The UK secretly dropped pledges to bind Australia to climate targets in its efforts to strike a trade deal, according to a leaked email obtained by Greenpeace. The revelation has engulfed Boris Johnson in a major row ahead of the Cop26 summit.
Campaigners and politicians reacted with fury to the move – which included removing a reference to “Paris Agreement temperature goals” – arguing it made a mockery of the government’s claims to be fighting the climate emergency.
The revelation is a major embarrassment, coming just seven weeks before the crucial Glasgow summit and coinciding with cabinet minister Alok Sharma visiting countries around the world in an effort to persuade their leaders to agree to tougher carbon-cutting targets.
It also raises questions about Mr Johnson’s claim to have agreed the trade deal “in principle” five months ago, showing that the two countries are still haggling over the terms.
The leaked email, sent by a senior official, suggested that three cabinet ministers had agreed to “drop both of the climate asks” to get the trade deal “over the line”.
One of the “asks” related to the Paris temperature goals – to limit global heating to well below 2C, and preferably to 1.5C – while the second would have prioritised environmental agreements over trade rules.
Yet, at the start of August, Mr Johnson wrote that the Australia trade deal would “reaffirm commitments to multilateral environmental agreements, including the Paris Agreement”.
In a letter that was sent to environmental groups last month, the prime minister said: “We are clear more trade will not come at the expense of the environment.”
It is believed that the Australia deal will still contain a reference to the Paris Agreement, but – unlike the Brexit trade deal with the EU – it will include no explicit commitment to limiting temperature levels.
The Independent understands that Mr Sharma, the Cop26 president, has argued for specific climate goals to be included in any post-Brexit trade deals the UK strikes.
John Sauven, Greenpeace’s executive director, accused the government of being “absolutely duplicitous” in the light of Mr Johnson’s letter.
“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.”
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said: “With Cop26 round the corner, the government should be flexing every political muscle to ensure the summit is a success.
“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.”
Jean Blaylock, of Global Justice Now, said: “This is 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.”
One trade expert, Sam Lowe, of the Centre for European Reform, said the UK could still insist on the climate goals, but added: “However, this means negotiations would take longer and the UK might need to give up more in return.”
In fact, the government – which is desperate to sign the trade deals it promised as a Brexit dividend – has already been accused of giving away too much to Canberra.
Tariffs will be scrapped immediately on imported beef and lamb from Australia, triggering accusations that UK farmers will be sent “to the wall”.
Experts have warned the overall economic boost from the deal will be “close to zero” – and the government admitted the average household would be just £1.20 a year better off.
A government spokesperson has denied that climate concessions were made in the trade deal, calling the claims “completely untrue”.
They said the deal would “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”.
However, the leaked email, sent by a deputy director in the trade secretariat of the Cabinet Office, reads: “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).”
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