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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 December 2005, 11:10 GMT
Climate change
On Sunday 11 December 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed Margaret Beckett MP, Environment Secretary

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Margaret Beckett MP
Margaret Beckett MP, Environment Secretary

ANDREW MARR: Now the United Nations climate change conference in Montreal ended yesterday with a degree of euphoria.

A deal had been cut, right at the last minute despite an earlier United States walkout.

Now, no-one has actually signed up to new cuts in greenhouse gases when the old treaty runs out, but for the first time everybody who matters including the Chinese and Indian governments are committed to a global deal.

Heading the European team at the conference was our own Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, who joined me earlier by satellite link from Canada after just a couple hours of snatched sleep.

I began by asking her if there'd been stage when she thought there'd be no agreement, no deal.

MARGARET BECKETT: Yes. About an hour before everything started to shift I began to think that actually we were going to walk out of there without an agreement.

ANDREW MARR: At one point the American representatives literally walked out of the talks. What brought them back again?

MARGARET BECKETT: I don't think there was anything to do - well - there are always rumours on these occasions. But my understanding is that the United States was nervous about what they saw in the text. I'm told, but I wasn't in the room because it was official negotiators at that point, but I'm told that the representatives said if it walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it's duck - and left. But I think once they saw the text that had been agreed overnight they realised, actually, it was a swan.

ANDREW MARR: Now there were suggestions here in London that Tony Blair had actually had to phone President Bush at one point to try and get things back on track - was that true?

MARGARET BECKETT: You'd have to ask the Prime Minister whether they spoke. Certainly there were conversations to and fro between London and Washington, but as I say, once the Americans saw the next text that had been agreed overnight I think there was nervousness.

And it's understandable, because let's face it, there were people in the negotiations who would have been happy to see the United States excluded, who wanted to make demands that they would find it impossible to meet. And it's understandable that they should be cautious about that.

But once they saw what had been agreed overnight they realised that actually what we had all been telling them all the way through, which is that there was a goodwill on the part of the negotiators of the world to re-engage the United States constructively, they looked at the text, they saw that that was true and they then suggested some other minor amendments that would make it more comfortable for them and that's why in the end we got agreement.

And of course those final long hours were not due to any disagreement with the United States, they had signed off the agreement by then.

ANDREW MARR: Many people will look at all of this and say, yeah, you know, fine, but there's no binding commitments of any kind here at all. And they will be deeply sceptical about whether this is a triumph, they will argue that it's been over-hyped.

MARGARET BECKETT: Yes I know they will. And in fact when we did a briefing before we came here I saw reports that, oh we were deliberately down-playing expectations. This is such nonsense. It took five years to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol and get the agreement of only 39 countries, two of whom promptly walked away.

We're talking here about 189 countries, some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries and peoples in the world. And they are facing on the one hand terrible challenges of hunger, of poverty, of development needs, and on the other the risk that climate change is going to make all of that worse.

And the notion that they, any of them, are just going to casually sign up to some dates, some set of numbers, without the greatest agonising over what their governments can do, even though they know the problem, it's just silly.

And in fact in the early stages of this negotiation, the first days after we got here, it actually was more difficult than we had anticipated. And I am extremely relieved as well as delighted that we have achieved as much as we have.

ANDREW MARR: This does leave everything open, even hard, for future negotiations. Does it therefore mean that when the American attitudes start to change, if indeed they do, they can be brought back more into the central negotiation?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well there are, and I say this without disrespect, there are lots of people with very interesting ideas about what can be done, how far and how fast the world can move.

But unfortunately most of them are not the people who are trying to negotiate agreement on behalf of the governments of the world. And we have to find a space and a way and this is part of what the Gleneagles informal dialogue was all about.

I mean a year ago, well more than a year ago, when the Prime Minister decided to make climate change his, one of his top priorities with Africa with this year, he said to us "what realistically is the best thing that I can achieve". And at that stage the whole process of the Kyoto discussions was completely stalled. Nobody really knew how to get it re-started and we said to him, if you can re-inject fresh momentum into the Kyoto discussions, or the discussions beyond the first Kyoto period.

And if you can re-engage the United States and begin to bring in countries like China and India, that will be a diplomatic triumph. And I'll be quite honest with you Andrew, he was quite hard to convince because, just as you say, until you get into it and of course he did get into it very quickly, it doesn't sound like a big deal.

But it is a big deal, it's taken all year and a massive effort on the part of everybody involved from the Prime Minister on down. But we've got there, we've got everything we set out to get at the beginning. And that doesn't happen very often.

ANDREW MARR: And you've now got, of course, the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, shoulder to shoulder with you on this new consensus, is that something you welcome?

MARGARET BECKETT: I do welcome it, yes. As long as, and I understand he's set up a committee of advisers, that's fine. There have been two problems before with the Conservative Party - well at least two. One of them was that they would criticise us for what we did but they were not, they did not agree with the targets we set as to what Britain needed to do to make our contribution on tackling climate change.

And also they never agreed with pretty well any of our policies. Then, only a few months ago, with Oliver Letwin, they decided that actually they did agree with our targets. But if they still didn't agree with any of the policies and ways we get there, now that's fine.

There's room for other ideas, in fact we would welcome as many ideas from any source as we can get, that will help us crack this problem. But they've got to be ideas, if they're not, if they're not going to accept our proposals and policies then they have to come forward with something else that will do as much. And if they do - great.

ANDREW MARR: It seems a little bit mean, almost, to ask you this after a grand total of three hours' sleep, Margaret Beckett, but what now, what's next on the agenda?

MARGARET BECKETT: (laughing) Well it's funny you should say that, because as you may realise, my Department combines Agriculture and Environment.

So I go straight from here to the World Trade talks in Hong Kong. Fortunately I'm not the lead negotiator for the European Union in the whole thing as I was here.

But I'm the lead negotiator for the EU on the agriculture side. So if we're lucky we'll have a repeat of the delightful experiences here but let's hope it results in the same success.

ANDREW MARR: Glamorous life indeed. Margaret Beckett thank you very much.

MARGARET BECKETT: Thank you Andrew.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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