarify his interpretation of that phrase? I want to know that, in striving to achieve the emissions-reduction targets to which all of us in this place are committed, we are not legislating to allow Government policy to ride roughshod over short-term or immediate sustainability concerns.
It is good to be serving under your chairmanship again, Mr. Cook.
The two amendments raise important issues, and it is particularly important that amendment No. 55 is passed. Looking for a definition of “sustainable development”, I can trump the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border by going back to 1987 and the report for the UN by Gro Harlem Brundtland, “Our Common Future”. That defined sustainable development as
“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”,
which is a wonderfully classic and succinct definition.
I plucked that definition from the website of the Sustainable Development Commission, which has rightly highlighted the risk that the various definitions of sustainability, which include social and economic factors as well as environmental ones, can be used to muddy the debate and allow unsustainable policies to go forward. In particular, economic sustainability is often taken to mean “business as usual”, and it is used to justify policies that are the exact reverse of sustainable when examined from an environmental perspective. The biofuels example mentioned by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is interesting, although, frankly, a policy that allowed unsustainable biofuels to form the basis of our future biofuels policy would not be “sustainable” under any of the definitions.
A rather better example, which is specifically the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, involves setting the shadow price of carbon, which had a direct impact on the decision to endorse the third runway at Heathrow. The precise definition of the shadow price used by DEFRA in effect reduced the social cost in environmental terms of the Heathrow third runway from some £13.5 billion, which it would have been if the methodology applied by the Stern report had been used, right down to £4.8 billion, thereby making the difference between that third runway going ahead or not. That is a brilliant example of how the use of “sustainable development” needs to be precisely defined. In that sense, taken as a whole, one could say that the third runway at Heathrow is part of a package that the Government might excuse as “sustainable” in the medium term. Looked at in isolation, however, it is clearly not a sustainable policy.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another example that illustrates that point is the way in which the Government make their judgment about sustainable development and the protection of the sea coast and rivers through the Environment Agency? By changing the terms, what properly used to be considered as a matter for defence is now being abandoned, because points are not awarded to anything that might mean protecting the natural and historic environment. Again, that issue concerns the definition of what is sustainable.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; he obviously has expertise in this matter relating to his past responsibilities and his constituency. He has made an important point, although the sustainability of sea defences must be considered from an environmental perspective as well as from a local one.
In conclusion, definitions are important, and perhaps the Minister will address the relative importance of economic and environmental sustainability in his remarks. In light of the Stern report, we know that long-term economic sustainability is intimately linked to the environment, although in many parts of government there is still the temptation to prioritise short-term economic growth over true environmental sustainability.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has referred to Agenda 21. He made the important point that the profound effect of that conference was to set out a process that has significantly changed how we and other countries look at the world. It has had a significant effect on our analysis of economics, and it challenged some of the basics of supply and demand economics in a beneficial way. It has been noted that, on current estimates, we are using the resources of three planets when we only have those of one. That is not sustainable and people understand that.
I will go into the technical details to explain the Government’s approach. The purpose of the clause is to require the Government’s proposals for meeting carbon budgets to contribute to sustainable development. That is central to Government policy—we want to live within environmental limits and we can only do so by means of a sustainable economy. That policy is partly expressed through the Sustainable Development Commission, which was established in order to provide scrutiny and encouragement and to ensure that Whitehall, and its wider tentacles, are acting sustainably.
An expression of the meaning of sustainable development is within the SDC’s remit, and I will outline it for the Committee. The principles of sustainable development are ensuring a strong, healthy and just society, living within environmental limits, achieving a sustainable economy, promoting good governance and using sound science responsibly. Those principles were outlined in Rio.
Those terms are themselves open to interpretation. What does the Minister believe a sustainable economy actually means? That phrase is often abused or misused.
A sustainable economy is a low-carbon economy that puts a net contribution to carbon in the air in a downward direction. It is about not only carbon, but how we ensure that we recycle and reuse resources without a net depletion of the earth’s natural resources, including biodiversity. I am getting too academic—for the Committee as a whole, not particularly for you, Mr. Cook—and you are going to pull me back. I wish that I had not said that.
Let me turn to amendment No. 39. To ensure that we meet our objectives for the five principles, we require that every Department publishes a sustainable development action plan. In addition, the impact assessment process, which must be applied to every new policy, requires appraisals of the environmental, social and economic costs and benefits of policies. As hon. Members know, we try to build the idea of sustainability that stems from Rio into everything that we do. The reason for enshrining the principle in legislation, therefore, is to ensure that policy makers keep applying good sustainable development in future years and under future Governments. We also expect to be closely scrutinised by Parliament against the sustainable development requirement in the Bill.
The Government added subsection (3), which the amendment would remove, in the other place. We were responding to the strong views held there, with which we agreed, that the proposals and policies should contribute to sustainable development. For the reasons that I have explained, that is important and something that should be retained. I understand the intention behind amendment No. 39, but it would not achieve that aim.
Within the world. Our sustainability is dependent on that point. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the often arduous process of international agreement. The acceptance of sustainable development in United Nations forums, and the fact that it is written into treaties, is extremely important for this country and the rest of the world. To try to extract that would be practically impossible in terms of the global economy and dependence on resources, food and so on. That would also take us back to the debate on clause 1, which you, Mr. Cook, will not let me return to.
Amendment No. 55, which relates to achieving sustainable development, is about creating the right balance. We need to ensure that the UK’s package of policies for reducing emissions maintains the balance among the key elements of sustainable development. It would be a good idea to compare this policy with the carbon budget itself. Within the context of meeting a carbon budget, some Government policies may give rise to increased emissions, but the important principle is that the total net UK carbon account should be restricted. Given that policies to meet budgets are in that way considered as a whole, it makes sense that they should contribute to sustainable development as a whole. I have already set out the existing processes that are applied to every new policy individually.
I am unhappy about that particular part of the explanation. For example, the Ministry of Justice is just about to take over a newly refurbished building that used to be the Home Office. Despite considerable efforts, the Ministry of Justice still refused to accept that putting in hydrofluorocarbon-driven air conditioning was wholly contrary to any concept of sustainable development. It said that, taken as a whole, what it was doing was better than what was there before. Of course, it was Mr. John Gieve who did that, as is the case on many such occasions. The fact of the matter is that the one get-out that every civil servant and every Minister has is to say, “Taken as a whole, our policies are right, but we have an excuse for this one.” The new Home Office had the same excuse. It said that it had signed up to the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, which would not allow non-HFC air conditioning. I use that example because, after all, HFCs are 2,000 times as damaging to the climate as CO2. Unless we take everything into account and do not allow Departments to get away with “taken as a whole”, we will not win the battle.
I felt uncomfortable in putting the argument because I knew that the right hon. Gentleman would come up with an example that would be difficult to justify. In practice, under the new regime in the Bill, the carbon reduction commitment will include Whitehall Departments, so the “taken as a whole” excuse will be removed. I know that he will welcome that in the real world.
My second argument is stronger and more convincing. Consider the opposite situation, in which one had to judge every action and policy as part of the whole and to rule out any action or proposal that, in and of itself, was damaging according to the sustainability criteria. An ambulance trip that used polluting fuels, taken as a whole, would not be allowed, and one could consider other examples. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head in mystification, but that is a good example.
There are times when actions are necessary. The impact of the action may be negative, but it can contribute to an action that is positive overall. It is rather like asking which is the most important wheel on the car—the front right, the front left, the back right or the back left—when all are needed.
On the Minister’s example of the ambulance, there can be no one alive who would not agree that it would be a contribution to sustainable development to ensure that somebody got to hospital in time. That must be the serious answer to the question. No one would say that we should not do something because it costs a certain amount of carbon to do it.
However, a question must be asked about the individual action. We cannot allow an individual action to be smothered by the generality of “taken as a whole”. I cannot imagine a single proper action that would be stopped by the removing the phrase “taken as a whole”, but I can imagine many improper actions that would be more difficult if the excuse did not exist. I believe that in the Minister’s heart of hearts he knows that taking that little bit out would not put anyone in a difficult position. Leaving it in will mean that they will go on doing the things that they do now, as we have seen in the two examples that I gave.
I did not find the right hon. Gentleman’s argument against my ambulance analogy very convincing. I thought that I did well in picking that example against the much tougher example of his experience of the Government Department.
Let me reinforce my point. By including the phrase “taken as a whole”, we are allowing for the carbon budget, and the policies and proposals to meet it, to allow an increase in emissions in some areas so long as they are paid for, and more so, elsewhere in the economy.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham said that we had supported the third runway at Heathrow. Let me be clear about the Government’s policy. We said that we would support the development of the third runway, but only if we could be confident of meeting the strict environmental conditions set out in the White Paper. There is clearly a net judgment in all these matters. If one were simply to delete “taken as a whole” from subsection (3), that would not allow our economy to function properly. It would not allow people to go about their daily business. It is the whole that we are trying to address, not each individual part. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal continues to look bemused.
The Minister has explained the difference between us. I do not believe that we should do anything that cannot be said to contribute to sustainable development. That is why I am opposed to the third runway at Heathrow, which is nonsense, and I am certainly opposed to reworking the figures to make that fit the environmental requirements, which is what the Government did, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham pointed out. However, the point is that the Minister must believe that the third runway at Heathrow contributes to sustainable development, because if it does not contribute to sustainable development, he cannot support it. That is the problem for us. We are committed to a concept that nothing of that kind should be done unless it contributes to sustainable development. If it is unsustainable, we should not do it. That is why Opposition Members are very strongly opposed to the methodology that the Government are using. That is why the phrase “taken as a whole” is so dangerous.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He has outlined a principle very clearly, and I admire him for that. He is right that I do not agree with him. I do not accept that we can run our economy in a sustainable way, taken as a whole, based on the principle that he has outlined. That would prevent us from doing many of the things that we already do, and one could argue that in all sorts of ways. I will stick with my ambulance example. He says that if there is a policy in isolation that does not in and of itself contribute to sustainability, we should not do it. I think that there should be other judgments—it might depend on who is in the back of the ambulance.
Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of Ministers’ responsibilities. Let us suppose that it was my certain belief, based on advice, knowledge and certain communication—I shall deliberately choose the difficult example of Heathrow to try to pursue my argument—that a failure to expand Heathrow would inevitably result in an expansion of Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol. I am not saying that, just in case the journalists are quoting me out of context, as they never do in either the Daily Mail or The Guardian. However, let us suppose that, and that the policies of the Governments of the day of France and the Netherlands did not impose environmental criteria on Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol and excluded them from their considerations. Let us say, therefore, that the emissions caused by the expansion of aviation at those two airports would be greater than those predicted as a result of Heathrow. What would be the right decision under the right hon. Gentleman’s principle?
But then the hon. Gentleman would be making what he should be making: a decision on sustainability. He is saying that he will have looked at the circumstances not in the round or as a whole, but on that specific decision, given the particular parameters that he has put forward, and he would be making a proper decision about sustainability. It would not be about “taken as a whole”, as he has interpreted it. He would have interpreted that phrase as meaning that one can score off sustainability with other interests. I am saying that the definition of sustainability—this is why the question of how one defines sustainability is so important—involves making the sort of decision that the hon. Gentleman has just made. We disagree about the third runway at Heathrow because I do not believe that it is necessary, because there are other ways of doing things, and because the proposition that he put forward is not true as it would not stop anyone else from building runways. Indeed, it would encourage them. Therefore, the proposal is not sustainable.
If the Minister continues to use his argument, he is making the same references as I have made. He does not need the words “taken as a whole”. That is what we are arguing about, not a runway. The phrase is not necessary to defend him in his position. If it were left in the clause, it would enable someone to decide to have a third runway, even though that person had not made out a sustainable case for it.
Fascinating, except that the Bill requires those criteria to be judged. The logical consequence of the right hon. Gentleman’s principled stand is that we would not need the rest of the Bill. We would not need carbon budgeting, carbon trading and the other things that we have been talking about. We would simply say that an individual action must contribute in and of itself to sustainability. I simply do not agree.
Is not the candid explanation of why the Government do not want to remove the phrase that if they were to do so, it would be possible for any group to go to the High Court for judicial review and say that a particular development was not sustainable development? There would thus be an argument with the courts about a nuclear power station, for example. That is why the Government want the phrase. As I said earlier, they are desperate to ensure that the Bill, when enacted, does not get anywhere near the courts. It has been judicially proofed so that it cannot be challenged.
The hon. Gentleman must have been reading the Daily Mail. He is inculcated with cynicism. We included the provision in response to the other place, not out of fear of judicial action. I was trying to help. Sometimes when we read the Daily Mail, we conclude that we should not have bothered.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal outlined an important position and showed the evolution of his policies and politics. I am not sure that his point is shared by the hon. Members for Vale of York and for Bexhill and Battle, nor do I think that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) would agree with it because there would be huge consequences. However, I am repeating myself, so I shall now sit down and shut up.
I have listened carefully to the debate and I am not convinced that the Minister has spelled out a good, sound British definition of sustainable development, as I had hoped initially. The hon. Gentleman’s heart is in the right place, as is the Government’s, but I do not know where their head is. Perhaps the cause is my thick head. I do not understand fully what the hon. Gentleman was attempting to say and I am not sure that has he cut through the confusion of the plethora of definitions of sustainable development that exist throughout the world.
The Gro Harlem Brundtland Commission was a good starting point. When we were in Rio, the definition,
“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” was quoted about 10 times a day. It is simple and straightforward, but applying it to every aspect of business and industrial development, agriculture, farming, mining, quarrying, building and our lifestyle, and then to the lifestyle of other countries with completely different economic systems, takes us into severe trouble.
I do not want to prolong the debate. I want the phrase to stay in the Bill, so of course I shall not press the amendment to a Division. I will conclude by trying to shed some light on the Home Office windows and HFCs. I did not intervene in the debate—it might have been regarded as facetious—but I spent four years in the old building, where we were not allowed to open the windows because the top half was heavier than the bottom half. They were hinged, almost in the middle, and the top half could swing round, hit someone on the back of the head and knock them down seven storeys on to the Scots Guards’ parade ground below. The answer to the problem is not whether the gas is an HFC or another one, but to let us just open the windows in future, rather than use millions of pounds worth of air-conditioning. The same may apply in this Room in future.
At times, when we are looking at such highly complex subjects, we ought to get back to a bit of simplicity. The concept of sustainable development is simple. It is important. It is something to which Parliament will return again and again, not necessarily in the Bill, but on other occasions. It should stay in the Bill, but I hope that in future the Government will be clearer about what they mean by sustainable development. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my amendment.