This CPTPP trade deal will hurt the climate, and for what?

Posted on April 03, 2023
Kemi Badenoch  Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of United Kingdom listens as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during his weekly Cabinet meeting in 10 Downing Street.

Yesterday the government did two things that have important implications for the environment and biodiversity. It released close to 30,000 pages of plans for meeting its net-zero targets and signed an agreement in principle to join a giant Pacific trade deal.

Besides the day they were launched, the government has done very little to connect the two events, yet the trade deal could undermine its climate ambitions.

The Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) comprises 11 countries, including Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Chile and Peru. The economic gains for the UK are tiny: under official forecasts accession is expected to add 0.08 per cent to GDP “in the long run”, or ten to fifteen years’ time. That is the equivalent of £27.73 — about ten cups of coffee — per person per year. The UK already has bilateral agreements with nine CPTPP states, further reducing the benefits of joining.

Yet the government’s assessment predicts that greenhouse gas emissions will increase as a result of joining. While the increase is small, at 0.025 per cent, we know from urgent IPCC warnings that anything less than lining up all major policies behind a massive, rapid reduction will lead to further catastrophic climate damage.

Not only has the government said nothing about how it plans to mitigate this outcome, it appears to have capitulated to Malaysia’s demand to lower tariffs on palm oil to zero, which could increase deforestation, undermine community land rights and threaten habitats for species like orangutans.

The government likes to point to the environment chapter in the CPTPP, claiming it is ground-breaking. It is certainly more detailed than similar provisions in other agreements, but it does not address a fundamental problem: the economic provisions in the agreement are binding and enforceable while the environmental provisions are not. Commitments to maintain environmental standards can only be enforced if it can be shown that lowering standards was done “in order to encourage trade or investment between the parties”, something that is notoriously difficult to prove.

Not only can member states challenge each others’ policy or practices, international investors are provided with a mechanism to sue governments directly. This is called investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS), which has led to governments shelling out millions, if not billions, to defend their policy decisions. The British company Rockhopper was recently awarded £210 million against Italy, which had banned the exploitation of oil and gas within 12 nautical miles of its coastline.

Rockhopper had invested about £30 million in the project and has proudly declared that the remaining cash will allow them to extract even more oil, off the coast of the Falkland Islands. Despite these damaging climate impacts, the UK has signed up to ISDS with all CPTPP members except New Zealand and Australia, both of whom want to distance themselves from the provisions.

Despite these and many other concerns, it is unlikely the agreement will be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny. That’s why I have signed a letter alongside eight other organisations including Global Justice Now and the RSPCA calling for a halt to the accession process.

We were deeply troubled by the government’s approach to the UK’s first independent trade agreement with Australia. Despite assurances that agreements would not pass without a debate in parliament, no debate was given during the time allotted under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. The CPTPP announcement also comes as the Commons international trade committee is disbanded, reducing parliamentary capacity for scrutiny.

It is now critical that the UK halts accession to this deal and rethinks its approach to trade so that UK policy is fully aligned with commitments on climate and the environment, and processes for public engagement and parliamentary scrutiny have been overhauled.

This opinion piece by Ruth Bergan originally appeared in the Times on 3 April 2023.

Ruth Bergan is Director of the Trade Justice Movement and tweets at @RuthBergan


Image: Kemi Badenoch, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of United Kingdom listens as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during his weekly Cabinet meeting in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street (CC BY 2.0)