‘Spineless’: Ministers ditch climate terms in Australia trade deal

The government has reportedly dumped a reference to the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals in its draft trade deal with Australia, earning the ire of politicians both here and there.

According to an email leaked to Sky News by a senior official, trade secretary Liz Truss and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng have agreed to “drop both of the climate asks” from the text. The final version will apparently contain a reference to the agreement, though not its specific temperature goals – unlike the trade deal struck with the EU.

Environmentalists were already concerned about the deal, specifically how it could allow imports of hormone-treated beef and other foods produced to lower standards than the UK, and how that might have knock-on impacts on domestic farms.

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Though it normally declines to respond to leaks, the government issued a statement that insisted the deal 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 degrees. Any suggestion the deal won’t sign up to these vital commitments is completely untrue”.

But it did not explicitly deny that the temperature commitment would be implicit, rather than explicit, in the text. It also appears to be at odds with what Morrison had to say about it himself, confirming that his government had opposed including specific temperature goals.

“It wasn’t a climate agreement, it was a trade agreement,” he told the Australian media earlier today. “In trade agreements I deal with trade issues. In climate agreements I deal with climate issues,” he said.

The demand to weaken draft agreement came after he and prime minister Boris Johnson agreed the deal’s headline terms at the G7 meeting in Cornwall this summer.

The development is significant as it cuts through the rhetoric to reveal the government’s real priorities. The UK could have stood firm, at the cost of more protracted negotiations but bolstering its status in climate diplomacy. But a quicker deal was sought instead.

Nevertheless, the outcome will allow the UK government to claim a win on climate change in advance of COP26, at the cost of reducing its meaningfulness. It is the first time that climate change has been mentioned in any trade deal agreed by Australia.

The development did not surprise David Henig, the UK director of the European Centre for International Political Economy think tank. He said that the trade policy community had been aware that the government had backed down on its previous climate change demands, though the details “will be interesting” to see.

Unlike most other developed countries, Australia has resisted making a formal commitment to net zero and continues to advocate for fossil fuels.

Only today, its resources and water minister Keith Pitt said that Australian coal would not be staying in the ground. This is despite a paper published in the scientific journal Nature yesterday saying that almost all will have to be left unextracted to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals of limiting warming to well below 2°C and attempting to limit it to 1.5°C.

He noted that Australia exports around £27bn of coal every year, and that the fuel provides two thirds of the nation’s electricity. “As our government has repeatedly stated, technology holds the key to future emissions reductions, including carbon capture and storage which can contribute to a reduction in coal-fired power station emissions by 90 per cent or more,” he insisted.

The country’s only operational CCS system, Chevron’s Gorgon project, has been plagued by delays and failures. It is facing a fine put at around £72m for operating far below a mandated performance threshold, capturing around 30% of its targeted emissions.

Pitt’s predecessor Matt Canavan, another noted coal enthusiast, welcomed the trade deal reversal as a recognition that Australia is “no longer a colony of the UK. The UK does not get to decide what policies are put in place here in Australia.”

But far from every Australian politician is so enthusiastically pro coal. Zali Steggall, a lawyer and former Olympic skier who defeated former prime minister Tony Abbott on a climate change platform in 2019, said that the UK government had been “spineless” in bowing in to pressure from the Morrison government. “That’s not what leadership looks like,” she added, referencing how it looks in advance of the COP26 talks in Glasgow.

Despite a notorious speech in London four years ago, in which Abbott said acting on climate change was like “killing goats to appease volcano gods”, he was named as a trade adviser to the UK government last year. Any role he may have played in removing the temperature references from the deal has not been disclosed.

Climate Change Committee chair Lord Deben, himself a former Conservative environment secretary, condemned the government’s decision in an interview with Sky News, saying that the government had reneged on its promises by making the deal “woolly and uncertain” on climate.

“If we're not prepared to hang our hat on the Paris Agreement, to which we have put our solemn promise, and which we have put by law into action in this country, when we are dealing with Australia, which is one of the recalcitrant nations, one of the countries that's not doing what it ought to do, then really we are not taking the lead at all and to do this at a time before COP26 is very serious.”

As a major coal exporter, mining about 8% of the world’s thermal and metallurgical coal, he went on to say that Australia is “destroying your climate and my climate and they have to come back to the world stage and work with the rest of us”.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband joined the condemnation on Twitter. “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. This greenwashing government cannot be trusted on climate,” he wrote.

Green MP Caroline Lucas said the reversal, “rips the heart out of the Paris Agreement. Worse, it's done in secret. This is face of 'Global Britain' - lower standards to get deals.”

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