The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech at the Sunday Times Environmental Conference – 8 July 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Sunday Times Environmental Conference, made in London on Monday 8th July 1991.


I would like to begin this morning, if I may, by congratulating the Sunday Times on its sense of timing – as crucial I think for a newspaper as it often is for politicians. We at the moment are in a period of intense international activity on the environment. The past few weeks have seen negotiations on climate change, biodiversity and Antarctica. Next month will see further preparations for the UN Conference on Environment and Development and in a few days of course the leaders of the G7 countries will gather in England for our annual summit when the environment will feature very strongly on the agenda. So I welcome this chance today to set out where Britain stands in advance of these further discussions. For those reasons and for many others this conference could not possibly be more timely.

Just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for hardheaded world leaders to debate the environment, but not any more. A global environmental vision is no longer a luxury for idealistic dreamers. What it is these days is an essential compass to guide our society. The reason for that of course is very simple, the scale of human activity is now so great that it affects the whole world environment, we are realising that what unites us is far greater than what divides us and in that respect I was delighted with President Bush’s announcement last week that the United States would after all join the other members of the Antarctic Treaty in signing the environment protocol.

Your theme for this conference today is apt: the global environment. That is I think the essence. We must be global, we cannot wrap the environment up into neat national parcels, we cannot say this is mine, that is yours. What happens in Darlington or Detroit today may affect Accra or Djibouti tomorrow, and indeed vice versa. We can do no more to protect the planet on our own than we can ensure our security or develop our economy on our own and I think no problem shows this more clearly today than that of global warming.

Personally, I have always thought it wrong to call it the greenhouse effect, I dislike the term, I dislike it because the image is too cosy, too domestic and far too complacent. Begonias and petunias it most certainly is not, the threat of global warming is real, the spread of deserts, changed weather patterns with potentially more storms and hurricanes, perhaps more flooding of low lying areas and possibly even the disappearance of some island states.

Of course more research is needed, needed to increase our understanding of this problem. But research cannot excuse inaction because the threat is too serious for inaction. And so without panic but with determination we must start now to make our dispositions for tackling this threat as the information about it improves. The United Kingdom has committed itself to act. We have said that provided others do their part we shall return emissions of CO2 to 1990 levels by 2005; we shall monitor our action to achieve this target and if possible improve on the target. But it has to be a shared vision if it is to be truly effective.

The desire for a common resolve is not simply idealism, it is in fact enlightened, mutual self-interest. No cordon sanitaire protects any country from climate change. It is perfectly true that we in the industrialised countries can build defences against rising sea levels, we can construct desalination plants, we can install sophisticated irrigation schemes if our land starts to dry out. We can do that, many other countries cannot afford these things. But is the plight theirs alone, frankly I think not. Quite apart from the moral imperative to help less fortunate nations, it is in the interest of the industrial world to do so. As countries become poorer so world trade diminishes, instability grows, the threat of regional unrest becomes more real.

In last year’s White Paper on the environment we set out the first set of measures to limit our CO2 emissions in Britain. In the autumn we shall publish a report showing how our efforts are now being put into practice. Our initial measures concentrate on energy efficiency, on developing renewable energy sources, on transport and on forestry. These are measures which will also bring a worthwhile economic pay-off to the country, to business and to ordinary people. Energy efficiency in particular is an area where we in Britain could do more, we should do more. For our part, we in government will continue to examine our existing efforts to encourage more efficient use of energy, we will improve and augment these as necessary.

All these measures make good sense, not only good sense, they are often cost-effective. Other measures will involve costs, that is unavoidable. Here too we have said that if other leading countries will do their part we will not shirk more difficult options. The price will need to be balanced against the perceived level of threat.

But action by this country alone will not even dent the problem. We produce only 3 percent of the world’s CO2 so we are working with our Community partners to develop a wider European strategy. But even the Community accounts for only 13 percent of global CO2 emissions. The United States accounts for 23 percent, the world looks to them for decisive leadership on this issue as on others.

Nor is that enough. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe must make real efforts to control their greenhouse gases and we must encourage and assist the so-called third world to develop in an energy efficient way. And I say so-called for this reason, because in environmental matters especially there is no third world, we have only one world and China and India are major industrial nations by any standard, it is in their national interest too to develop their energy efficiency, it saves their resources and global warming will be felt at least as keenly in the non-industrialised countries as here. China has recently indicated its intention to join the Montreal Convention to protect the ozone layer. I hope that China will be equally positive in tackling with us the problems of climate change. I shall certainly raise those matters with them when I visit Peking later on this year.

In Britain we accept that the industrialised countries will have to give a strong lead as well as an example. Britain and the rest of the European Community are doing so, we must continue our efforts to ensure that all of the world’s leading economies pull together.

But global warming is not the only challenge to our sense of inter-dependence. Take destruction of tropical forests for example, Brazil’s loss or Malaysia’s loss is our loss too. We are destroying the world’s lungs and we are burning the knowledge bank. We voyage into outer space yet much of the natural world on our doorstep remains unknown. Thousands of plant species have edible parts yet we use only a few dozen and we may be destroying plants that could help us to adapt to environmental change, we are losing species faster than we can catalogue them. It is as if the owner of a great gallery of pictures were to slash or destroy a Renoir or a Rembrandt every day, such destruction betrays our future.

And that is why we must help developing countries manage their forests, for their benefit and for our benefit. In just over two years Britain has doubled the number of forest projects we finance for developing countries and I welcome the willingness of Brazil under President Collor to collaborate with other countries on the Amazonian rain forest. Britain was the first country to sign a special agreement with Brazil on environmental cooperation and the key will be for Brazil to design the right policies involving local people and we look forward to working further with them on their ideas.

We must also learn to live within our environmental means, that is the simple message of sustainable development. If we live beyond our means future generations pay for our present extravagance. The living standards and mobility that we in industrial countries expect all have an environmental price, we can no longer consume without reckoning the costs as we consume.

I was asked recently to contribute one of my early childhood books to an auction for a children’s charity. I sent along a Bunter book, many of you no doubt will have read them years ago, and it occurred to me as I did so that we may have been a bit too much like Bunter, we have happily consumed without reckoning the cost and we have been waiting for a postal order to turn up. But not any more, we are no long waiting, we are doing and we should not underestimate our capabilities.

The Stockholm Conference brought these matters to our attention almost 20 years ago. Then there was not much national or international law on the environment, the public knew little about it, the environmental lobby was weak and regarded with suspicion and parodied as beards and beads and not taken seriously. Politicians generally paid only fragmentary attention, the time-spans involved were too long. Sometimes, as those of us in politics know only too well, 24 hours can be a long time, the ability to look beyond the next election is not something historically for which politicians have been renowned.

But that prospect has changed beyond all recognition. Today there is a large body of environmental law; the public is alert to environmental abuse and quick to demand action; the environmental lobbies are large and influential; politicians pay attention and then act.

In exactly 11 months time there will be another global meeting on the environment, I look forward to being there myself, I hope that national leaders from every country on earth will attend the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil. Fittingly it has become known as the Earth Summit, there could be no greater sign of the serious attention which governments accord the environment than that it should be the occasion of the first ever meeting of all the world’s leaders.

We have three main goals for the conference. Firstly, international agreements on tackling climate change, safe-guarding tropical forests, maintaining biological diversity. These measures would represent an historic extension of the rule of law to the global commons. And secondly, an agreement to strengthen the international institutions responsible for the environment, in particular the United Nations environment programme in Nairobi and to strengthen the arrangements for ensuring that the United Nations machinery takes account of environmental concerns. And thirdly, more effective help for developing countries to take part in meeting the global environmental challenge. Britain has already committed 40 million pounds in addition to the existing aid programme to the new global environmental facility of the United Nations and World Bank and we are integrating environmental concerns into all bilateral and multilateral aid programmes. At our meeting next week I will be working with the leaders of the other main industrial countries to give added impetus to these aims.

Let me turn now to the national and to the local scene because we cannot sensibly talk about the environment globally without considering the national and the local scenes as well. The environment embraces the street corner as well as the stratosphere. It is the government’s task to provide leadership on the environment, to set a clear framework of expectations within which every one of us can best contribute to our common good and leadership is what this government has set out to provide over the last few years. We did this perhaps most emphatically with our white Paper, this common inheritance. This was the first ever comprehensive statement of environmental policy by a British government. Indeed we are still one of only a handful of governments anywhere in the world to have published such a document. It sets out 350 action points for government, we put our money where our ambitions were and announced a 33 percent increase in expenditure on environmental protection and improvement last November – an extra 130 million pounds.

The White Paper sets out the direction in which the nation must move. It also puts environmental concern at the heart of government. Margaret Thatcher set up two Ministerial Committees to consider environmental policies: one which I now chair lays down the overall strategy; the other, chaired by Michael Heseltine, keeps up the pressure to deliver the detailed policies in the White Paper, it is an unrelenting pressure to deliver those policies.

In addition, each government department now contains a Green Minister, specifically responsible and answerable for that department’s environmental performance. Departments will now publish regular reports on their environmental stewardship and objectives. So the environment is no longer an optional add on, peel off extra, it is no longer the easy option, the option it was easy not to take.

Our recent Green Paper on health policy for example includes a significant section on health and the environment and keeping up the pressure is vital. We have already issued an interim report showing our progress on over 100 of the White Paper’s action points but I can tell you today that in September we will publish a report to mark the anniversary of the White Paper, it will take stock, it will indicate further ways forward and I intend that this should be the first of a regular series of reports accounting for the government’s stewardship of the environment. And these reports will enable the nation to audit our progress towards our environmental objectives. The White Paper is a start, not a full stop, it is a foundation upon which we propose to build.

I can tell you today of one way in which we intend to do so. The Environmental Protection Act established integrated pollution control, a new approach to the environment which Britain has taken further and faster than anyone else and we have created strong new agencies to protect the environment. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution controls all the major emissions to air, land and water from the most polluting industrial processes. The National Rivers Authority protects and improves the water environment. These arrangements, with integrated pollution control, have given a keen cutting edge to our environmental efforts in this country.

But there is scope I believe to achieve even better integration between the different agencies as foreshadowed in last year’s White Paper on the Environment. I can announce today that we plan to set up an Environment Agency, this will bring together Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution and related functions of the National Rivers Authority to create a new agency for environmental protection and enhancement; it will have responsibilities for monitoring the state of air and water; it would make proposals to the government on standards; it would regulate emissions and discharges to achieve the standards set by government; and again, as foreshadowed in the White Paper, we are also minded to give the new agency responsibility for regulating the handling and disposal of waste which is currently under the combined supervision of local authorities and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution. It is right I believe that the integrity and indivisibility of the environment should now be reflected in a unified agency and I am confident that this will be a significant step forward.

We will issue a consultation document setting out our thinking more fully later in the year but the new agency will not affect the current balance of responsibilities between the pollution enforcement agencies and the health and safety executive. The Secretary of State for Scotland has also been giving consideration to the position in Scotland where the institutional framework is quite different, he will announce his proposals in due course.

Thus far I have talked about action by government but much more than that is needed. One of the most marked changes in the environmental debate over the last 20 years has been the changing view of the role of government. Before, most people thought that government action would green the world. Now people are likely to see governments as one of the main perpetrators of environmental problems. It is no accident I believe that this perception has changed just when the failure of socialism to deliver either economic or environmental success has become so dramatically apparent to all the world.

The fact is that the success of market-based economies is a necessary pre-condition for protecting the environment. Look, for example, at the environmental disaster zones of Eastern Europe. The key to our planet’s future lies in harnessing the great creative energies of the market place to a new task, not in some futile and self-defeating attempt to bind up this That is why we will provide a new fund of 5 million, specifically directed to environmental work in Eastern Europe, it will help those countries to harness market forces and private sector skills to environmental improvement.

Here in Britain we are developing new market-based policy instruments. let me quote just three examples. First, tax differentials have massively boosted the sales of lead-free petrol. Second, the measures in the last budget to increase petrol duty and to change the tax treatment of company cars continue to bring home to people the social and economic costs of motoring and help to improve the relative attractiveness of public transport. And third, a new system of recycling credits will increase recycling and reduce waste. These are just three ways of helping the market work for the environment.

As promised in the white Paper, we will continue to look for new ways to control pollution cost, we will do so by making pollution cost-effective by working with the grain of the market and not against the grain of the market, that invariably and inevitably adds to the costs that otherwise need not be met. For it is now clear that the principal task of delivering sustainable development will fall to business. I am immensely heartened by the way the business community has responded to this challenge in recent years and I am optimistic that we are on the way to forming that green alliance between companies and governments which Frances Cairncross envisages in her recent book: “Costing the Earth”.

It is wrong I believe to see modern business as the enemy of the environment. A recent study by Touche Roche shows that over two-thirds of companies now have environmental strategies compared to less than one-third lust over a year ago – a very remarkable change that indicates the seriousness with which business now takes environmental matters.

These companies, these businesses, are building the environment into their calculations and into their success. Our leading firms, collectively, are now shaping the necessary new approaches to environmental management. Excellent work has been done by the business and environment group and the new advisory committee on business and the environment which Michael Heseltine and Peter Lilley recently set up is poised to make a big impact too.

Environmental concerns are not a drag on business, commercial instincts could do as much, if not more, to advance the cause of the environment as government regulation. Regulation must set a level playing field, it must set minimum standards and stimulate new environmentally friendly technology, but business ingenuity must have maximum scope to find the best way of reaching the goal at least cost both environmentally and economically. One recent estimate put the size of the market for environmental goods and services in the UK alone at 140 billion pounds over the next 9 years, that is a sizeable business opportunity by any standards anywhere in the world. Someone will seize those markets, British business must be in a position to do so.

Nor is it always the case that higher standards involve higher prices. After initial development a new and greener product may actually cost no more to produce, but these opportunities will only be available to those companies geared up to take them and I am immensely encouraged by the way in which British business is gearing itself up to take those opportunities and to play its part in protecting our future environment.

But in the final analysis, the future rests not in the hands of government or of business but in the hands of each one of us. It depends on our every day decisions, in our homes, at work, when we go shopping or when we do the garden. Companies, schools, churches, trade unions, women’s organisations all must put the environment on their agendas. So too must each one of us as consumers, employees or parents. Quite simply, at the heart of our environmental problems are people, that is why I welcome the emergence of the green consumer.

Last year over half the population made a consumer choice on environmental grounds. I know very well of the strength of those choices and the strength of the green consumer from within my own family. I hope the strength of the green consumer will grow in the years to come in everyone’s family.

This government sets great store in giving back the power of choice to consumers. In housing, health, education and elsewhere we must go on extending that power. The emergence of a green market place means that consumers can now exercise their power to choose in ways that can benefit the environment. Retailers and manufacturers have not been slow to notice the enormous purchasing power this represents, it can be seen in the ranks of green products now to be found on any supermarket shelf in the country – tangible proof of how we can harness the power of the market place to our moral purposes.

But we are not only important as consumers, we also matter as citizens. No government has done more to help the citizen help himself or herself to obtain a better environment, we have opened the door to environmental information, every individual, every group will in future have access to the information they need in order to act as an environmental watchdog. That information is the citizen’s right and the active citizen will use that right constructively.

Legislation passed last year gives the public new powers to take their council to court if it does not clean its public areas and keep them litter-free. These powers are a citizen’s right and the active citizen will use that right constructively. But as citizens we have obligations too, obligations not to drop litter, obligations to recycle our household waste where possible, obligations to conserve energy, obligations to help protect our common inheritance.

There is a Victorian picture which many of you may know, it is called: “The last day in the old home”. The ancestral home has been sold up to pay for the father’s debt, the removal men are in the hall, the feckless father is toasting the future while his wife weeps, his small son and heir stands at his knees half excited, half bemused. I do not want to be in the position of that father, squandering my children’s global home and inheritance for my own immediate wants, nor I am sure do you, nor I am sure do any of our fellow citizens.

Environmental issues touch all of us and every aspect of our lives, they touch our hopes for our children and our fears for the future, they are global challenges which require global responses. But they require local responses too. Each of us as individuals must do his or her part. I can promise you today that we in government will do ours for we share with you the importance of protecting our environment in the future.