TORY ministers caved in to Australian ministers’ climate demands during talks on a post-Brexit trade deal, according to a leaked government email.
The email from a senior official, sent last month and obtained by Sky News, details the internal government discussion over the UK-Australia deal that involved Trade Secretary Liz Truss, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and Lord Frost, the Brexit minister who also co-ordinates cross-government positions on trade issues.
It said Truss and Kwarteng made the decision to “drop both of the climate asks” from the text of the trade deal. One of the areas to be removed was “a reference to Paris Agreement temperature goals”.
As part of the agreement negotiated in Paris in 2015, signatories must publish NDCs – plans which set out the action they plan to take to contribute to the goal of limiting global warming to well below two degrees, with “further efforts” to limit it to no more than 1.5 degrees.
The EU-UK deal signed by the Government contains a provision that would trigger the suspension of the agreement if either side breaches its commitment to the Paris Agreement.
Australia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement but prime minister Scott Morrison has submitted less ambitious targets than some other major nations. Sky News reported that the Brexit treaty text will reference the Paris Agreement but there will be no mention of specific temperature goals.
UK Government sources said references to temperature are now only “implicit” in the trade treaty and not legally binding. This differs from the UK-EU trade deal where the temperature commitments are explicitly stated.
Sam Coates, the deputy political editor of Sky News, said: “It was deemed important enough for specific climate change temperature commitments to be included in the UK-EU deal. Also, up until about a month ago, Britain was expecting that the temperature commitments would go in the Australian deal as well.
“Now, clearly, Australia have made this ask and UK ministers have agreed to this ask for a reason. Australia defends its climate change record but many environmentalists, point out that it’s quite dependent on coal, that some of its senior political figures are less committed to change than others.
“Australia says it will still meet its Paris commitments and have signed other agreements that commit them to specific temperature changes, but nevertheless I think green groups are extremely concerned, because as I say Australia will have asked this for a reason.”
The email comes from a senior official, a deputy director, in the “trade secretariat” part of the Cabinet Office.
He writes: “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 (Free Trade Agreement) 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.)”
Climate groups hit out at the move ahead of November’s COP26 conference in Glasgow.
John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace, said the decision is “truly shocking”.
He added: “If we cannot get a rich country like Australia to take the environment seriously to take the climate emergency seriously, that we are in really, really big trouble if the government is giving in on these environmental regulations.
“It is truly shocking and it is truly seismic in terms of the impact of that will have. Boris Johnson, in a letter to me and other environmental leaders said that, the trade agreement will include commitments to all multilateral environmental agreements, including the Paris Agreement.
“The reason why he wrote this letter was because he was basically saying, trade and the environment, cannot be separated, he said this is not going to be a race to the bottom, we’re not going to undercut regulations, we’re not going to undercut the commitments that we’ve made to deal with the climate emergency in fact he said the very opposite is going to be a race to the top.
“What this email shows that that is just the bare face lie – actually what they’re doing is the opposite. This is a race to the bottom and it is a disaster.”
Sam Lowe, trade expert at the Centre for European Reform, told Sky News he was surprised at UK ministers bowing to pressure from Australia.
“Australia doesn’t want the trade deal to be made conditional to their membership of Paris Agreement, so essentially it doesn’t want to be held to account in the event it doesn’t do what it says it does in relation to the agreement,” he said.
“It has made commitments to reduce its carbon emissions over a number years, but there is a suspicion it doesn’t have much intention to do so, as the economy is quite reliant on coal, and its politicians are sceptical of climate change. So it doesn’t want to have a binding international obligation that will require it to go through with this.”
Coates added: “I think the Government are now scrambling to put a brave face on this. They’re going to claim that they secured a first when it comes to the climate goals and the Australia trade deal, they’ll point out that for the first time Australia has referenced the Paris Agreement in a trade deal – they haven’t done that before.
“But the truth is that the binding elements have clearly been dropped. And that that’ll happen for a reason so government sources to me talk about the commitments now being implicit, rather than legally binding an explicit.
“I suspect the opposition MP trade groups, and environmental groups will look at that important change in language, they will nevertheless still be a whole chapter on the environment in this deal, but it just doesn’t contain some of the things that environmental groups want and increasingly Australia looking like one of the bad guys when it comes to climate change.”
A government source commented: “The final text of the agreement will contain a commitment to address all the Paris climate goals – so therefore implicitly includes temperature. It’s also the first time Australia will have ever included climate provisions in a trade deal. And includes various clauses for tackling emissions and so forth.
“There is a dedicated climate chapter which includes a substantive stand-alone article on climate change, where both parties affirm their commitment to address climate change, including under UNFCCC and Paris frameworks and recognition of the importance of achieving Paris/UNFCC goals, by implication, this covers the three main goals of Paris.”