The UK has denied allegations brought by Greenpeace that it dropped key climate commitments to get its trade deal with Australia over the line.

The UK government hails itself a climate leader – and its ambitions may justify this label to some extent. In April, the government announced that it “will set the world’s most ambitious climate change target” in law to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels as part of its sixth carbon budget.

At the time the prime minister said: “We want to continue to raise the bar on tackling climate change, and that’s why we’re setting the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world.”

The UK will also host Cop26, the annual United Nations summit to accelerate action towards the Paris Agreement, next month in Glasgow. Agreed in 2015, the Paris deal is an international treaty to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2°C while pursuing efforts to halt the increase even further to 1.5°C.

A few months after the UK put out its revised emissions target, it struck a trade deal with Australia. While the agreement is modest in terms of its economic benefits to both countries, for the UK it is important as a major post-Brexit deal that could open the gates to pacts with higher rewards.

In a research briefing, the UK government admits that the overall effect of the agreement on the economy is likely to “be very small, with a projected increase of between 0.01 and 0.02% of GDP”.

“This is partly because Australia accounts for only 1.7% of UK exports and 0.7% of imports and because tariffs on most UK-Australia trade are already low. Individual sectors of the economy may, however, be affected much more,” it states.

According to the briefing, the deal will help the UK’s bid to join the more lucrative Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The CPTPP, which came into effect in late 2019, is a free trade deal between 11 Pacific rim countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan and Mexico.


‘Well, it was about trade’

While an agreement between the two nations is a positive development – even if the economic benefits are minimal, a leaked email seen by Greenpeace reportedly claims that the UK’s trade and business secretaries agreed to remove references to temperatures in the Paris Agreement to get the deal “over the line”.

Greenpeace adds that only last month Johnson wrote to environmental NGOs stating that 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. We are clear that more trade will not come at the expense of the environment.”

Australia’s top exports are iron ore, coal and gold – extractive industries known for being environmentally damaging. Its climate targets lag that of the UK and other developed countries: Australia aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by between 26% and 28% by 2030 from 2005 levels. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has thus far resisted international pressure to impose more stringent climate goals.

Morrison also did not appear to deny applying pressure on the UK for a lighter climate touch. “Well, it was about trade. It wasn’t a climate agreement, it was a trade agreement. And… in trade agreements, I deal with trade issues. In climate agreements, I deal with climate issues,” he said in a press conference on September 9.

“We’re pursuing agreements on clean energy technology with a vast number of countries, and we’ll have agreements about that. But the key agreement we’ve made is when we signed up to Paris, and the commitments that we made to achieve those. Those commitments are clear,” he added.

A damning report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) published last month made it clear that more needs to be done to tackle climate change – and if countries are seen to sidestep prior commitments it may weigh on the international effort to reduce global warming.

It is also not the first time the British government has been accused of hypocrisy over climate commitments. Last year, officials were embroiled in a row with NGOs over the government’s financial support of overseas fossil fuel projects through its export credit agency. Charities stated the funding was undermining climate goals. Last December, the UK government announced an end to support for overseas fossil fuel projects.

A UK government spokesperson tells GTR in response to the claims: “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°C. 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.”