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There’s no place for climate scepticism in UK trade policy

I was recently invited to give evidence to the International Trade Committee as part of a panel on its inquiry into trade and the environment. I was of course delighted to accept the invitation. Trade policy can have a big impact on the climate and the environment, and this connection is too often overlooked. 

Unfortunately, I had the dubious honour of sharing the panel with a member of the government’s Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) who, throughout the session, promoted various forms of climate scepticism. For example, they alleged that CO2 emissions are not a problem, that reducing fossil gas extraction is “stupid” and that methane is not a fossil fuel. 

As anyone who has worked in environmental policy will know, it’s sadly not unusual to encounter those who wish to muddy the waters on climate. Nevertheless, it was shocking to come across such anti-scientific views when giving evidence before a select committee, and from someone with a role on the government’s expert advisory panel.  

Climate scepticism undermines good trade policy
It would be nice to think this was an isolated incident. Yet there is a long, simmering streak of climate scepticism across Whitehall. The Global Warming Policy Foundation has at times exerted considerable influence, with prominent Conservative politicians and commentators endorsing its views.   

During the recent Conservative leadership campaign, several hopefuls promoted climate sceptic arguments. This was, ironically, during the summer when the UK saw its hottest temperature ever recorded, at 40.2°C. Suella Braverman, the current home secretary, attacked the government’s net zero target as equating to “net zero growth”. Kemi Badenoch, the secretary of state for business and trade, called the government’s legally binding net zero target “unilateral economic disarmament”. 

These statements are at odds with the wealth of research that shows that net zero provides the economic growth opportunity of the century.  

We need a comprehensive trade strategy with the environment at its heart to capitalise on this opportunity and to ensure that UK trade policy helps to deliver the government’s net zero and nature recovery objectives. But we’re unlikely to see the comprehensive reforms needed if those setting the agenda hold outdated views.  

These distractions are holding Britain back
By contrast, the US and EU clearly see the economic opening presented by leading on climate and are rushing to ensure they stay ahead of the pack. The US Inflation Reduction Act and the European Green Deal Industrial Plan are fuelling a global race on net zero in which the UK is already seriously behind.  

A trade strategy designed to deliver on net zero and nature recovery means doing more to ensure our national supplies of critical raw materials are sustainable and resilient. It means going further to reshape international rules to reduce barriers to trade in environmental goods and services that are critical to delivering net zero. And it means setting clear environmental standards and red lines for all our imports, underpinning future trade negotiations.  

The consequences of joining the CPTPP
The UK’s desire to join the CPTPP, the Pacific trade bloc, is a good example of why it’s essential the environment and climate are front and centre of trade policy. The minimal economic benefits forecast, which may have been over-estimated, come with serious strings attached – including exposing the UK to extra-judicial dispute settlement mechanisms with new countries. This system is a favourite tool of fossil fuel companies to sue governments outside of their domestic legal system when governments take action on climate that could hurt their profits.  

Looking ahead
Continuing to give platforms and positions of power to people who undercut and distract from the scientific consensus undermines the government’s own commitments and is doing us all a disservice in delaying action to protect our planet.  

For recent trade negotiations, it has often been easier to find details on progress from the websites of the countries across the table, rather than the UK government’s own negotiators. The government’s official stakeholder forums are often cancelled without explanation.  

The trade department’s Strategic Trade Advisory Group which, in theory, aims to meet at least every four months, has not met since last summer. This lack of engagement has led to several groups, including Green Alliance, WWF and the Tenant Farmers’ Association, launching a formal complaint under the Aarhus Convention, an international agreement intended to ensure public consultation on decisions that impact the environment.    

The UK has undeniably made good progress in reducing its domestic carbon and environmental footprint on several fronts, but consumption emissions, those from products we import, have reduced much less swiftly. Tackling global heating and nature loss are enormous challenges that require every fibre of government, civil society and the economy to pull in the same direction. This includes a comprehensive trade strategy that delivers on net zero and nature recovery. 

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