COVID-19 is a sharp reminder of why trade and climate policy matters. How can governments maintain access to critical goods and services, and ensure global supply chains function in times of crisis?
The timing of many trade negotiations is now increasingly uncertain, as are the UK’s plans to host COP26 in November. Policy work continues, however, and the EU has released its draft negotiating text for the new UK-EU trade deal, which includes a sub-chapter specifically devoted to climate.
This is a timely reminder both of the pressing need for the UK to integrate its trade and climate policymaking and to use the current crisis-induced breathing space in international negotiations - however limited - to catch up on both strategy and priorities on this critical policy intersection.
The UK government has moved fast to reset its external trade relations post-Brexit. In the past month it formally launched bilateral negotiations with the EU and took up a seat at the World Trade Organization (WTO) as an independent member. Until the COVID-19 crisis hit, negotiations were also poised to start with the US.
The UK is also in the climate spotlight as host of COP26, the most important international climate negotiation since Paris in 2015, which presents a vital opportunity for the government to show leadership by aligning its trade agenda with its climate and sustainability commitments in bold new ways.
Not just an empty aspiration
This would send a signal that ‘Global Britain’ is not just an empty aspiration, but a concrete commitment to lead.
Not only is concerted action on the climate crisis a central priority for UK citizens, a growing and increasingly vocal group of UK businesses committed to decarbonization are calling on the government to secure a more transparent and predictable international market place that supports climate action by business.
With COP26, the UK has a unique responsibility to push governments to ratchet up ambition in the national contributions to climate action – and to promote coherence between climate ambition and wider economic policymaking, including on trade. If Britain really wants to lead, here are some concrete actions it should take.
At the national level, the UK can pioneer new ways to put environmental sustainability – and climate action in particular - at the heart of its trade agenda. Achieving the government’s ambitious Clean Growth Strategy - which seeks to make the UK the global leader in a range of industries including electric cars and offshore wind – should be a central objective of UK trade policy.
The UK should re-orient trade policy frameworks to incentivize the shift toward a more circular and net zero global economy. And all elements of UK trade policy could be assessed against environmental objectives - for example, their contribution to phasing out fossil fuels, helping to reverse overexploitation of natural resources, and support for sustainable agriculture and biodiversity.
In its bilateral and regional trade negotiations, the UK can and should advance its environment, climate and trade goals in tandem, and implementation of the Paris Agreement must be a core objective of the UK trade strategy.
A core issue for the UK is how to ensure that efforts to decarbonise the economy are not undercut by imports from high-carbon producers. Here, a ‘border carbon adjustment (BCA)’ - effectively a tax on the climate pollution of imports - would support UK climate goals. The EU draft negotiating text released yesterday put the issue of BCAs front and centre, making crystal clear that the intersection of climate, environment and trade policy goals will be a central issue for UK-EU trade negotiations.
Even with the United States, a trade deal can and should still be seized as a way to incentivize the shift toward a net zero and more circular economy. At the multilateral level, as a new independent WTO member, the UK has an opportunity to help build a forward-looking climate and trade agenda.
The UK could help foster dialogue, research and action on a cluster of ‘climate and trade’ issues that warrant more focused attention at the WTO. These include the design of carbon pricing policies at the border that are transparent, fair and support a just transition; proposals for a climate waiver for WTO rules; and identification of ways multilateral trade cooperation could promote a zero carbon and more circular global economy.
To help nudge multilateral discussion along, the UK could also ask to join a critical ‘path finder’ effort by six governments, led by New Zealand, to pursue an agreement on climate change, trade and sustainability (ACCTS). This group aims to find ways forward on three central trade and climate issues: removing fossil fuel subsidies, climate-related labelling, and promoting trade in climate-friendly goods and services.
At present, the complex challenges at the intersection of climate, trade and development policy are too often used to defer or side-step issues deemed ‘too hard’ or ‘too sensitive’ to tackle. The UK could help here by working to ensure multilateral climate and trade initiatives share adjustment burdens, recognise the historical responsibility of developed countries, and do not unfairly disadvantage developing countries - especially the least developed.
Many developing countries are keen to promote climate-friendly exports as part of wider export diversification strategies and want to reap greater returns from greener global value chains. Further, small island states and least-developed countries – many of which are Commonwealth members – that are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters, need support to adapt in the face of trade shocks and to build climate-resilient, trade-related infrastructure and export sectors.
As an immediate next step, the UK should actively support the growing number of WTO members in favour of a WTO Ministerial Statement on environmental sustainability and trade. It should work with its key trading partners in the Commonwealth and beyond to ensure the agenda is inclusive, supports achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and helps developing countries benefit from a more environmentally sustainable global economy.
As the UK prepares to host COP26, negotiates deals with the EU and US, and prepares for its first WTO Ministerial meeting as an independent member, it must show it can lead the way nationally, bilaterally, and multilaterally. And to ensure the government acts, greater engagement from the UK’s business, civil society and research sectors is critical – we need all hands on deck to forge and promote concrete proposals for aligning UK trade policy with the climate ambition our world needs.