This post is by Hatti Owens, ClientEarth UK environment lawyer
From the UK’s global carbon footprint to the quality of the products we import, trade deals have real world impacts on the environment. How the UK decides its future trade policy outside the protection of the European Union is of real importance.
With some politicians and groups – such as the Institute for Economic Affairs – calling for deregulation, environmentalists might, therefore, take heart from the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which states that “environmental sustainability should be at the very heart of global production and trade”.
It’s a lovely sentiment, but unfortunately yet to be borne out by reality.
Take, for instance, the Department for International Trade’s newly announced taskforce, which will advise the government on future trade policy, including trade agreements with countries such as the United States.
The vast majority of members of the Strategic Trade Advisory Group, or STAG for short, are drawn from business groups. Trade unions, consumers and think tanks are all represented in the advisory group, but there are no representatives from environmental organisations, despite Greener UK applying for a position.
This membership raises very real concerns that environmental interests will not be adequately represented in the group’s discussions, and that, as a result, government trade policy will not be developed with the environment sufficiently in mind or via a fully “transparent and inclusive” approach.
In addition, the lack of environmental representation appears to contradict previous indications from the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, who suggested that “a trading framework which supports…environmental…goals” will be key for future trade policy development.
The United States
A potential lack of emphasis on the environment is all the more troubling given the department’s determination to secure a free trade agreement with the United States. Liam Fox recently reiterated that reaching an agreement with the US is one of his department’s “top priorities”.
In prospective UK-US trade negotiations, it is very likely that the UK will come under significant pressure to remove non-tariff barriers to trade and import US goods produced to unacceptably low environmental standards.
Should this happen, as well as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef appearing on our supermarket shelves, we might also expect vegetables sprayed with chemicals banned in the EU, and meat and dairy from animals subjected to high levels of antibiotic use.
A free trade agreement with the US would also create downward pressure on UK farmers and producers to reduce their environmental and welfare standards, in order to compete with US products.
Given that Liam Fox’s current priorities for future UK trade pose clear risks for the environment, it is crucial that the department engages meaningfully with individuals and organisations who will give a clear, well-informed and authoritative voice on the environment.
The department has so far failed to fulfil the government’s commitment to place the environment at the heart of the UK’s trade policy. Liam Fox, just like his colleague Michael Gove, needs to back up his words with action.
In the coming months we hope the department will listen to people who understand the environmental risks trade can create, and learn from those who champion our natural world in response to these challenges.
Along with opportunities, there are many environmental risks associated with Brexit. Our future trade policy must protect and enhance the natural world and not inflict further avoidable damage on the environment. If the government’s approach to the development of future trade policy is not remedied, our planet could sustain even more avoidable damage as a result of harmful trade policies that prioritise corporate interests over nature.