A post-Brexit shift in trade links away from the UK’s EU neighbours to far-flung partners like Australia, China and the US could almost double Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions from shipping, according to new analysis released on the eve of a crucial climate change summit.
With just two days to go to the opening of the United Nations Cop26 gathering hosted by Boris Johnson in Glasgow, Friends of the Earth said that the findings amounted to further proof that the government was “missing the mark on all counts” over the climate implications of its trade policies.
The prime minister has made new “Global Britain” trade deals a centrepiece of his Brexit strategy, arguing that leaving the EU’s customs union leaves the UK free to forge partnerships with fast-growing parts of the world economy. Trade deals have been struck with Australia, New Zealand and Japan and the UK is seeking membership of the CPTPP trade bloc of Pacific nations.
But the new analysis by the UK Trade and Business Commission found that replacing EU trade lost since 2018 with imports and exports from more distant countries would increase annual emissions from UK-linked shipping by 88 per cent.
The release of an additional 6.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year by container ships making long voyages around the globe with goods for the UK market and exports to overseas customers would be the equivalent of 44,000 transatlantic flights, found the director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, Professor Paul Ekins.
Offsetting the emissions would require planting a new forest the size of Northern Ireland.
The cross-party, cross-industry Commission said that the issue cast doubt on the government’s commitment to climate action, just as Mr Johnson pleads with the international community to halve carbon emissions by 2050 in the hope of limiting warming to 1.5C.
Green Party MP and Commission member Caroline Lucas said: “This would be a staggering increase in emissions – and one entirely driven by this government’s ideological opposition to the European single market.
“Time is running out in the race for our future, yet the government is taking us further down the track towards climate chaos, rather than comprehensively decarbonising our economy in line with climate science and demonstrating authoritative global leadership in advance of the UN climate summit in Glasgow next week.”
And Friends of the Earth trade expert Kierra Box told The Independent: “A map of the globe isn’t needed to note that chasing trade deals with countries as distant as Australia will increase climate costs of transporting goods all the way back here.”
She added: “But it’s not just transport emissions. With crunch climate talks starting in a matter of hours, the government should be adamant that UK imports aren’t responsible for destroying forests, polluting waterways or perpetuating the burning of more fossil fuels overseas. It’s not just about distance, it is also standards, and climate ambition. And the government has missed the mark here on all counts.
“A real commitment to the aims of climate talks would have seen the UK prioritise support for sustainable farming here, invest in relationships with nations sharing similar high standards to the UK, and prioritise trade talks with nations that meet or exceed their commitments under the Paris Agreement – rather than those trailing the pack by a very long way.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, trade in goods between the UK and EU fell by 23.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period of 2018. Over the same period, trade with other countries fell by just 0.8 per cent, suggesting that the change was due to Brexit rather than the Covid pandemic.
This equates to around 45.5m tonnes of goods, according to the Commission’s calculations. Moving the same weight of cargo to and from the UK’s five largest non-EU trading partners would increase the carbon footprint of UK shipping by 88 per cent – at a rate of 16.14g of carbon for moving each tonne of goods 1km by container ship.
Prof Ekins said: “It’s quite simple, the farther you need to move goods, other things being equal, the more emissions you create and so increasing our carbon footprint is pretty much baked into increasing trade with countries like Australia and the US over countries in Europe.
“To avoid this outcome, the government should look at ways to improve trading arrangements with EU nations, so that we trade with EU nations where this makes sense from a combined commercial and environmental perspective.”
The report came as the Office for Budget Responsibility found that Brexit barriers to trade will reduce UK prosperity by more than Covid-19 over the longer term, inflicting a 4 per cent hit on GDP, compared to an estimated 2 per cent “scarring” from the pandemic.
Commission chair and Labour MP Hilary Benn said:“This projection from the UK’s fiscal watchdog chimes exactly with what we’ve been hearing from industry experts and business leaders for the last six months. The government’s wilful obsession with making trade with the EU more difficult will leave us poorer and we will be picking up the pieces for many years to come.
“As with any recovery process, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. Ministers must stop using the pandemic as an excuse, acknowledge these findings, and work with business to improve their bad deal.”
Naomi Smith, chief executive of internationalist pressure group Best for Britain, which provides the secretariat of the UK Trade and Business Commission, said:
“The government needs to come clean and admit that the two possible outcomes from their current strategy involve either massively increasing our carbon footprint or failing to replace the trade they lost, meaning less business, fewer jobs and lower incomes across the UK.
“If they can move past dogma, the way forward is clear. We need to rebuild trade with Europe by improving the government’s dud deal and the UK Trade and Business Commission has made 64 proposals on how to do just that.”
A government spokesperson said: “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.
“Our independent trade policy takes a bold, comprehensive approach to environmental issues and we continue to work with our partners to tackle climate change – including at Cop26 next month.”