UK minister pushes to downgrade climate change in trade deals

EuroActiv Politico News

LONDON — The U.K. should not be putting environmental issues at “the top of every single trade agreement” it signs, according to a senior government minister.

Conor Burns, who returned to the Department for International Trade last month as Liz Truss became prime minister, told an audience at the Conservative Party conference this week that he’s urging the ministry to rethink the emphasis it puts on climate change when it strikes agreements with other countries.

He argued that such an approach could be seen as asking countries on the other side of the negotiating table to settle for a lower standard of living than that enjoyed in the West. But the comments drew swift condemnation from the opposition Labour Party as well as environmental campaigners, as he was accused of placating climate “deniers.”

Describing his “slightly idiosyncratic view” on the government’s drive to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero, Burns said: “I have already started pushing back internally in my first two weeks in the department on what seems to have been a determination by DIT, which changed since I was last there, to push net-zero and the environment to the top of every single trade agreement as a sort of policy objective.”

Burns was previously a trade minister under Truss when she ran the department as trade secretary.

He said he “profoundly agreed” with her view that countries have “an absolutely legitimate ambition to share an objective of getting to the quality of life, the standard of living that we enjoyed in the West.”

In hitting Britain’s environmental objectives, Burns argued, “we should not be expecting developing countries to be poorer — but … we should be using the opportunity of trade agreements, trade ambitions, trade deals, to help developing countries get to the same standard of living that we enjoy and take for granted, but doing so in a way that did not have the damaging and environmental impact that our industrial revolution did.”

This week Truss clashed with environmental protestors who interrupted her address to party conference, branding them part of an “anti-growth coalition.”

The Labour Party’s trade spokesperson Nick-Thomas Symonds seized on the comments, accusing the minister of being “focused on winning favor with climate deniers in his own party,” rather than “realising the vital role green exports can play in saving the planet and growing our economy.”

Green conundrum

Using trade policy to meet climate goals has become a fraught topic in recent years. The U.K.’s first from-scratch free-trade deals with Australia and New Zealand include chapters on the environment, though activists lamented a lack of binding provisions on climate change and alleged watering down of the text’s reference to the Paris Agreement in the Australia pact.

The U.K., which aspires to be a global leader on green trade and still holds the presidency for the COP climate summit, is currently in negotiations with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, half of whom — namely Kuwait, Qatar and Oman — have yet to set out net-zero commitments.

Campaigners have urged the U.K. to push the wavering Gulf nations to rectify this during trade talks.

“Net zero and the environment absolutely should be at the top of every single trade agreement,” argued Jonny Peters, a trade expert at the climate change think tank E3G. “If the U.K. fails to protect its interests in trade talks it will expose itself to lower standards and competitiveness risks.”

Kate Norgrove, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said current provisions in U.K. deals “barely scratch the surface of what’s required to truly protect our planet — and our health.”

“Rowing back on the limited climate and nature provisions that currently exist would risk the U.K. joining a race to the bottom on environmental standards,” she said.

But others argue that environmental addendums have little place in trade deals.

Daniel Hannan, a Conservative peer and senior government adviser on trade, said last year that arguing for environmental provisions or gender rights in trade agreements was “a kind of massive virtue signal,” adding: “That isn’t what a trade deal is or does. A trade deal is about identifying specific obstacles and removing them.”

Graham Lanktree and Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.