Reformed trade rules can help to save the climate

If the British government agrees to reformed trade rules, that could help the crucial climate talks it will chair in November.

New York’s Wall Street
New York’s Wall Street: Trade could help to cool the overheating Earth. Image: Anthony Quintano, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This could be the year of opportunity for the United Kingdom – and far beyond it – in securing real action on tackling the climate crisis: reformed trade rules could provide a climate dividend of the rancorous Brexit process of leaving the European Union.

Success could earn the UK government an honoured place among the politicians visionary enough to confront probably the worst threat facing humankind. Failure would damn this generation of British leaders as a lightweight irrelevance.

Barely ten months from now, in November, the British government faces a massive challenge. In the Scottish city of Glasgow it will host and chair the annual United Nations climate conference, which must breathe new energy and hope into the global climate treaty, the Paris Agreement, adopted by 197 countries in the French capital in 2015.

Paris promised much but so far has delivered little in achieving the reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases the world urgently needs. Unless the Glasgow conference (COP-26 in UN jargon – the 26th Conference of the Parties) ends with iron-clad agreement that will inexorably ensure global average temperatures stay below 1.5°C, the planet faces dangerous and perhaps irreversible climate heating.

We must shake up the economic model so that it doesn’t pay to destroy the environment.

Judith Gough, ambassador of the United Kingdom in Sweden

On the first day of 2021 the UK struck out on its own politically, leaving the EU after 47 years of membership to follow an independent route, not least on trade.

Opponents of Brexit have dismissed the move as a risky gamble. Supporters say it gives the UK the alluring prospect of trade on British terms alone. Both agree in hoping the country may now enjoy more freedom and flexibility in trade policy.

Whether or not it does, campaigners argue, Brexit could open the way to a different but immensely important goal: it could be a game-changer in Glasgow.

They are pinning their hopes on the possibility that the UK will decide to join a new green trade grouping – ACCTS, the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability, formed by six countries committed to using trade policy to support action on the climate (New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Costa Rica, Fiji and Switzerland).

If the UK does join ACCTS this year (it is an open agreement, which welcomes new members), that would send a clear message to the other members of the World Trade Organisation, its supporters believe, that post-Brexit Britain champions environmentally-sustainable trade and sees it as a potent way to strengthen action on the climate crisis.

Supporters of ACCTS say signatories are showing they back the reform of trade rules so as to give priority to the environment – a huge shift in emphasis for the global trading system. The Agreement has three main aims:

  • Liberalising trade in environmental goods and services: This means cutting tariffs on environmentally-friendly products (including, for example, wind turbines and solar panels) so they can be traded more freely and reach the countries where they are most needed, attracting investment and development. The UK already charges very low tariffs, so compliance will be simple
  • Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies: 89 per cent of global carbon emissions come from fossil fuels and industry. Yet governments continue to subsidise coal, oil and gas, pouring US$500 billion (£367bn) of public money into their production and consumption every year. The UK currently offers an estimated £10bn (US$13.6bn) of public support to fossil fuels each year, in the form of direct subsidies and tax breaks. This runs counter to all the UK’s climate goals, which instead favour funding support for renewable energy
  • Developing eco-labels for goods: This aims to develop a common way of labelling goods with information about their environmental impact, to give consumers information on which to base their decisions.


Speaking in Stockholm in March 2020 at an event to discuss climate change, trade, and sustainable development in the run-up to the Glasgow talks, Andrew Jenks, New Zealand’s ambassador to Sweden, said: “Fossil fuel subsidies are the height of policy incoherence on an issue where we cannot afford to carry on the mistakes of the past.”

From his diplomatic colleague the British ambassador, Judith Gough, there was if anything even more exuberant language for the potential offered by ACCTS: “We must shake up the economic model so that it doesn’t pay to destroy the environment”.

An active supporter of the ACCTS countries is the UK charity Traidcraft Exchange. It concludes a recent report, Getting in on the ACCTS, with these words: “In November 2020, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson announned a ten-point plan to ‘create, support and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero [greenhouse gas emissions] by 2050.’

“Joining ACCTS would strengthen these commitments, and would send a clear message about how Britain plans to use its new independent trade policy.” There will be many listeners waiting intently in Glasgow to hear that message. 

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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