Mary Creagh MP: We should be leading the world on Sustainable Development

In the first of the essays from our new Rio+20 pamphlet, Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh MP looks at the big challenges in Rio - food, rural poverty, forests and a more transparent economy.

The Rio+20 Summit is the biggest global gathering on sustainable development since the original Rio summit in 1992. The original declaration, including such worthy goals as the eradication of poverty, reducing unsustainable production and consumption, and cooperation to protect the world’s ecosystems is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. The Rio declaration worked to the Brundtland Commission’s (named after Norway’s former Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who chaired it) definition of sustainable development as:

“Development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In other words, development that is environmental, socially and economically sustainable.

But the 20 years since Rio have seen the challenges posed by climate change, and over-exploitation of natural resources remain, and in many cases, worsen. The 193 governments attending Rio+20 must make significant progress to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the bedrock for development when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reach their end date in 2015. To do so the world community must move beyond the vague rhetoric of lofty ambitions and set specific, measurable and timebound milestones for 2015 and beyond.

Before Ministers jet off to Rio, however, they should remember that sustainable development starts at home. And here they have some tough questions to answer. One of the first actions of the current Coalition Government was to abolish the Sustainable Development Commission, its own green watchdog.

As the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee report on ‘a green economy’ stated in May: ‘For the government to be a credible voice at the Summit, it must ensure that it has put in place a strong domestic policy framework to drive the transition to a green economy in the UK.’

Tonight, over a billion people will go to bed hungry. Another 1.5 billion people are overweight or obese. Food, and equitable access to it, is one of the defining political issues of this century with many commentators stating that 2011’s Arab Spring was prompted, in part, by soaring food prices.

In April, I visited South Sudan with the World Food Programme, a country where 4.7 million people are food insecure. Moderate food insecurity means one meal a day. Severe food insecurity means one meal every 2 to 3 days. There can be no food security without political and economic security and the absence of war. I saw and heard for myself how people will not plant seeds if they do not know what they will eat tomorrow. They will not invest in tools or irrigation systems if they will be taken in raids. The majority of the world’s subsistence farmers are women. How can we teach them about farming techniques in South Sudan, a country where the female illiteracy rate is a staggering 93%? How can people move from subsistence farming, where they are only ever one bad harvest away from starvation, to access markets and finance that enable them to withstand such shocks? Educating girls and building roads in sub-Saharan African countries must be at the heart of a sustainable global food system.

The Foresight Report into the future of food and farming – commissioned by Labour’s Hilary Benn as Environment Secretary in 2009 and published in January 2011 – set out the global challenge of feeding 8 billion people by 2025. The central question of the Foresight report was how do we produce more with less impact on the environment?

Changing weather conditions from climate change and a growing population will increase the pressure on natural resources – on the ability to grow food, access clean water and generate energy. We must act to reduce climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification.

We cannot have food security without sustainability. It’s not either produce more or produce sustainably. It’s both. The best farmers realise that the only longterm business strategy is one which puts sustainability at its heart, which respects its people and our planet’s finite resources. In Government, Hilary Benn launched the government’s first food strategy for 50 years in 2010, Food 2030. It tackled some of the very difficult issues – defining what is a sustainable diet, and the imperatives to reduce food waste and the food system’s greenhouse gases. Sadly, it appears to have gathered dust on the Defra Ministers’ bookshelf, abandoned in favour of a free market strategy on food – a completely inadequate response to such a huge, systemic challenge.

Food and drink is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, with a turnover of £76.2 billion, directly employing 400,000 people across the UK. It is a key player in the move to create a more green economy. The Government needs to give certainty for farmers and businesses wanting to investment in renewable energy such as solar and Anaerobic Digestion. The row over the cuts to feed-in tariffs risk investor confidence in the whole renewable energy sector. We need a comprehensive approach to carbon reduction across agriculture and food manufacturing. The Food and Drink Federation reports that the sector has cut its CO2 emissions by 25% since 1990, saved water and halved the amount of waste going to landfill, but there is still more to do.

Sustainable food production in other parts of the world is very different to the UK, as highlighted by the Oxfam Grow campaign. The Rio+20 Summit needs to deliver an unambiguous commitment for investment in small-scale farming and producers, as part of a wider global approach to sustainable food production. Eradicating unfair trade barriers and subsidies which lock farmers in developing countries out of western markets must be a priority. It is encouraging that the Gates Foundation is now focusing on sustainable agriculture and how to scale-up successful small scale agricultural extension services which can make a huge difference to communities.

The UK will be attending Rio as part of the European Union (EU) delegation whose negotiating position includes targets to halt the loss of biodiversity and investment in sustainable agriculture by 2020. 75% of the world’s subsistence farmers are women. So, the education of women is critical to raising food output and development. Supporting women farmers to increase productivity will also help stimulate local economies and reduce the amount of food wasted before it goes to market. The Summit also provides an opportunity to set out an international approach to sustainability for agricultural production and fisheries. Overexploitation of our oceans has damaged the marine environment and depleted fishing stocks. The EU bears a major burden for this, which is why Labour supports radical, science-led reform to the Common Fisheries Policy. The EU is proposing a target to eliminate illegal fishing.

Fair trade campaigners have rightly highlighted the plight of farm workers in developing countries. Yet the pay and conditions of farm workers in the UK is facing a sharp decline, thanks to the Government’s decision to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB). For over 60 years, 152 000 fruit and veg pickers and packers, foresters and farm workers have had their pay and conditions set by the AWB, set up by the Attlee Government in 1948. The AWB is the only surviving wages board, as successive governments have recognised the unique vulnerability of rural workers, who may have poor language skills, are unlikely to be in a trade union, who may follow the harvest around the country or whose accommodation may be tied to their employment.

Defra’s own figures show the abolition of the AWB will take £9 million a year out of the rural high street from holiday and sick pay alone. 42,000 casual workers will see a drop in their wages once the AWB goes, and the remaining 110,000 could see their wages eroded over time. Children under 16 – who do summer jobs or part-time jobs – currently receive £3.05 an hour, set by the AWB. They are not covered by National Minimum Wage laws so will have no wage protection when they do holiday or weekend work.

Employers will begin to charge workers more for their weekly accommodation, currently capped at £33 a week. An excellent recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘Experiences of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry’, gave a disturbing insight into the harsh conditions migrant workers face. Getting rid of the AWB is an unjustified attack on some of our lowest paid workers who do an essential job in one of our most dangerous industries. At the heart of Britain’s biggest manufacturing industry – the food production sector – farming needs more skilled workers. Instead the Government is allowing employers into a race to the bottom on pay that will see skilled workers turn their back on the industry. When Nick Clegg argues for justice for workers in the developing world, I and my Labour colleagues will remind him that he voted for injustice here at home.

Saving the great tropical forests of Indonesia, Brazil and Democratic Republic of Congo must also be a key task for Rio+20. Forests provide food and water, support biodiversity, help prevent floods and capture and store carbon. Deforestation and forest degradation, through agricultural expansion, conversion to pastureland, infrastructure development, and logging, accounts for around 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The role of the UN’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) fund in reducing the poverty of forest people, protecting wildlife and paying for carbon services is still in its infancy. Rio+20 must act as a springboard to getting more countries ready for REDD funding and widen the donor pool from national government, potentially to involve the private sector.

The Public Forestry Estate (PFE) is the largest single land-holding owned by the Government and is managed by the Forestry Commission. It covers 258,000 ha of land, 2% of the total land area of England, and 18% of England’s woodland in 1,400 sites across England. In November 2010, the Government announced plans to sell 15% (c.40, 000 hectares) of English PFE, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review to generate £100 million over 4 years. The Public Bodies Bill contained a clause that would have allowed the PFE to be sold lock, stock and barrel.

The public furore that ensued, which culminated in a public petition with more than 600 000 signatures, and a parliamentary debate and vote which put ministers and backbenchers on the rack, led to the government’s first major u-turn. Forest sales were put on hold and the Independent Panel on Forestry, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, was established. The panel’s interim report, published in December 2011 commented that the funding for the PFE represented “very good value for money” and that more woodland needed to be created. The final report will be published in July 2012 but the resumption of forest sales has never been ruled out by Defra Ministers.

In 1997 Labour ended the widespread forest disposals practiced by the preceding Conservative administration, which saw a net loss of 179,119 hectares, 40% of public woodland. We want to see a long-term, sustainable future for England’s forests which will prevent the kind of smash and grab approach which Ministers tried and failed to implement here. Again, developing countries will look to the behaviour of the British Government and see it practising one thing at home and preaching quite another abroad.

Rio+20 represents a real chance to chart a path to a safer, greener more equitable economy, particularly for the world’s poorest. Over the next decade, consumers and institutional investors will want greater transparency and accountability from large companies about the carbon impact of what they produce and how they operate.

Carbon reporting will be a key driver in creating the regulatory level playing field that business needs to invest in green jobs and growth. Labour in government understood this, and our 2008 Climate Change Act required the government by law,  to announce its plans for mandatory carbon reporting by large businesses by April 2012. Yet despite promoting sustainability reporting abroad, with Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, saying “companies are asking for governance…the exciting thing is that businesses want to do this”, Defra Ministers simply threw up their hands when the deadline passed and said carbon reporting at home was all too difficult.

In the UK, the Aldersgate Group of businesses has been leading the calls for mandatory carbon reporting. The group brings together leading businesses like PepsiCo, The Co-operative Group, ASDA, Aviva and Cisco, plus organisations like WWF and Friends of the Earth. In May, after the deadline had been missed, Peter Young, the chairman of the Aldersgate Group wrote to Nick Clegg urging him to act on carbon reporting:

“…the Government’s position on mandatory GHG reporting is regarded as a litmus test for its wider commitment to better corporate governance… In opposition, you signed an Aldersgate Group letter supporting its introduction and the Conservative Party committed to ‘enhance by secondary legislation the powers of the Secretary of State and to bring forward the date that the largest companies are required to report on carbon emissions’.”

The government is ignoring the voice of businesses who want regulatory certainty and is bowing to the Treasury’s anti-environment, antiregulatory rhetoric. It risks missing this opportunity to create a level playing field for carbon reporting across all sectors. The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Coalition, a group of progressive organisations, led by the UK’s Aviva, wants to go even further. It is lobbying for the Rio+20 Summit to agree a binding global commitment requiring public and private companies to publish sustainability reports as part of their Annual report and accounts.

The last Labour Government commissioned the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, the first ever analysis of the benefits of the UK natural environment to society and the economy. Published to great fanfare in June 2011, it estimates the value of social and environmental benefits of woodland in the UK alone as £1.2 billion per annum.

Since then a Natural Capital Committee, Chaired by economist Dieter Helm has been established. We wait to see what it proposes, and more importantly, whether Treasury allows Defra to act.

The Rio+20 Summit must boost to global efforts to create a sustainable economy. Yet we have a Tory-led Government ideologically wedded to a failed economic approach and a Chancellor who sees the environment as a barrier to growth.

The UK must diversify its economy at home to drive green growth by investing in clean energy and lead the way in green technology and resource efficiency. The Government claims it is ambitious for change, but with the forest sell-off, a stalemate on carbon reporting, indifference to growing food and rural poverty at home, and the debate over the planning reforms, this ambition has not been matched by domestic action. We need an ambitious government that wants to lead the world on sustainable development, eradicating poverty and creating the green jobs and industries of the future. Instead we have a Government that is out of touch with anyone who cares about sustainable development.

The Government has said that Rio+20 has to be a workshop not a talking shop. To have credibility, it isn’t enough to talk the talk on the world stage; they have to walk the walk, back home.

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