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Stop finger pointing and get on with problem solving, BASD chief says

Below is the transcript of BBC Radio's Westminster Hour program, August 16, featuring BASD Vice Chair Lord Holme.

Once upon a time, summits used to change the world. Versailles in 1919 settled one war, and arguably lit the fuse for another. Tehran during World War Two paved the way for the invasion of Europe. Yalta helped create the United Nations. Well for the thousands of delegates, including a plethora of world leaders attending the Johannesburg Earth Summit, which begins in a week’s time, their task is no less serious. It is to improve the living conditions of billions, without harming the environment. The United Nations official chairing the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to give it its full title, has made clear his view that it’s time now for action. Well I’ll be talking to him in a few moments, but first, as Terry Dignan reports, green activists are increasingly concerned that the British government and the UN are paying too much attention to the views of big business on issues like globalisation and climate change.

DUDLEY DAVIES: Ninelives Campaign
[Phonetic spelling of name]. I go about recycling my rubbish, which I’ve never done before, I hasten to add, by putting all the papers, cans and bottles and plastics in separate containers. I then take the…

In his flat overlooking Sussex County Cricket Ground, Dudley Davies is doing his bit to save the planet. He was one of nine local citizens chosen by Brighton and Hove Council to switch to a sustainable lifestyle, which means simply going about your daily business without causing damage to our natural surroundings.

The Ninelives Campaign is educating me considerably and it’s enabled me to think about the environment, how it’s so important to look after it now so that future generations will benefit.

But will the world’s political leaders demonstrate as much seriousness of purpose when they meet in Johannesburg for the Earth Summit? Many environmentalists are deeply pessimistic the summit will achieve much at all. For Green Euro MP Caroline Lucas, it’s a depressing prospect.

At the end of a week when we’ve seen these unprecedented floods across the European Union, we’ve seen this new brown pollution haze over Asia, these are massive wake-up calls from the environment and if we can’t have serious government action now, then when will we ever?

Environmental activists blame multinational companies for much of the harm done to our planet. What’s needed, they say, are international laws setting out rules and regulations to control the activities of big business. Instead, the UN and governments like ours have decided that multinational companies should be partners in the effort to protect the environment. The UN’s partnership approach has been enshrined in a so-called global compact with big business. Matt Philips, who runs Friends of the Earth’s International Corporates Campaign, is scathing about the UN’S reliance on persuasion and consensus.

MATT PHILLIPS: International Corporates Campaign, Friends of the Earth
Voluntary code, voluntary mechanisms, the United Nations global compact and all sorts of business friendly voluntary measures just have not delivered sustainable development, and the people at the sharp end are the communities and individuals who are suffering because of their local social and environmental degradation as a result of corporate activities. Big business is multinational. We need multinational rules to counter the downside of their activities.

In the eyes of environmentalists, the multinationals may be the bad guys, but without them, who will create the jobs in the world’s poorest countries? Business leaders warned that placing internationally binding restrictions on their activities may mean less investment in the very parts of the globe which most need economic prosperity. Richard Holme, the Liberal Democrat peer, is vice chairman of Business Action for Sustainable Development, a coalition of private sector organisations. He accuses some NGOs, non-governmental organisations, in the rich northern hemisphere of an ideological loathing of all things capitalist.

RICHARD HOLME: Liberal Democrat Peer/Vice Chairman, Business Action for Sustainable Development
What I want to emphasise: not that business is somehow perfect, it isn’t. Business, like all human activities, sometimes gets things wrong. But we’re not going to solve these problems of the environment and of development unless business is involved as a partner, which is why I get a little bit impatient with this recrimination and finger pointing that seems to go on on the part of some northern – I emphasise northern, NGOs. And it’s not in the south, you don’t hear it, it comes from people based in London and Washington, who are still fighting old anti-capitalist wars, I think.

But critics say the UN secretary, General Kofi Annan, has been naïve in his attitude to the corporate sector. By working so closely with the multinationals, he’s allowing them to use the UN as a cover for activities which lead to environmental destruction, claims Matt Phillips of Friends of the Earth.

What we’re worried about is that many businesses are draping themselves in the blue of the United Nations in order to get themselves some brownie points to look good to governments, to look like they’re doing the right thing around the world, when in fact their actual practices on the ground may be very different to those they profess on paper, and when they’re having nice lunches with Kofi Annan.

Environmentalists have extended their criticisms of the UN to the British government. They say Tony Blair, like Annan, is too pro-business. The UK delegation to Johannesburg includes business leaders from a number of high profile companies like Thames Water and Rio Tinto, which have come in for criticism over their record on the environment. But Richard Holme, of Business Action for Sustainable Development, says Mr Blair’s decision to include big companies in the UK delegation, makes perfect sense if the aim is to improve the living standards of the poor without harming the environment.

I’d put it the other way round. Why on earth would you not want business, which has the capacity to train people, to transfer technology, to make investment, to be, I hope, more ecologically sensitive, to try and get sustainable livelihoods for people outside the formal economy, why on earth would you not want business as a full partner in trying to find some of these solutions?

And some environmental groups agree. Rebecca Willis is director of Green Alliance, which works closely with the private sector and government.

REBECCA WILLIS: Director, Green Alliance
I think it’s essential to have company representatives on the delegation to Johannesburg. It’s also essential to have representatives who are environmental organisations, and we’re really pleased that the UK government is taking both groups along. I’m not starry-eyed about this, I think there are companies that have done and are still doing irreversible damage to the environment, but you have to bring those to the table. They are also likely to be part of the solution. One of the main issues is providing clean water and sanitation. Now it’s very hard to do that without talking to water companies. It’s a bit like trying to fix your sink without asking a plumber. So, you know, the businesses are the people with the expertise who can solve these problems.

But some of Mr Blair’s critics question his attitude to the Earth Summit. It’s understood he’ll be there for just a day. Four of his ministers will be there longer. Some campaigners claim that Britain and other EU governments will be arguing for multinationals to operate even more freely in the poorest and most environmentally vulnerable regions of the planet, and some Labour MPs want the prime minister to stand up to President Bush, following his repudiation of the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Doctor Ian Gibson, the Labour MP, who chairs the Commons Science and Technology Committee, says Britain should put pressure in the US to take more seriously the environmental and economic problems of the world’s poorest countries.

DR IAN GIBSON MP: Labour; Chairman, Commons Science and Technology Committee
To get the Americans to look at the developing world is the big issue, I think. Not to exploit them, but to see that we help them set up the structures, you know, that create the kind of energy production, the health facilities, education and so on, all those sustainable areas that they haven’t at the minute, and that really we owe this to a world where climate events can happen anywhere at any time. It’s rather like Chernobyl, for example, you know, what happens in one part of the world is soon transferred to another.

EMMY: Environmental Activist
I’m Emmy [phonetic spelling] from Indonesia. The noise I want to send to the Summit is: [makes noise like Sumatran gibbon.] This is the sound of the Sumatran gibbon. They cannot live without trees. So that trees and that forest [sic] is disappearing right now. That’s why it’s so important to send this message to the summit.

Environmental activists have been using the Friends of the Earth website to send messages to political leaders going to Johannesburg. They fear the pro-business attitudes of the US and UK have now spread to the UN. But others believe that without the cooperation of multinational companies, there really isn’t much hope for the planet.

Terry Dignan reporting.