Sustainability and Foreign Policy: the role of the FCO

Sustainability and Foreign Policy: the role of the FCO

The Trade, Development and Environment Sub-Committee of the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has recently been undertaking an inquiry into the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in delivering the UK’s international environmental objectives.

E3G was invited to submit a paper setting out our perspectives on the role of the FCO. Nick Mabey’s working paper in response ‘Sustainability and Foreign Policy’ is attached as a pdf download.

Nick also contributed written evidence to some questions from the inquiry team, the transcript is below.

1. Do you feel that the recent restructuring at the FCO, in which the Environmental Policy Department was incorporated into the Sustainable Development and Business Group and Climate Change and Energy Group, has resulted in a loss of focus and expertise on environmental issues?

The restructuring strengthened the FCO’s role on climate change to an extent, though the hoped for synthesis of climate and energy security has yet to really emerge in the group. The focus on other environmental issues has been severely damaged by the restructuring. As these issues require significant literacy and longevity of expertise to have an effective diplomatic impact, the lack of a clear focal point or career anchor in the FCO has diminished its ability to integrate environmental issues successfully into its mainstream work (eg on environmental factors and conflict, corruption and governance/democracy), or provide an adequate diplomatic support function for DEFRA.

2. You called for a new international body to provide international leadership and a watchdog role on environmental issues (a World Environment Organisation). The issue of a new environmental body was also visited in our inquiry on the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). Can you comment on this?

I don’t think the main rationale for a WEO is managing the trade and environment interface, though this has attracted political support for the idea from some in the trade community concerned with the WTO’s mission creep into these areas. The main reason to construct a WEO is to produce more effective and powerful environmental leadership and governance, and this should be the priority in moving the idea forward. Such a WEO would—as you suggest—have a core focus on areas such as ecosystem services—taking forward the work of the MA—but also provide a more coherent approach to issues of environmental governance, environment rights and democracy, corruption and illegal trade, compliance and capacity building—all of which are very fragmented in the current system. A buy product of this would be a more focused dialogue with the WTO, but it is no panacea to the ability of the WTO to override environmental rules for trade purposes—these issues do have to be addressed in the WTO itself as well.

3. You talked of the need to increase specialist environmental/sustainable development expertise across Government. This was something that we raised with the Minister. He said that they had an extensive SD training programme for all staff, and that they had a number of secondees from DEFRA. Would you say that this degree of expertise is adequate to the task in the FCO?

No. The issues the FCO deals with are different to those in DEFRA and changing rapidly. Many of the areas where FCO could add most value are still developing and are intellectually and institutionally immature, for example: Climate change diplomacy and the links to energy security; environmental technology cooperation; climate security and environmental stress; resource management, conflict and corporate behaviour; international environmental governance; environmental democracy and rights. There is no off the shelf training available to teach generalists how to approach these issues. DEFRA does not effectively cover these areas either. Effective diplomacy requires people to have cutting edge skills and be in touch with networks of key thinkers and actors. This requires both serious in-depth training and a career path where experience and networks can be built. This is the approach taken for FCO staff on major countries and institutions—China, India, EU—where on top of six to 12 months of dedicated language training staff can expect several tours of duty on a related region/country/institution—thus giving them incentives to maintain and build their knowledge and understanding over time. It is strange that a similar investment is not made on environmental issues, which by their very nature are international and require successful diplomacy to deliver UK interests. This type of internal capacity should be supplemented by external secondees from academia, NGOs and business—as has been successfully pioneered in the human rights and science and technology areas in FCO, and was a key part of EPD from 1999-2003.

4. You called for the creation of a new UK international environmental strategy. I anticipate that the Government would simply argue that its Sustainable Development Strategy provides this. I assume that you feel that this existing strategy is not detailed enough?

The current SDS does not give a clear set of UK priorities beyond climate change, or a detailed set of focal areas for deploying UK assets. It has no clear views on the key institutional and governance issues the UK wishes to see addressed, or the core upcoming environmental challenges. Finally, any useful strategy would also need a frank and confidential assessment of the political landscape and where the UK needs to engage with key allies and opponents to achieve its goals. This type of conversation exists for climate change but only in a very ad hoc manner for other issues. The absence of a strategy is skewing the UK towards a focus on climate change mitigation policy, while ignoring that successful and peaceful adaptation to the inevitable changes in the climate will require far more effective and resilient governance of natural resources and ecosystems in the short to medium term—especially given the proximate stresses of population growth and economic development.


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