Westminster debate: Rio+20 and the future of sustainable development on the International Day of Biodiversity

An All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Development & the Environment (APPG IDE) meeting was held today in Westminster to discuss challenges facing policy-makers ahead of the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June this year. The APPG IDE is a forum for MPs and Peers to discuss the links between poverty and natural resources, and engage with interested people and organisations outside parliament.

The event was chaired by Jon Snow and had a panel consisting of:
Mark Simmonds MP: Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP.
Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP: Scottish National Party spokesperson on International Development.
Dr Caroline Lucas MP: leader of the Green Party.
Martin Horwood MP: Co-chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on International Affairs.
Tony Cunningham MP: Shadow Minister for International Development.

Jon Snow welcomed the meeting by pointing out that things have certainly happened during the last 20 years in the UK since the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992. He brought up the UK Climate Change Act and the announcement of the draft Energy Bill today as examples. After this, previously submitted questions were addressed to the panel by the audience.

The first questioner wanted to know how committed the UK Government is towards the outcomes of the Rio+20 Summit and what the key issues are. Mark Simmons listed three main issues that need to be addressed in Rio: sustainable development, GDP+ and a bigger contribution from businesses and the private sector. Eilidh Whiteford emphasised the need to transfer our technology and knowledge to the rest of the world, while Tony Cunningham mentioned poverty eradication as the bottom line of all the main issues which need to be addressed. Caroline Lucas added that human population has to admit its responsibility for the current problems and highlighted the need for financial commitment. Finally, Martin Horwood called for a holistic view to look at environmental problems at the Rio+20 Summit, rather than focusing on climate change to the exclusion of biodiversity loss and other considerations. Although the panellists pointed out slightly different issues they all agreed that the UK has to show leadership in Rio by the Prime Minister leading the delegation. At present, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP is due to attend, along with Secretary of State for Defra, Caroline Spelman.

Another question focussed on the North-South difference and poverty issues. The MPs agreed that social justice and sustainability should be at the heart of the new Sustainable Development Goals expected to be discussed in Rio.

The next questioner wanted to know how the global economy can provide the finances needed to meet the successors to the Millennium Development Goals and any new Sustainable Development Goals. Mr Horwood set out the UK government as a good example, applauding its decision to allocate 0.7% of the budget to international development projects. This is particularly impressive in a time of financial austerity, when it would have been easy to cut back on this spending. Mr Simmonds pointed at businesses and the private sector that need to be involved in the funding of the developmental goals. Caroline Lucas suggested that a ‘financial transaction tax’ could be levied on businesses and that a tax on greenhouse gas emissions from shipping could be a further mechanism. Mark Simmonds disagreed, stating that economic considerations are drivers for business and that business leaders will respond when they recognise that sustainable development makes good business sense, not when taxed to do so. Ms Lucas argued however that we cannot afford to wait for the majority of businesses to recognise this; instead Government needs to hold up examples of good practice to business, demonstrating that it is possible to behave sustainably and make a profit.

Then the discussion moved on to the ‘green economy’ and what the MPs think about it. The panellists agree that green economy is not equal to green growth and that there are parts of the world which still need growth but other parts should move towards a steady state economy. Therefore general global goals will not perform well due to differences in countries and regions. Ms Lucas also wondered what impacts would ‘advertisement-free zones’ have on our consumption pattern if these were widespread.

Another question which brought consensus amongst the panellists was about biofuels. They all agreed that biofuels are not all bad and there are some room for them within sustainable development but it is crucial to prioritise regarding to food security, society and environment. Martin Horwood added that the UK Government need to keep the pressure on EU renewable targets to make sure that they are really sustainable.

The last question asked the MPs’ opinion on setting up a new high commission for future generation issues. All of them, except Mark Simmonds, would like to see a new body focussing on future generations. Caroline Lucas brought up Hungary as a good example; Hungary has a Deputy-Commissioner responsible for the protection of the interests of future generations. On the other hand, Mark Simmonds would like to see existing institutions work better rather than introducing a new one. He was also wary about separating sustainable development considerations from mainstream policy, arguing that the UK Government already has a commitment to incorporating sustainable development considerations throughout the Government’s agenda.

The panellists mentioned several times that best practice has to be shared widely and the successes discussed. However, negative lessons learnt from the past could be just as important to share.

At the end of the meeting Jon Snow summarised the three most important points to emerge from the meeting:
– we should brag about our successes;
– the UK should be proud about the allocation of 0.7% of its budget to development goals and similar action by other countries should be pushed in Rio;
– and, most importantly, the Prime Minister should lead the UK delegation to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.