Politics Analysis

UK Trade Agreement a climate disaster

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Minister Sussan Ley is eager to fast-track government projects at the expense of the environment (Image by Dan Jensen)

The promises and intent on the climate and environmental crisis given at COP26 are slowly melting away like the Arctic ice under rising temperatures.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement which was signed before the text of 32 chapters and thousands of pages were released. The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) pointed out there was no independent assessment of the true social, environmental, health and economic costs and benefits of this agreement before it was ratified.

At COP26, it was decided that:

‘The purpose of the Forests, Agriculture and Commodity Trade dialogue is to promote sustainable development and trade of agricultural commodities while protecting and managing sustainably forests and other critical ecosystems.’

Both the UK and Australia had signed the agreement and the UK indicated it would restrict the import of agricultural commodities that are linked to illegal deforestation or that infringe laws on land tenure in the country of origin of the commodity.

These fine words were conveniently sidelined in the Australia-UK Trade Agreement by a much greater need — Mr Johnson's wish to demonstrate that Brexit had bestowed on him a world leadership exemplified by trade instead of what he saw as paltry pickings from working within the EC. The background to this was detailed in Double Standards by Dr Binoy Kampmark.

Intent to link the deal to climate warming or environmental degradation was therefore scuttled much to the satisfaction of the Australian Government for Australia’s Trade Minister had said:

“We like our free trade agreements to actually be about free trade and multilateral environmental agreements is where you negotiate emissions reductions.”

Simultaneously, Australia’s similar negotiations with Europe remained unresolved over the same environmental issues, with Australia threatened by tariffs to encourage appropriate environmental and climate policies.

The UK Trade Agreement is a disaster for the environment because beef production is linked to recent extensive land clearing in Queensland and parts of New South Wales and in turn, is related to the corruption of Australian democracy by partnering with corporate capitalism.

Cattle farmers in Australia collectively run 28 million cattle in a country of 25 million people. Australia is desperate to export them and the Trade Agreement is compliant. Sheep meat is also included in the Trade Agreement, but sheep are raised mainly in the more temperate climate of southern states on land cleared many decades ago.

Australian cattle will arrive in the UK to the detriment of the Australian environment and to the concerns of farmers in the UK who have high production standards.

Land clearing and deforestation in Australia

The land clearing for expansion of cattle rearing by landholders in Queensland during the year 2018-19 was 680,688 hectares of woody vegetation, or about 0.7% of Queensland’s total land. Laws were passed to reduce land clearing but satellite studies show that it continues with the loss of wildlife and biodiversity in general.

In the WWF’s list of global deforestation hotspots, 3% of the forest area in eastern Australia, which includes Queensland, was lost between 2004 and 2017. Australia is the only developed country in the WWF list of hotspots.

Despite the facts, Australia continues to green-wash its environmental credentials.

We joined the international High Ambition Coalition of countries committed to conserving 30% of the world’s land and sea in order to halt the loss of biodiversity.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has claimed:

“Australia is a frontrunner when it comes to taking action to conserve our biodiversity.” 

At COP26, more than 100 countries including Australia signed a declaration to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. As yet, there is no evidence that this is being honoured in Australia. In NSW, logging of pristine forest continues and in Victoria, there is ongoing logging in the forests which are the catchments for Melbourne’s water supply.

Australia’s biodiversity is deteriorating rapidly as evidenced in government reports and those from independent organisations such as the annual Environmental Explorer Report from the Australian National University. Land clearing and logging continue by dint of weak environmental laws and government ideology that economic success overrides all other considerations.

In the 2021 review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), this ideology became apparent with the Government’s main interest in the words of Environment Minister Sussan Ley: “It will allow projects to be fast-tracked.” The projects are huge coal, gas and oil developments.

In addition to their role as the main cause of climate warming, fossil fuel developments cause environmental degradation, land clearing, habitat loss and accentuate water scarcity in many arid regions. Weak regulation is needed to deliver Australia’s resource development.

Fossil fuel industries have a tight hold on government thinking, policy and assistance. Their false statements and lobbyists are spread far and wide to devalue science and influence media judgment, community opinion and, most importantly, the views of elected representatives at the heart of government.

The evidence suggests the morphing of government with powerful industrial interests and the corruption of democracy is far advanced. The resulting weak national and state environmental laws greatly facilitate resource development. This weakness is utilised for agricultural expansion.

The situation is summarised in a recent visionary report from the legal team at the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) which notes:

‘EPAs in Australia are currently primarily focused on supporting industry to operate through licensing environmental impacts, with industry being considered their “customers” in the business of environmental regulation. Standard setting and enforcement action by EPAs is similarly industry or polluter focused.’

The future?

Climate change and the environment are intertwined crises. Current international resolve on climate is so weak that a 3-degree Celsius temperature rise this century is likely, which will have huge impacts on our already degraded environment. Stabilising our environment is therefore an urgent part of climate adaptation and resilience. Yet it takes the likely demise of the koala, with the economic consequences for tourism, to bring government action. There is little recognition that hundreds of species vital for human welfare are becoming threatened simultaneously.

Does Labor have resolve? Policy enunciated in 2021 included an ‘Environment Protection Agency: a strong cop on the beat that is genuinely independent of the Government, [that] will report to the Parliament...’. A similar policy intended for the 2019 Election evaporated under progressive climate warming.

The question is whether Labor has the understanding and ability to disrupt government morphing to powerful interests and rescue democracy on a journey to environmental enlightenment.

Dr David Shearman AM is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University, a member of The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) and the co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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