BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 2.06.02

Interview: MARGARET BECKETT MP, Environment Secretary.

Are world leaders ready to take the tough decisions needed at the Earth Summit?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Margaret Beckett, Rio, as we all know was ten years ago . Do you accept that not much has been achieved since then. MARGARET BECKETT: I think that's a bit harsh, quite a good deal has been achieved but not as much perhaps as some people had hoped and what the purpose of Johannesburg is, is not to sort of rake over old grounds, say, oh so and so didn't do this and this person didn't do that, but to say how do we take this agenda forward. We've got a fair amount of international agreement on the millennium development goals to get access to water, access to energy particularly for people in the developing world, what concrete steps could we agree at Johannesburg that really will move things forward? HUMPHRYS: I suppose the big problem is globalisation and how the big multi-national corporations operate. Organisations such as Friends of the Earth say that they have to be reined in. BECKETT: I think the point that they have is that there are dangers obviously, I mean you can't just say stop the world we don't like globalisation it's there, it's a fact of life. The question is the issue of Johannesburg is, can we make globalisation work for the poor and it isn't just a simple matter of saying stop big business or rein in big business. There are quite major international companies that are involved in some really worthwhile projects to try to deliver sustainable energy, to try to deliver access to fresh water and sanitation, and that's what we have to encourage those companies that are prepared to act responsibly to be part of that international partnership. HUMPHRYS: Well, it's more than encouraging the good companies isn't it. It's stopping the bad companies, the companies that Friends of the Earth for instance say are trashing the environment, and we know that it goes on, illegal logging and all that sort of thing. Those companies have to be stopped don't they? BECKETT: We have got to try to stop people who are wrecking other people's livelihoods and the environment yes, but what we also have to do is to try to put in place more of that basic infrastructure that helps people to start to find their way out of poverty because it isn't only a good thing to do and the right thing to do in their interests, it's actually in all of our interests. Few things lead to greater degradation of the environment than dire poverty and this is why it's very important to everybody to try and find a way out of this trap in which so many people in the developing world are caught at the present time. HUMPHRYS: But, we're making that trap both wider and deeper. We're forcing people effectively into greater poverty by making them open up their markets in agriculture when they obviously cannot compete. BECKETT: No I think that could be a misunderstanding, I mean certainly what we want to do is to pursue a sustainable approach to agriculture whether it's in the developed or the developing world. But although this won't be a major feature won't be the centre piece of what's discussed at Johannesburg because there are the WTO talks themselves, the Doha development round heavily features agriculture. But particularly in Africa people are starting to point out that although it would be excellent if we can increase levels of overseas aid, although it would be very good to do more to provide sustainable water, energy and so on, actually it would could do far more for Africa if we can open up our markets particularly to their agricultural produce. The OECD has figures that we spend something like fifty billion dollars a year on direct overseas aid, we spend three hundred and fifty billion dollars a year on subsidising our own agriculture. If we were opening up our markets more to the developing world and if they were able to address that challenge it could be worth three times as much as they now get in overseas aid. So although that won't be the centre of what we talk about in Johannesburg it is a potentially huge opportunity for them. HUMPHRYS: Well, you put your finger on it, don't you, because exactly the opposite is happening.. I mean if you take a poor and small country like Ghana. Now in Ghana they had a thriving little local tomato industry. They were growing their own tomatoes, they were doing very well. The local people were using tomatoes, they were selling very well abroad, and then what happened is that Italy which grows an awful lot of tomatoes, subsidised tomatoes that it doesn't want puts them in cans and dumps them on Ghana. And then the entire tomato industry in Ghana is destroyed. Now that is precisely the sort of thing that should not be happening. BECKETT: But the point of all of that is that it's subsidised production. If we can persuade the developed countries to reduce the subsidies we now spend on agriculture then everyone can benefit. Consumers and tax payers in the developed world benefit, we all benefit from a freer market a freer world price and this is why many of these things are not just - yes if they go wrong they can be damaging, but it isn't all damaging, it isn't all gloom, there are real opportunities here that we have to try and address. HUMPHRYS: Well yes there are, but we're not addressing them, and that's because we do nothing about the grotesque subsidies that exist at the moment. We have heard one Secretary of State after another, one Agriculture Minister after another in this country and indeed in other countries in Europe, saying, something must be done about the subsidies, something must be done about the CAP. The reality is that nothing gets done. BECKETT: Well that's not quite true. There have been changes, there have been improvements, we don't spend nearly as much now in some of these subsidies as we used to do, but I entirely agree with you that there is more that we need to do and I accept too that if we're talking about reform of the common agricultural policy set, people have been talking about this all my political life. That doesn't mean you turn your back on the next opportunity when it comes along, it means you take that opportunity and you do the best you can with it to get the kind of outcome that everybody wants to see. HUMPHRYS: The reality is though, that we're actually going in the opposite direction, aren't we? We're seeing more rather than fewer subsidies. If you look at the United States now, what's the figure there, a hundred-and-thirty-five billion pounds is going to American farmers, most of them big agri-business corporations over the next five or ten years. Now, that is an increase of fifty billion over what it was to rich American farmers and farming companies.. BECKETT: Yes I, I don't accept that we're all going in the wrong direction because the European Union did agree a negotiating mandate for the Doha round that says we start to phase out agricultural subsidies. I do agree that the American, recent American farm bill is certainly a step in the wrong direction but I think you're probably aware this is not what the administration wanted and the administration remain insistently of the view that they want to see the phasing out of subsidies. Now we've seen a short term step in the wrong direction in America. What we have to do now is try to make sure that they continue to pursue what they say are their long term goals. HUMPHRYS: But what we have to do whether we're talking about protecting the environment or helping poorer people, is we've got to have powerful international agreements, new international law, so if people break them, well we know they're breaking them. It's a difficult thing to do but it's the only thing ultimately to do, and we back away from taking those tough decisions. BECKETT: No I think that's harsh John because if you look at the Kyoto Climate Change negotiations, and I accept that the American government is outside those at the present time, but actually it was EU member states that drove agreement there and they have signed up to some very challenging and demanding targets, and signed up for the first time ever in the history of the planet to a huge international agreement that has legal teeth. So things aren't going fast enough, I accept that, there is a huge amount more to do, I accept that, but it isn't right to say that everything is negative and that we aren't going in the right direction. We are and we have to keep up that pressure which is why we need to have that presence there in Indonesia and then in South Africa to try and drive things in the right direction. HUMPHRYS: The Americans have walked away from Kyoto and they are the world's biggest polluter. BECKETT: The Americans are major polluters but don't forget that this American government has said that they accept that there is a climate change problem, they accept that action needs to be taken to tackle it in America and have some proposals there, not enough, not going far enough but proposals, a beginning. And they are putting substantial investment into technology, into scientific research that may help all of us in tackling some of these problems. So that isn't a hopeless scenario either and I personally believe that as we go on with the Kyoto protocol and that is the only international agreement around, that there is every possibility that in the fullness of time the American business community, the interests in America that can see America losing out as a result of some of these things, will start to rethink and start to increase the pressure on America itself, so that's why it's so important. If we weren't going on with Kyoto, if there wasn't something the rest of the world was trying to get agreed and brought into force, then there wouldn't be anything to drive America to a parallel process. While there is then that pressure remains. HUMPHRYS: The problem is that whenever there is a conflict between free trade and some social environmental issue, free trade always wins. That is the Holy Grail; and we all bow down before it. BECKETT: Free trade is important and free trade can bring real gains, but whether it's free trade or any other aspect of policy what we're trying to get people to do is to keep in balance those issues of economic prosperity, social justice and also tackling the problems of the environment, that's what the summit is about, that's what my department was set up to try and pursue and that's something that is still worth keeping on at even when sometimes we don't have all the success we might like. HUMPHRYS: Perhaps what the world needs is a world environmental organisation to take on the World Trade Organisation. BECKETT: I'm not opposed to that, I'm not rushing to say oh yes what a wonderful idea because there's obviously a danger that you'll set up another bureaucracy, you set up another agency and if there isn't underlying agreement it might not make a difference but I'm perfectly prepared to look positively at that idea,but I think there are things that we can do now without setting up a new world or environment organisation that we ought to be doing and maybe not putting our negotiating strength and all our pressure into that particular goal rather than more concrete things that are actually of direct relevance maybe next year to the people in the developing world. HUMPHRYS: You've chided me a number of times during the course of this interview for sounding too gloomy and too pessimistic, but the fact is things if they are happening, they're either going in the wrong direction of they're happening very, very slowly indeed. And there isn't that much time, the climate is getting worse, the world is hotting up, people are getting poorer and poorer, and there simply isn't that much time left to put it right. BECKETT: No, I'm not saying there's loads of time and I accept the comments that you've made about the need for urgent action. I'm simply saying that if we say this is hopeless, and walk away from the process then nothing at all will happen. What we have to do is to keep up the pressure for movement, and for movement as fast as we can get it. HUMPHRYS: You've said that we have to strive for collective responsibility. There's a great deal of talk about voluntary actions by big organisations, and indeed by government, but surely what is needed is to put real pressure on the big organisations, the big multinational corporations, and the way to do that is to have legally enforceable agreements, not the sorts of things that simply require companies to say, oh, yeah, alright we'll do that, and then they face no penalty if they don't? BECKETT: It's an interesting idea, it's an idea that's been tossed around by organisations like Friends of the Earth, but frankly it has such huge implications and ramifications that the idea that we could get countries across the world to sign up to that at this stage when the meeting is taking place in September, well I would be very very surprised. And what I am keen to get us to do is to put our efforts behind getting the right kind of political declaration at Johannesburg, getting the right kind of inter-governmental agreement and the right kind of approach to taking action to make globalisation work for the poor not least in Africa, and to get in some of these new kinds of partnerships that involve organisations like Friends of the Earth and the business community and say, local authorities in South Africa, elsewhere in the world that can show concrete examples of how people can work together to make life better for particular communities in the developing world. So we can learn from that example and build on it. I'd rather see us concentrate on doing those things which have always been top of the agenda for the world summit than saying oh let's think of another legal process and say all these problems are due to big multinational companies and let's now try and get them involved in a particular kind of agreement. I don't think with great respect to those who give a lot of time and thought and effort to these things that, that is the most fruitful thing that we should be pursuing in the run up to Johannesburg. HUMPHRYS: But if ultimately all we're able to say is well, effectively we're going to have to move at the pace of the slowest, and that isn't very fast at all, then we're going to go to hell in hand-basket. BECKETT: Well I think that's a depressing approach I don't think it excuses us from doing as much as we can but is there any point in setting goals that are so dramatic that they can't be realised so people then despair and think there's nothing that can be done. Surely it's better to fight to go as far as we can and actually to achieve that so that you can prove to people I can say to you today the Kyoto protocol was agreed. There is this unprecedented, international legal agreement that a whole string of countries across the world have signed up to, that's something we can point to as a success and say why can't we do more like this. If we'd been much more ambitious for the Kyoto protocol and failed all you'd have then is an excuse for people doing nothing. HUMPHRYS: And that interview was recorded a couple of days ago.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.