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Environmental questions await the Government in its attempt to build a “Global Britain”

15 May 2020

Ciaran Gill looks at what the UK's trade negotiations with the EU and the US mean for its environmental commitments.

Thousands of words have been written in recent months about the parallels that can be drawn between the global community’s attempt to manage the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing international efforts to tackle climate change. Pandemics, the truism goes, have no respect for national borders. Just like carbon dioxide, COVID-19 has no awareness of social concepts such as national sovereignty. The logical outcome, therefore, is for national governments to recognise the interdependency that runs through our international system and subsequently work together to combat the biological and environmental threats that face us all.

This powerful narrative has underpinned much of the debate that has recently taken place about what kind of world awaits us once the worst effects of coronavirus have receded. Last month, at the Placencia Ambition Forum – an event which focussed on the environmental impact facing the world’s small island states – COP26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma tapped into the prevailing mood: “Undoubtably COVID presents many challenges, not least how we recover from the pandemic, and every country around the world will face a choice, between laying the foundations for sound, sustainable and inclusive growth or locking-in polluting emissions for decades.” “As I think every speaker that we’ve had on this panel has remarked, we must collectively support a green and resilient recovery that helps us deliver our existing commitments”, he added.

With COP26 postponed until next year, the lead-up to Glasgow’s showcase event will be long but will provide the UK Government with ample opportunity to forge its credentials as a global leader in the fight against climate change. This international role is one that is inherently forward-looking but how effectively the UK Government performs its duties could well be affected by a momentous decision that was taken in the past: Brexit. 

Last week, as national governments around the world continued their fight against a pandemic that has ground much of the global economy to a halt, the UK and the US began talks on a free-trade deal, just over two months after the UK commenced its post-Brexit trade negotiations with the EU. On Tuesday of this week, the Department for International Trade confirmed that the UK would soon be embarking on a third set of trade talks, with Japan.

In its quest to pursue a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ policy of striking its own trade deals with countries around the world, there is a risk that matters such as trade imbalances and political optics could lead to deals which affect the performance of roles already in place. If the UK is unduly buffeted by the trade winds that are soon to come in, will its role as a global leader in the fight against climate change be at risk?

The biggest threat to the UK’s further development of its role as a global leader in the fight against climate change may reside across the Atlantic: President Trump. A recent New York Times investigation found that over 60 environmental rules and regulations have been officially reversed or revoked under the Trump administration, with another 34 rollbacks in the process.

On the international front, Trump has formally notified the United Nations that the US will be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, and has pursued a mercantilist ‘America First’ trade policy throughout his time in office. It is clear, therefore, that the Trump administration’s relationship with environmental concerns, as well as its aggressive negotiation stance, may present problems for a UK Government eager to secure progress with Washington whilst trade negotiations with Brussels lumber on at the same time.

In March, the Department for International Trade published its negotiating objectives with regards to its trade talks with the US. “Any deal”, it said, “will secure provisions that support and help further the Government’s ambition on climate change and achieving Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050, including promoting trade in low carbon goods and services, supporting research and development collaboration”. This, of course, is indicative that the UK will seek to retain its role as a global climate leader even if it moves more into the American sphere of influence.

In Brussels, meanwhile, the European Union is constructing a European Green Deal which has attracted the support of major businesses and civil society groups throughout the continent and, like the UK, aims for Net Zero by 2050.

Over the next months, there are signs that environmental issues will play a prominent role within trade negotiations between Brussels and London. Last week, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove told the House of Lords EU Committee that the Government could depart from its trade negotiation asks of the EU by giving up on a “zero-tariff, zero-quota” trade deal so that the UK could be kept free from a duty to adhere to European standards on environmental protection, workers’ rights and state aid. Gove is a former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and is seen as an effective proponent of environmental issues. It may well be the case, therefore, that he envisions the UK going beyond the environmental regulations that have been set out by the EU.  

We need to remember, however, that Gove’s passion for environmental issues may not be shared by the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss. The FT reported this week that Truss is preparing to slash tariffs on US agricultural imports in order to facilitate progress in the ongoing trade negotiations with Washington. Coupled with Gove’s comments to the EU Committee, this move could be interpreted as a sign of London’s overall ambition to bring itself more into America’s orbit at the expense of the EU. What does this mean for the UK’s role as a global leader in the fight against climate change?

As mentioned, the UK’s negotiating objectives for its trade deal with the US commits itself to striking a deal which will advance its climate objectives. But if the UK does not agree a free trade deal with the EU this year, level-playing provisions between the two will cease to exist and the Government, as mentioned by Michael Gove, will be free to ignore EU environmental rules.

Last year, UK-US total trade was valued at £220.9 billion – 19.8% of all of the UK’s exports. If the UK were no longer bound by EU environmental rules, would it accept lower environmental standards as a necessary consequence of a stronger trading relationship with the US?

This is a complex area, however, and it is hard to predict the future. Domestic pressures within the UK may prevent any great shift in policy and President Trump’s administration may come to an end at the start of next year.

Nevertheless, with the UK looking like it may be steadily unmooring itself from European shores, the economic and political pressures that will emerge may affect the UK’s development of its role as a global climate leader. With trade priorities scattered across the globe, whether the UK Government stays true to its red line of environmental protection remains to be seen.