Johnson's trade plans are monkeying around with our environment

From pig farming to climate change, the government is talking itself up even as it ignores the gathering threats and undermines global action in the name of ‘free trade’.

Craig head shot high res.jpg
Craig Bennett
4 September 2019, 3.12pm
Giannis Alexopoulos/NurPhoto/PA Images

Last month, as Zac Goldsmith MP announced Government plans to ban people from owning primates as pets, environmentalists around the UK pricked up their ears. This move to end the trade in animal suffering was a heart-warming moment of good news in the recent morass of political doom. Was it to herald a new dawn in progressive, environmentally responsible legislation? An avalanche of policy outlining a new direction for a new net-zero UK after Brexit? A wide ranging strategy for sustainable global trade?

Nope. And with the current parliamentary chaos, we could be waiting a long time for even this step towards more humane trade to make it onto the statute books.

But we haven’t seen the last of the monkeys. A look back over the first month of the new cabinet offers several hints about the UK’s future approach to trade and industry that could well have been drafted by the three monkeys of myth...

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See no evil

When it comes to pollution, illegal dumping, and environmental destruction, successive governments have closed their eyes and pretended everything is OK. But as recent research from Unchecked has shown, everything is very much not OK. From multinationals to individual rogue traders, we’re ignoring businesses that ignore rules.

Environment Minister Theresa Villiers was quick to avert her gaze from the impact of the recent 62% decline in Environment Agency funding to monitor the health of protected UK natural habitats – 71% of which are now in poor condition, it emerged recently. If you’re ‘seeing no evil’, it’s easy to champion the 25-year Environment Plan as “hugely ambitious”, and label the awaited Environment Bill “ground-breaking” while ignoring the problems facing nature. It’s this myopia that has allowed successive leaders to champion the 40% cut in UK emissions since 1990 as evidence of dramatic improvement – ignoring the offshoring of production this figure represents.

This blinkered monkey asks us to ignore daily corporate environmental and social harms, from mining companies leaking poisonous metals into rivers and rogue traders dumping refuse on our land to international scandals like BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It’s celebrating government ambitions and voluntary business action over and above real regulation - while ignoring the iceberg of environmental destruction beneath the surface.

Hear no evil

Governments globally have been busy refusing to hear evil for a long time. Despite incontrovertible evidence that the climate crisis and biological destruction are being hastened by our own actions - including over-consumption – too many governments, including the UK, have been ignoring alarm bells.

But Brexit has made everything worse. Crashing out of the EU without the correct legal structures, processes, and policies in place is the worst possible course for a nation committed to net zero and fighting the climate emergency, as multiple studies have confirmed. Yet Johnson isn’t just pursuing it – he’s also chasing rushed new trading relationships that threaten to compound the damage.

And there are other messages aside from climate change that we have wilfully not heard. As an EU member, the UK could ignore reports of the harms caused by international trade (including human rights abuses, land-grabbing and deforestation) – and merely lay the blame with the EU for not challenging these systems.

That excuse is no longer an option – but no one has told Trade Secretary Liz Truss. She’s been dutifully ignoring Trump’s disavowal of climate action agreed at Paris, and Malaysian PM Mahathir’s description of EU action on unsustainable palm oil as ‘misguided’. She’s been hearing ‘huge cheese market’ when she should have heard ‘undermining international climate action’. As fires burned across the Amazon, she sent junior minister Conor Burns to launch a new £20m programme promoting UK-Brazil trade.

Speak no evil

One thing this government doesn’t seem afraid of is talking itself up. Every press conference finds a new face to spout promises of the UK becoming a global climate leader, and government ‘leaving the environment in a better state’.

How many times have we been told Brexit will not harm our environment, import standards will not drop, and consumers will be protected in new trade deals? None of these have been guaranteed in legislation. Updated for the modern age, the silent monkey tells our government that chatter is fine – but firm guarantees are not.

At the same time, the silent monkey advises civil society to shut up about deregulation and environmental protection. Seeking ‘great’, ‘easy’ trade deals, this monkey puts his hands over the mouths of anti-fracking protestors, reminds them that it is not their place to challenge the international investment protections that would allow foreign companies to challenge future regulation of the industry. He silences communities on the Irish border, already fighting industrial pig farms that threaten to cover their fields in slurry – reminding them that there is money to be made from exporting pork to China, regardless of the impacts on their land.

Our government doesn’t want to see the damage it is causing. It doesn’t want to hear about the evidence and the harms. And it doesn’t want to talk about the solutions.

We need a new monkey

For the UK to be a credible environmental leader, we must pioneer a new approach. One in which we don’t shy away from regulation at home and in our trading partners. One in which we acknowledge that protections, knowledge of where standards aren’t met, and holding people to account for environmental damage, aren’t barriers to business, but rather, hallmarks of good government. One in which evidence of environmental harm and environmental ambitions are carefully considered ahead of any possible trade negotiations – and no deals are struck until environmental considerations have been discussed and problems averted.

In one of her last acts as Prime Minister, Theresa May pledged that the UK would achieve ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050. But the government is pursuing post-Brexit trade agreements with new partners: USA, Australia and the Trans-Pacific region. It’s why this week’s APPG for Trade Justice is important. I, and others, will explore how trade affects the environment, and the UK’s net-zero target and post-Brexit trade policy. We need a new maxim – not just ‘do no evil’ but to craft a future climate, nature and equity driven approach to trade that actively works for good.

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