HomePolitical leadershipOn the brink of another trade deal that threatens the environment, what can the UK do now?

On the brink of another trade deal that threatens the environment, what can the UK do now?

This post is by Anna Sands, trade policy specialist at WWF-UK.

The UK is on the brink of signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade deal with 11 countries in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. This is likely to be sold as the ‘next big thing’ by the government, keen to promote the UK’s global agenda. Yet, given the meagre growth estimated to come from the deal (0.08 per cent of GDP, according to government’s own estimates), is it worth the environmental risks that it will create?

Perhaps most visibly, the trade deal will drop palm oil tariffs (a tax on imports) with Malaysia to 0 per cent, a bold move considering the deforestation being caused by plantations in Malaysia. But the CPTPP is about far more than palm oil. It facilitates food trade with countries with significantly lower environmental standards of production than the UK, and risks undermining progress at home in supporting a just farming transition.

The CPTPP repeats the mistakes of the UK-Australia deal
The UK-Australia trade deal caused a lot of controversy as it lifted tariffs on most agricultural imports.  Farmers, civil society, and trade experts alike were flabbergasted: in the quest for a quick deal, the UK had given away its prized access to agricultural markets for almost nothing in return. It later turned out that, apparently, some of it was signed off by Boris Johnson over a fine dinner of Welsh lamb and Australian wine.

It’s clear that the CPTPP is not going to be quite the same level of give away: the UK has secured some export opportunities, for instance Malaysian tariffs on Scotch whiskey will be lowered from 80 per cent over ten years. The UK also defended its hormone-grown beef ban which Canada was objecting to, delaying further negotiations to bilateral talks on access to beef.

But, where the CPTPP does repeat the mistakes of the Australia deal is in viewing the environment and animal welfare as things that can be traded off in negotiations, as and when required. The deal makes it easier to import products produced using pesticides which would be banned in the UK, and which are known to kill bees and destroy aquatic ecosystems. Many of the countries that are part of this deal have lower animal welfare standards than those in the UK, for example Canada still allows the use of conventional battery cages, banned in Britain since 2012.

While UK law has standards that apply to imports which protect our health, no such standards exist for the environmental impact of how food is produced. With almost of half of the food consumed in the UK coming from abroad, opening up trade without putting in place environmental standards increases the risk of us contributing to harm in other countries.

Weakening standards shouldn’t be up for negotiation
Some will say that it’s the nature of trade to negotiate and achieve concessions from negotiating partners. But weakening environment standards shouldn’t be up for discussion and doesn’t have to be: the UK could easily establish a set of core environmental standards in law as a basis for how it wishes to trade with all its partners, setting minimum standards for imports aligned with supporting environmental progress at home and abroad. In doing so, it would ensure that all trade happens on a level playing field, where producers and importers are treated alike in terms of meeting the baseline.

Crucially, farmers, NGOs, businesses and several independent commissions are in agreement. Indeed, the Climate Change Committee, the original Trade and Agriculture Commission and the National Food Strategy have all recommended core standards. The second Trade and Agriculture Commission, tasked with determining what impacts UK trade deals will have on domestic regulation, confirmed that such standards for imports would be legal under World Trade Organization rules.

Some would argue that the last thing smallholder farmers in Malaysia or elsewhere need is the requirement to meet yet another standard. But the reality is that the future of markets is in agroecological agriculture. Indeed, movement in this direction is already happening with the EU’s Corporate Due Diligence Law and the US’s Forest Act.

New standards should not be introduced in isolation, but with technical, financial and other support to allow smallholder farmers in particular to adapt. And, the UK could go even further, to lead on designing an approach to greening global trade which considers the needs of farmers in the Global South and involves them in the process with supporting policies.

It would take some time to design core environmental standards, making sure that they cover all bases and don’t unfairly discriminate against any country’s particular production practices. But there is nothing to stop the government from launching a process now by, for example, setting up a taskforce to determine whether this is the way forward.

Launching a process to investigate core standards would restore public and parliamentary confidence in the UK’s strategic thinking on trade. It would show that the government is thinking more deeply about trade, beyond the give and take of a particular free trade agreement. Environmental standards, alongside human rights, animal welfare standards and labour conditions, should be non-negotiable in trade deals. They need to be set out clearly in legislation as UK core values regarding what it is prepared to allow on its market. The UK already does this on food safety so why shouldn’t it expand this approach to these other factors? In relation to the environment, that would be a sign that the UK is not selling out nature at home and abroad behind closed doors and that it takes its commitments to developing nations seriously.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.