Britain should prioritize economic growth over environmental protections in trade deals, according to a leaked government document obtained by Sky News.
Environmental safeguards should also not be treated as a red line when other countries demand that they be broken in trade agreements, according to the document drafted by officials at the Department of International Trade (DIT).
The document, which has neither been seen nor approved by Cabinet, was drafted for an inter-Whitehall task force and has circulated around 120 Whitehall officials in recent days.
The text mirrors the approach already taken in some trade deals, but the moment it appears in black and white so close to the COP26 climate change summit is likely to embarrass officials.
Boris Johnson has previously boasted of higher UK environmental standards than other countries, but there are fears they will be watered down or “liberalized” as a condition for giving countries like Australia and Brazil access to UK markets to sell their products.
The leaked document states: “HMG (the government) should not refuse to liberalize products of environmental concern when there are economic arguments for liberalization, or if the interest of the partners is so strong that it is not to do so would compromise the larger agreement.
“In these cases, we should continue to liberalize and tackle the risk of carbon leakage (in general, as well as any additional marginal risk from the FTA) using the FTA levers described in this note and the non-FTA levers. described elsewhere. “
Campaigners say this could mean goods entering the UK market could be linked to deforestation of the rainforest, very high levels of emissions or chemicals that would be banned here but allowed in other countries, like palm oil from rainforest sanctuaries in Indonesia.
The main document continues: “HMG should not pursue a conditional liberalization approach. This is due to the very high negotiability challenge (little precedent and proven difficulty in raising with partners on related issues) and WTO compliance issues / creation of double standards with trading partners. “
The International Trade Ministry is continuing trade talks with the Brazilian government despite the destruction of the Amazon, with some suggesting that ending deforestation should be a condition of the trade deal.
The commercial department downplayed the significance of the document leaked to Sky News.
A spokesperson for the Department of International Trade said: “This is not government policy and is not reviewed by ministers.”
However, the spokesperson declined to say they would protect against “products of environmental concern” entering the country due to trade deals. They would also not comment on suggestions that the document reflected the practice already adopted by the DIT.
Labor shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry told Sky News: “It’s really shocking to see a document circulating in government where they basically say, ‘No matter the climate change, no matter the environment, Bolsonaro is a tough guy, if you want a trade deal with Brazil, and he wants to sell us stuff from a rainforest, we probably shouldn’t mind too much because otherwise we won’t end up with a trade deal ‘- really ? “
David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project and former head of DIT, said the approach to the leaked document to Sky News was a mistake but not a surprise as it mirrored existing practice.
“The importance is, says the UK government,” economic growth first, climate change a little lagging behind “, he also says” we are not convinced that we can get this trade deal without giving up on change targets climate change and if necessary, we will abandon them if it is necessary to obtain the trade agreement, ”he said.
“I think it’s a mistake and it’s a bit of a surprise.
“We should be more confident in saying, we should get economic growth through trade AND we can fight climate change, so I think that’s a surprise.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that the UK government is prioritizing trade deals and the economy over climate change, I think the surprise is that they feel they have to do it so badly that they don’t think they can do trade deals, the economy and climate change.
“I think there are a lot of scholars who say, in fact, not only can you do it, you have to do it as part of the fight against climate change.”
Bernice Lee, Business Analyst at Chatham House, said: “Trade deals can be a powerful tool in achieving the twin goals of economic and environmental outcomes that are good for Britain.
“Why rule out an approach that links market access to progress in climate change and forest protection when it is one of the most important tools the UK can use to influence major economies to the approach of the COP26 summit and beyond? “
Sam Lowe, trade expert from the Center for European Reform, added: “While there have been growing calls for the UK to make its foreign trade agreements (FTAs) conditional upon partner countries with strict environmental and climate objectives, this confirms that such an approach was considered too delicate by the DIT.
“It also clarifies that the UK is willing to liberalize trade in environmentally dubious products if necessary to get an FTA on the line.
“I’m not sure this is all surprising, but it gives some insight into the place of the environment as a government priority in relation to its FTA program.”
Kierra Box, a Friends of the Earth business expert, said the impact of this approach could be huge.
“It could be something like a product made in a way with extremely high carbon impacts, which we could produce in a much more environmentally friendly way in this country or obtain from elsewhere,” she said. .
“Or it could be something like palm oil, soy or meat, which we source from areas that have been deforested, so we are talking about products that are responsible for the decline of our rainforest, pollution. of our oceans and the huge impacts on climate change – these are things we should exclude from trade agreements, not what we vote on. “