Climate and trade are inevitably intertwined: we should stop trying to separate them

“In trade agreements, I deal with trade issues. In climate agreements, I deal with climate issues.” So said the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison after it emerged his government had successfully lobbied the UK to remove specific climate commitments from the UK- Australia trade deal.

The 24 hours after this news broke were a bit confusing. While Mr Morrison didn’t deny specific commitments had been binned, UK spokespeople said nothing had changed. They lauded the agreement’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change, pointing to a ‘chapter’ on climate and advanced measures on animal welfare. But those of us keeping an eye on the deal already knew that it was going to be bad news for the environment.

There’s no way of knowing if climate is a UK trade priority
Due to the UK’s preference to negotiate trade deals behind closed doors and with next to no scrutiny, we currently have little idea if the government is prioritising climate in trade. Stakeholders invited to discussions on trade agreements are given limited updates and some are bound by non-disclosure agreements. Impact assessments of trade deals will be conducted and published only afterdiscussions have concluded. We generally learn what’s in trade deals by reading what the other country has published on their website, or when the government decides to send a press release out. Or, as in the case last week, something gets leaked.

Over the past year or so, it’s been just as important to ask what trade agreements are for, as well as what’s in them. Five years on from the EU referendum, and nearly two from Brexit itself, the UK still does not have a clear trade strategy. We have next to no idea of the UK’s priorities. The aims have appeared to be more prosaic: while ‘rolling over’ many EU deals, the UK appears determined to rush through new, headline grabbing agreements with ‘like-minded’ nations such as Australia, irrespective of the tiny boost to GDP it would lead to. The small amount we can glean from the scoping assessment conducted by the Department for International Trade, shows that the Australia deal could lead to increased carbon emissions.   

Earlier this week I gave evidence to the International Trade Committee, which was exploring how well the UK has aligned its trade policy with goals for November’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. During the discussion, the chair asked if including the environment in trade agreements would open the floodgates to all kinds of issues supposedly separate to the issue at hand, ie the exchange of goods and services.

This brings us back to Scott Morrison’s comment, that trade deals and climate agreements are different things, to be tackled separately. It is not the first time this has been suggested. Former trade secretary Liz Truss repeatedly said that it was not the UK’s place to tell other countries how to produce food. Similar statements have been made about the UK not imposing its standards on others, or not telling developing countries how to produce food that we ourselves do not produce.

Treating trade and climate as separate undermines UK environmental leadership
Separating trade from issues such as climate and animal welfare neither reflects the UK’s positions elsewhere nor supports the government’s desire to be a global environmental leader. If the PM wants to lead on turning the tide on climate change and nature decline, he cannot sign trade deals with countries that could increase deforestation and support appalling animal welfare. Trade and the environment must be seen as intertwined: mutually supportive, mutually important and, if done wrong, also mutually damaging. The Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC), which has made a number of helpful recommendations that the government could follow when it comes to forward thinking trade, is still awaiting a response to its report, six months after publication.

Boris Johnson’s mantra, ahead of COP26, is “coal, cars, cash and trees”. He is determined to persuade other countries to make progress in these areas: for developed countries to phase out coal by 2030 and developing nations to do so by 2040; to stop selling new petrol and diesel cars by 2035; to provide money to developing nations to support their efforts to decarbonise their economy; and to restore the global tree canopy’s natural carbon sink.

We need more than targets and soundbites
But there remains a big question over these targets, and that is how to realise them. Yes, the market will play a big role. Brilliant companies will innovate and the public will (and most want to) adjust. But we still need more from the government beyond impressive aspirational targets and sound bites. We need domestic policies and budgets to support home insulation and the scale of nature restoration required. And we need the government’s trade policy to reflect clearly its green ambitions.

As a letter from NGOs to the PM suggested last week, there are two ways it can do this. The most basic is that all UK trade agreements should make explicit reference to the goal of restricting global temperature growth to 1.5 degrees, and other specific climate commitments. It should then go beyond this and show how the trade deal would help support each country’s goals.

The second way is for the UK to develop core environmental standards that would define what the UK would like to import, and what it won’t. These standards would not be in individual agreements but should inform the negotiations. They would show how the UK is intent on taking a progressive approach to trade and support the embracing of higher standards by other countries across the world. These standards should apply to areas such as agriculture, deforestation, and animal welfare.

In short, trade agreements have to have climate and nature issues at their heart to be credible. The new trade secretary has a great opportunity to show this can be done in the most ambitious way, and now.

[Image: Number 10 Flickr, Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets with Scott Morrison]

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