Margaret Beckett : 'Mr Bush has known for a long time that climate change was a priority for Tony'

The Monday Interview: Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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The Independent Online

When Margaret Beckett was having lunch with a French environment minister recently he declared, to her mild alarm, that he was an expert in the wine trade. There was a pensive silence round the Whitehall table as the minister picked up his glass of white wine and tasted it with the solemnity of a true connoisseur. He considered the vintage carefully, before finally declaring: "This is very nice wine. What is it?"

When Margaret Beckett was having lunch with a French environment minister recently he declared, to her mild alarm, that he was an expert in the wine trade. There was a pensive silence round the Whitehall table as the minister picked up his glass of white wine and tasted it with the solemnity of a true connoisseur. He considered the vintage carefully, before finally declaring: "This is very nice wine. What is it?"

"It is English," Mrs Beckett replied proudly.

There was not always a time when an English wine would impress a French viticulturist, and the Environment Secretary admits she was "very relieved" by his response. It is with pride, bordering on zeal, that Mrs Beckett promotes the excellence of English lamb, cheeses and British food in general.

She is keen to stress the importance of buying British, not only to support local farmers, but to help the environment by cutting the pollution caused by transporting food long distances.

In an eco-friendly echo of Margaret Thatcher's Buy British campaign, she wants schools, hospitals and other public-sector bodies to purchase local food.

"We all have to take on board more than we do now the issue of food miles," she says.

The menus will be strictly British at the dinners hosted by Mrs Beckett at the G8 summit where the environment will be at the very heart of discussions.

She will be heavily involved in Britain's efforts to promote measures against global warming. The Environment Secretary may be a former metallurgist, but some fear that without the full engagement of the US, a breakthrough on global warming will require nothing less than alchemy. Is she confident that the G8 can deliver tangible progress on climate change - despite America's intransigence over signing the Kyoto protocol?

"Well I am always very cautious about predicting the outcome of any event," she says with characteristic discretion. "Particularly world summits."

During Britain's presidency of the European Union this year, she says a priority will be to make progress on establishing an EU aircraft emissions trading scheme. Yet she is adamant the G8 is not a forum for "trying to set targets".

Is her hesitancy due to the fact that the world's biggest carbon polluter, the US, remains in denial that mankind is to blame for global warming? "I think there is undoubtedly a growing consensus that the climate is changing. There may be an area of dispute about to what degree that is due to human interaction and there are some people who hold a stronger view about to what level that is," she says.

Mrs Beckett is the most experienced politician in the Cabinet - she was a minister in the government of Harold Wilson. She is famously careful with her words, having survived at the top of politics through a combination of quick wit and caution. But given the nature of the special relationship between Britain and America, isn't it a source of frustration that the world's wealthiest country has so far refused to engage more fully?

"Certainly there is a degree of disappointment that there isn't more common ground," she says with surprising frankness.

Tony Blair has staked his credibility on a breakthrough on climate change at the G8. So is it not incumbent on President George Bush to support his ally, perhaps as "payback" for his backing over Iraq?

"He [Mr Bush] has known for a long time, he has known since before it was in the public domain that Tony had every intention of making climate change as well as Africa a top priority for our G8 year and has accepted that," she discloses.

Following Mr Blair's visit to Washington last week, there is talk of establishing a new international forum for the biggest energy-using countries to discuss solutions to climate change. Mrs Beckett says the Government wants "a dialogue" that would include "major energy users" including the US, India and China.

The growth of China - which is building a new power station every week - is a key concern. But unlike the US, China has signed up to Kyoto. Is there any hope of persuading President Bush to follow China's lead?

"The US signing up to Kyoto is off the agenda," she says. "They probably couldn't get it through their Senate and Congress."

Mrs Beckett says that America is "coming from a different place in the dialogue; a different place in discussions". But she says: "It doesn't matter quite so much to which angle you come to things from as long as we end up with a greater degree of acceptance of the way we might move forward."

Mrs Beckett's famous unflappability has given her an unofficial role as a government troubleshooter and she is frequently fielded on the radio and television when Labour is in a spot of bother. But she is open about the Government's frustration with America's refusal to sign up to Kyoto. "There is no secret that we would like America to be more engaged," she says. "But it is also no secret that we are working with them to try to make progress on the shape of a kind of future dialogue. And we are working with them on new technologies and we will continue to do that."

Sitting in her ministerial office, where even the tiles in the corridors are made from recycled materials, she laughs when asked if the UK is "pushing" America to go further on climate change. "You probably ought to ask them that," she says. "But I suspect the answer might be yes." After a considered pause, she adds: "We are trying to work as co-operatively as we can with them. They are a very, very major power and they will make the decisions that are in the interest of their country and that is absolutely fair and right and proper."

She said ministers "have already seen signs of some movement". She stresses the technological breakthroughs by US firms and advances on green cars and even emissions trading. After last week's meeting with Mr Blair, President Bush surprised the world by expressing enthusiasm for soya bean-fuelled cars. "That was a new one on me, I must admit," says Mrs Beckett. She was equally surprised by a plan announced last week to spray sheep's urine into exhausts to reduce harmful emissions. "The mind does boggle!" she says.

Yet there is another form of technology for tackling climate change that Mrs Beckett is not entirely sure about. President Bush referred to it as "clean nuke" at his press conference with Mr Blair. Downing Street is also reported to be enthusiastic about nuclear power. But Mrs Beckett expresses caution - raising potential problems such as what to do with nuclear waste, public opinion and the level of public subsidy.

She is adamant that nuclear power is not the answer to reaching a target to reduce carbon dioxide levels by 20 per cent by 2010 - a target the UK is now on course to miss. "It is extremely important for us to focus on what are the things we can do between now and 2010 and 2020," she says. "Absolutely no one disputes the fact that there is no way that a new nuclear power station could contribute to meeting that target by 2010."

She says the route to follow is "energy efficiency, use of renewables", although she says the Government has "always kept the door open" to nuclear power in the long term. With Downing Street and Mr Blair's advisers pushing for nuclear power to be put on the immediate agenda, is a change of policy on the cards?

"Well I don't think there will be a White Paper on nuclear power next week," she replies, provocatively. She adds that nuclear power is not being considered in a review on climate change her department is now conducting. "All I am saying is that from my point of view our focus is on the climate change programme review. And once we can assess what comes out of that we can get a better idea of how we can move forward - and on a timescale that is not affected by nuclear power."

Mr Blair is said to have been twisting the arms of ministers to endorse nuclear power - despite widespread concern about tons of nuclear waste that have yet to be dealt with. Does she feel under pressure from Downing Street?

Mrs Beckett does not blink. Sitting back in her armchair she declares calmly: "I have a very good relationship with Alan [Johnson - Secretary for State for Energy and Industry] and his department. And I have a good relationship with No 10."

With the nous of a seasoned political campaigner, she has neatly side-stepped the question - without quite denying it.

The CV

* Born: 15 January 1943, Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester

* Education: Engineering apprenticeship; Manchester College of Science and Technology

* Career:

Metallurgist at Manchester University

1970: Research assistant for the Labour Party

1974-79: MP for Lincoln

1976: Minister for Education and Science

1983: MP for Derby South

1997: Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

1998: Leader of the House

2001: Environment Secretary