This post is by Tom West, UK environment lead at ClientEarth.
Where does your stuff come from? It’s a classic environmental refrain to consider the origin of the clothes you wear, the food you eat and all the general stuff you accumulate. So the UK government’s ambitions to sign new trade deals and open our markets to new goods from around the world is really very relevant to those who care about how things are made.
The issue of food import standards is one issue, particularly at the forefront of many people’s minds over the past few weeks. And the issue will stay on the table as the Agriculture and Trade Bills pass through parliament and trade negotiations continue. The Conservative Party manifesto has promised that: “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”, a promise repeated often, and with gusto.
Yet we’re still in the dark as to what the government will do to live up to that promise. A recent joint letter from George Eustice and Liz Truss saying that they will “not compromise” on standards and that any changes would require legislation provides little solace. Much of this could be done via the notoriously under-scrutinised secondary legislation, or it may even be possible for existing rules around the chlorine washing of chicken to be changed simply via FSA authorisation. What’s more, settling for a proposed ‘dual-tariff’ system for questionable imports rather than a ban is exactly that: a compromise.
Legitimate concerns about backsliding on environmental standards remain, with serious consequences on import standards across the board, as well as on our global environmental commitments.
Trade risks to the UK’s environmental leadership
Legal guarantees for environmental standards are sorely needed in our trade policy, not least to respond to the US demand that we should open our markets to its food. We must remember that the US has clearly stated its desire for “comprehensive market access” for agricultural and industrial goods, by reducing or eliminating tariffs and harmonising rules between nations.
This isn’t just about ensuring UK farmers stay competitive. It’s about reducing our global environmental footprint and promoting good environmental practice. Not only is US food produced to far lower standards than is permitted by EU law, but other important environmental standards in the US have been lowered even further over recent months. If we think river health, soil quality and carbon emissions matter here, then why wouldn’t they matter elsewhere?
And it’s also not just about food standards, other imports have environmental impacts too. In light of this, the EU is developing a carbon border adjustment mechanism on countries with less strict climate policies. UK action to ‘green’ its trade needs to be similarly holistic and modern. Offshoring emissions and creating false economies must become a thing of the past. They must be addressed by reflecting those environmental costs through restrictions and bans on certain imports.
So far impassioned pleas and sensible legislative amendments to protect our food standards have been met with a governmental brick wall. Some have claimed that we cannot go around telling other countries what to do. Quite right. But we should go around telling other countries what we are going to do. And that should include not accepting goods produced in environmentally damaging ways.
High standards must be on the table
The UK should be clear that it intends to maintain and uphold the highest possible environmental standards. This would be in line with the ‘integration principle’ contained in the government’s new Environment Bill, which states that environmental issues should be properly integrated into all laws and policies. For trade, this means the government’s desire to promote innovation and unlock its global potential must be channelled into making the global trading system fit for purpose in the 21st century.
This should be the UK’s stance on the global stage: in its trade negotiations, at environment forums and at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). ‘Levelling-up trade’ is a means, whereas a healthier planet and healthier people is an end. And so trade rules should be subject to ecological realities and environmental ambition, not the other way around.
What being a global leader at a time of crisis looks like
There are complexities to WTO rules about import bans and restrictions, but there are ways the UK can act here. For one, it can enforce and uphold non-discriminatory measures that are designed to protect the environment. The UK should negotiate and sign trade deals that make this easier by being uncompromising about the need for environmental action at home and abroad. This includes recognising the unarguable right of each partner to take measures to fight climate change and biodiversity decline, and protecting that right from being watered down to fit the logic of removing ‘barriers to trade’. That is what being a global leader during a time of ecological and economic crisis would look like.
As the Trade and Agriculture Bills move through parliament, a first step would be for the legislation to be amended to create new transparent and participatory mechanisms for the design of trade policy. New parliamentary processes are needed for trade negotiations as a whole, and new democratic processes are needed for food import standards so that the public, through civil society groups, experts, business and farmers, can contribute to their design and how they are policed. Without this, we risk being exposed to low quality goods that have been produced in ways that damage our health and the environment.
Whatever way you look at it, the government needs to act to fulfil its manifesto commitment and, more importantly, to make sure that our new found control over our trade policy is not wasted. There is no innovation, no ambition and, frankly, no point in rehashing existing trade mantras of the past given the immense environmental challenges ahead. Yet that is what we are at risk of: tired trade deals that forget about the environment entirely.