The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech on World Environment Day – 3 June 1994

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech, made on World Environment Day at the QEII Conference Centre in London on Friday 3rd June 1994.


Thank you all for coming here this morning to mark World Environment Day. It gives me great pleasure, in particular to welcome the new Global 500 Laureates, many of whom have travelled great distances to join us today. It gives me great pleasure too to welcome Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Let me straight away apologise for the fact that I will not be able to stay for the ceremony itself. As I am sure most of you know, while we celebrate Environment Day today, this weekend we also commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

It was D-Day and the campaign that followed that secured democracy in Western Europe. And that, I believe is crucially important. Democratic systems and environmental protection go hand in hand. And nowhere is that more starkly illustrated than by the contrast between the rising environmental standards of Western Germany and the environmental degradation of the East.

Both these events remind us of the important of individual effort, of individual contributions. This morning we are here to celebrate exceptional individuals who found a problem, and took action. Action to save a coral reef in Guam, the pampas deer in Uruguay, sea turtles in the Caribbean. Action to promote safer water in Mexico, energy efficiency in Japan, cleaner beaches in New Zealand. And by their action, to stimulate and inspire action by others.

You will hear more later about the laureates. I will not single out anyone for special mention – with one exception. I am delighted to see Sir John Houghton – who has agreed to serve on the Government’s Panel on Sustainable Development – honoured today.

It is fitting too that your Master of Ceremonies today is the man who has brought “biodiversity” into our living rooms. Sir David Attenborough has done more than any other to make us all revel in the glories of the natural world. Throughout his long career, he has taken us to the furthest corners of the world – the rainforest, the tundra, the savannah. No-one has made the case for conservation more graphically.

My focus on individual action is not intended to deny the important of governments. Their contribution too is vital. Almost exactly two years ago, I had the great privilege to join over 120 heads of government at the Earth Summit in Rio. It moved the environmental debate from problems to solution; from analysis to action; from conviction to commitment.

Today I want to take the opportunity to report back on how far we have come in delivering those commitments.

The UK sometimes fails to match the grand rhetoric of other countries. We are less given to extravagant flourishes. We read the small print before we sign. But the UK’s record to date in meeting its Rio obligations is second to nine.

We were the first European Union member to ratify the Climate Change Convention. We have a detailed programme of action. We have already taken the first steps to implement it.

We have already published our national Biodiversity Action Plan – with machinery to monitor its implementation, and to sharpen its targets to a specific timetable. We are taking concrete action to preserve species under threat. One example, our programme to re-establish in Britain the white-tailed sea eagle, a globally threatened bird, driven out of Scotland in 1916. These eagles are now beginning to breed again in the wild in our Scottish islands. And lest anyone should under-estimate the significance of such action, I would remind you that today we celebrate one other anniversary – 150 years ago today, the last paid of great auks were killed and their eggs destroyed.

That example illustrates how much we all have at stake in preserving biodiversity. At Rio, I offered to make the unrivalled expertise British scientists and naturalists had built up over the past 200 years available to help other countries manage their natural resources. Two years on, the “Darwin Initiative” is now funding exciting and important projects around the world.

Two examples. In Belize, the Initiative has helped the national university college set up a system for monitoring and protecting its uniquely important coral reef system. In the Philippines, the Initiative has helped local people develop the management and harvesting of seahorses in a sustainable but commercial way. Two projects out of 53. And many more to come over the next three years.

Its impact promises to be considerable – both through its own direct contribution. And through demonstrating new possibilities.

These are concrete actions to promote the objectives of the Biodiversity Convention. But, as many of you know, the UK has not yet taken the step of formally ratifying the Convention. I can confirm that we will ratify the Convention later today. That decision will mean we have delivered every element in the Eight Point Plan I set out straight after the Rio Conference.

At Rio, I announced two other initiatives. Technology transfer was high on the list of priorities for all developing countries at the Earth Summit. Again, a practical response. Our Technology Partnership Initiative started in March last year. The initial conference brought together businessmen from the UK and over 40 developing countries. Since then, we have sponsored three seminars on environmental management; are working with UNEP to produce best practice case studies; and are linking businesses which need skills and technologies with British companies who can provide them. More practical responses.

Rio brought together people from all sectors – a unique gathering. We wanted to make sure that people from non-governmental organisations, business and local government had another chance to come together, share experiences and take away practical ideas for delivering sustainable development. To move from talk about Agenda 21, to action to deliver it.

The Partnerships for Change Conference took place in September last year. It brought together over 300 people from 80 countries. In the Victorian splendour of Manchester Town Hall, delegates heard of sustainable transport in Brazil; involving villages in conservation in Zimbabwe and commercial development of tagua nuts in Ecuador. A dramatic demonstration of what can be accomplished, even in the most adverse circumstances.

One theme connects all these efforts. The need for sustainable development. In January we published our Sustainable Development Strategy, which identifies the challenges we face over the next 20 years. Challenges on energy efficiency, challenges on transport policy, challenges on waste.

We know that it will be easier to face those challenges if people are confident and secure in their future. If that is true in a rich country like Britain, it is true a hundred times over for people living at or near the margins of subsistence. Increasing global prosperity is an essential precondition. Only that will generate the means and the desire to deliver sustainable development.

The UK will play its part. We already have a large aid programme – over two billion pounds a year. We have reviews it, to make sure all our aid activities contribute to the achievement to the objectives of Agenda 21. We have also committed 130 million pounds to the Global Environment Facility – making us one of the very largest contributors. Those funds will help developing countries meet their obligations under the two Rio conventions.

But aid can only ever be a small part of the story. Trade will be the most powerful means of raising living standards in developing countries and thus open the way for further progress on environmental protection. That is why I regard the successful completion of the Uruguay Round – with its promise of opening markets around the world – as the environmental landmark of 1993.

Rio and Uruguay both illustrate the scope for international cooperation. These two great global bargains set the framework in which we can all pursue the goal of sustainable development. The past two years have seen notable progress. That came out clearly at the second meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development, which concluded last week in New York.

We need now to look for progress in two areas where less was achieved in Rio than we might have hoped. Through our joint initiative with the Indian government we aim to give further impetus to efforts to deliver the Forest principles agreed at Rio. The International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in September offers another opportunity to address the vital challenges of population growth and its links to poverty and pressure on world resources.

In short, much done, but much to do. But, ultimately, what we achieve will depend as much on individual efforts as on governments. And so, I will make you wait no longer to offer your appreciation for the efforts of the new Global Laureates. I am delighted to leave you in the capable hands of Sir David Attenborough.