Five problems the UK-Australia trade deal poses for the climate
Plane food

Five problems the UK-Australia trade deal poses for the climate

By: Jean Blaylock
Date: 15 June 2021
Campaigns: Climate, Trade

How we grow, transport and buy and sell food is one of the key things for restoring our climate as well as for tackling inequality and creating a fairer society. Supporting local, sustainable production as a strong basis for our food system is vital.

So you might think that all this talk of sending food halfway round the world in the UK-Australia trade deal is crazy in terms of food miles. And you would be right.

But that’s barely even the start of the problems this trade deal poses for the climate. Here are five ways that the UK-Australia trade deal is bad for the climate.

1) Climate busting emissions from industrial agriculture

Food miles are a problem, but actually most of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come during production – especially for trade in beef and lamb, which is a big focus for the UK-Australia deal.

It’s all about the choices that farmers make for sustainable methods and valuing the environment – whether they are British or Australian farmers. It’s about quality, high standards, good animal welfare and not cutting corners in search of a cheap buck. Sometimes, especially with meat, it’s about us consuming less but better.

But this type of trade deal favours cheap, industrially produced, commodity food. Quantity trumps quality and the smaller, more sustainable farming gets put out of business, which is bad for everyone whether you’re in the UK or Australia.

This isn’t Waitrose versus Lidl. Surveys show over 90% of people are concerned about this and those with the least time and money to spare for carefully inspecting labels and shopping around are the most worried. High standards mean everyone is protected, not just those with the deepest pockets.

2) Wrecking a global green new deal

If you want a globally fair green new deal, you don’t want a trade deal like the UK-Australia deal.

We’ve lost decades to inaction on climate already. Lost to waiting for big business to voluntarily do the right thing, and to a market-knows-best approach. It hasn’t worked, it doesn’t work, it’s not going to work in future. We know that kickstarting the step change we need requires strong binding regulations that will make sure corporations do what is needed. This can actually help businesses that already have good practices because it levels the playing field if others also have to play by the same rules.

It also requires deliberate, targeted policies to transform our economies and societies into low-carbon, socially and environmentally fair pathways.

But trade deals are explicitly about leaving as much as possible to the market. They often specify that rules and regulations must be the ‘least burdensome necessary for business’ and that always takes us back to the voluntary self-regulation that has failed so often before. And they restrict the extent to which governments can make targeted interventions in the economy.

3) Stranglehold on climate inventions

We need to transition to new renewable and sustainable technologies – fast and everywhere. We don’t have all the answers and we need to make sure those technologies are socially and ethically just – that we’re not doing a natural resource grab that exploits workers, communities and the environment in marginalised areas. But when we find answers, we need to make sure everyone can use them as soon as possible to reduce global emissions.

It is vital to make sure climate technologies can spread and be transferred to all countries, global south and north.

But crucially, trade rules on patents will give corporations a stranglehold on technologies that are vital for the planet​ and have clauses that limit governments’ ability to promote technology transfer. Countries in the global south have often been caught in a fossil fuel trap as a result of legacies of colonialism, misguided development policies in previous decades that actually encouraged fossil fuels, and rich countries offshoring of dirty production and carbon emissions. Now they’re being told they need to transition … but they’ll have to pay big business, usually based in rich countries, for the privilege.

There should be no such corporate monopolies on vital climate technologies.

4) Trade > climate

A trade deal like the UK-Australia deal is powerful. If there is a clash between what it says in a trade treaty and a climate treaty, the trade treaty will win. Why? Because we’ve given trade rules teeth – made them strong and enforceable with sanctions if you break them. Whereas climate goals are mainly voluntary.

We need to reverse that – to make trade rules subservient to climate goals, and human rights and international health objectives. We need to take away the excessive power of trade rules, including by taking away their teeth. And among their most ferocious teeth are something called corporate courts …​

5) Corporate courts

Government minister, Greg Hands, recently confirmed that ‘corporate courts’ (more formally known as ISDS) are likely to be in the UK-Australia trade deal.

Transnational corporations have used corporate courts to sue countries outside of the national legal system for almost anything they don’t like – banning toxic chemicals, introducing a sugary drinks tax, anti-smoking policies, capping water rates, raising the minimum wage – you name it. Either the corporations want payoffs in the millions or even billions, or they use corporate courts as a threat to force governments to back down. ​

Now that we are finally seeing more governments around the world begin to take long needed action to tackle the climate crisis, we are seeing more and more corporate court cases challenging those actions: ​

  • RWE and Uniper, both energy companies, are suing the Netherlands over the phase out of coal-fired power stations. ​
  • Ascent Resources, a UK fossil fuel company, is suing Slovenia for requiring an environmental impact assessment on fracking plans. ​
  • Lone Pine, a fossil fuel company, is suing Canada over the introduction of a fracking moratorium in Quebec​.

​The UK government is holding an inquiry into proposals for a new coal mine in Cumbria. The investor behind the mine is Australian. If the trade deal has corporate courts, this is exactly the kind of situation where they could be used to sue for billions – or the threat of a case could be used to sway the outcome of the inquiry.

Corporate courts are an obstacle to a clean energy transition and to achieving climate justice. They should be dropped from the UK-Australia deal – and from the UK’s trade policy altogether.

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