Will joining the CPTPP tarnish the UK’s green credentials?

This post is by Aradhna Tandon, policy assistant in the Greener UK unit at Green Alliance

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss announced recently that the UK had submitted its request to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement between 11 countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The US played a central role in the initial negotiations but withdrew when it failed to gain domestic support to join the trading bloc.

With negotiations set to begin later this year, the government believes that the CPTPP will allow the UK to get access to a network of trade deals that will drive economic growth and support jobs at home. In practice, joining the bloc will have limited short term benefits for the economy since the UK has already signed roll over agreements with seven of the 11 CPTPP members and is in the process of negotiating deals with Australia and New Zealand. Since the deal has already been completed, the UK will not be able to shape it to ensure it represents the UK’s interests, it can only negotiate carve outs to sections of the agreement that have negative impacts. 

The economic impacts of signing up to the CPTPP are likely to be limited, but it could have long term, negative impacts on the environment. This is especially concerning as the news about the deal came in the same week the Treasury’s own independent Dasgupta Review found that a fundamental change in how we approach economics is needed to reverse biodiversity loss and protect and enhance human prosperity.

The deal favours business interests over precaution
Joining the CPTPP could increase pressure on the UK to weaken food and animal welfare standards. The agreement places the onus on member countries to recognise standards as “equivalent” and accept imported goods even where significant differences in standards exist.

To help maintain high food and animal welfare standards, the UK follows the precautionary principle, which allows restrictions on products where there is a risk of harm. The UK government has repeatedly promised that its post-Brexit trade deals will not lower UK standards. The UK government has repeatedly promised that its post-Brexit trade deals will not lower UK standards. However, the CPTPP is more closely aligned to the US approach and is skewed to favour business, in that consumers and regulators have to prove that products are harmful before banning them. This makes it harder to ban products based on animal welfare or environmental concerns, not only exposing British consumers to the much publicised chlorine washed chicken but also to banned pesticides exported by countries like Australia.

It’s a step backwards on climate
In a year where the UK needs to display exemplary global leadership on climate action as the president of both the Glasgow climate summit and the G7, it will be signing up to a trade deal that has no mention of climate change. After signing a deal with the EU that contains climate as an essential element, this would be a serious step backwards, in failing to align climate priorities with its trade policies.

Not only is the CPTPP silent on climate, it contains provisions which could actively undermine the UK’s efforts to reach its climate targets. And it would allow corporations to challenge climate policies in private courts. The Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) contained in the agreement has been used by energy companies such as RWE and Exxon to challenge governments on the phasing out fossil fuels. Challenging policies in private courts can deter governments from introducing legislation in the first place, due to concerns  about the high cost of defending cases.

The agreement also places restrictions on governments in using procurement policies to encourage the development of domestic green technology. It requires member countries to ensure that there are no “unnecessary obstacles to trade”. This would restrict policies that require a commitment to use local green technology suppliers, for instance, which has been used by the government to encourage the development of domestic green industries.

The agreement could also encourage countries like Malaysia to increase the production of palm oil by demanding the elimination or reduction of  tariffs on its export to the UK, leading to an escalation of pressure on tropical deforestation. 

The UK should follow New Zealand in ensuring protections 
Since the UK has already started the process of joining the CPTPP, the government must uphold its commitment to high environmental standards, regardless, and ensure that it can put in place the necessary protections against any provisions that limit its ability to protect the people of the UK, and to achieve its climate and environmental goals. This can be done by opting for carve outs from all the provisions that put UK ambitious climate and environmental action at risk in the negotiating process, as New Zealand has done.

This also highlights the importance of increasing parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals to ensure that the government is held fully accountable in ensuring its trade policy supports, rather than hinders, environmental progress. 

At a time when the Biden administration is moving the US towards the UK’s position in demonstrating its climate commitments, the UK should be doing all it can not to simultaneously move backwards in joining the CPTPP as it currently stands.

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