UK secretly dropped climate promises for trade deal with Australia, leaked emails show

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International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is taked with securing new trde deals for the UK (PA Archive) (PA Archive)
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is taked with securing new trde deals for the UK (PA Archive) (PA Archive)

The British government secretly dropped a series of climate pledges in order to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with Australia, leaked emails appear to show.

Liz Truss, the trade secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, decided to "drop both of the climate asks" from the text of the UK-Australia agreement in order to get it "over the line", according to the email from a senior official.

A binding section that referenced the “Paris Agreement temperature goals” was scrubbed from the accord after pressure from the southern Hemipshere country’s government – which has a notoriously weak record on climate action.

The embarrassing revelation comes just weeks before the government is due to host a landmark UN climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow – where it is supposed to ask countries to make stronger commitments to cutting emissions.

Just last month Boris Johnson claimed any trade deal with Australia would, “include a chapter on trade and environment which not only reaffirms commitments to multilateral environmental agreements, including the Paris Agreement but also commits both parties to collaborate on climate and environmental issues”.

The prime minister claimed that “more trade will not come at the expense of the environment”. In June the two countries reached an “agreement in principle” to cut tariffs and quotas.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said the government’s actions would signal the start of a “race to the bottom” and accused Boris Johnson of having lied about the issue.

“The UK government pledged to embed the environment at the very heart of trade, including supporting the Paris Agreement on climate and zero deforestation in supply chains,” Mr Sauven said.

“Signing an Australian trade deal with action on climate temperature commitments secretly removed is the polar opposite of everything Boris Johnson publicly pledged and rips the heart out of what the agreement stands for.”

The Greenpeace chief added: “It will be a race to the bottom, impacting on clean tech sectors and farmers’ livelihoods. There should be a moratorium on trade deals with countries like Australia until they improve on their weak climate targets and end deforestation. At the moment the public and parliament are being duped by the Prime Minister into thinking this deal is great for Britain when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

“What’s also clear is that the government’s promise of public consultation and updates on the progress of the negotiations are completely inadequate. It’s time parliament demanded proper scrutiny for trade deals.”

Brexiteers in the government like trade secretary Ms Truss have been desparate to secure trade deals with other countries to try and prove that leaving the EU has benefits. But experts say the drive for agreements at any cost has put the UK in a weak negotiating position.

The email was sent last month and details internal discussions between Ms Truss, Mr Kwarteng and Brexit minister Lord Frost It originates from a deputy director in the government's the trade secretariat, which is part of the Cabinet Office.

The email says: "As flagged in my note to Lord Frost, the Business and Trade Secretaries were due to speak yesterday.

"We haven't yet seen the formal read out, but we understand the conversation took place and the Business Secretary has agreed that, in order to get the Australia FTA over the line, DIT can drop both of the climate asks (ie on precedence of Multilateral Environmental Agreements over FTA provisions and a reference to Paris Agreement temperature goals.)"

The change makes the deal weaker than the Brexit agreement with the EU and other FTAs negotiated by the UK. The Paris deal requires countries to set goals in order to limit global warming to well below 2C, preferably to 1.5C.

Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison has refused to commit to taking his country to net zero by 2050, even after the UN’s most recent “code red” warning. Instead, Australia’s government is holding to an existing pledge of cutting carbon emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Australia is the second-largest exporter of coal in the world and has a high per capita carbon footprint, according to European Commission data. Of 176 new coal projects across the world, 79 of them are in Australia, according to Fitch.

Caroline Lucas, member of the cross-party UK Trade and Business Commission and a Green Party MP said: "Weeks before the UK is due to host an international summit to secure climate action, this revelation paints a bleak picture of both the government's priorities and their abysmal negotiating power post-Brexit.

"Only yesterday, the government showed they are willing to break any promise they make to the public and their readiness to compromise on the existential challenge of our time raises serious concerns on what else might be on the table in ongoing trade negotiations."

Jean Blaylock, a trade campaigner at the group Global Justice Now, said the episode was "typical of the government’s approach to trade deals".

"Climate commitments will always come second to a free trade arrangement, regardless of the consequences for the planet," she said.

“Even deals that contain specific climate commitments often sign us up to secretive corporate courts that allow big polluters to sue governments for taking climate action.

“The kinds of trade deals that we are pursuing are completely incompatible with decarbonisation. Tweaking the text of trade deals is not enough. We need to fundamentally reshape our system of global trade to save us from climate catastrophe.”

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said: the revelation “underscores yet again that this greenwashing government cannot be trusted on climate”.

“With COP26 round the corner, the Government should be flexing every political muscle to ensure the summit is a success,” he said.

“Australia is one of the world’s biggest polluters and key to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. But rather than piling pressure on them, the Government has simply rolled over.

“This government is pursuing trade deals at the expense of our farmers and now our climate targets. This is simply a massive betrayal of our country and our planet.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Our ambitious trade deal with Australia will include a substantive article on climate change which reaffirms both parties’ commitments to The Paris Agreement and achieving its goals, including limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Any suggestion the deal won’t sign up to these vital commitments is completely untrue."

"The UK’s climate change and environment policies are some of the most ambitious in the world, reflecting our commitment as the first major economy to pass new laws for net zero emissions by 2050."

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