UK government faces legal action over Australian Free Trade Agreement

25th May 23 by Christina O'Sullivan

The government must ensure all trade deals work towards emissions reduction targets rather than towards catastrophic heating.

We’ve launched a formal legal challenge against the UK government over inadequate assessment of the environmental impacts of the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement. The deal gives Australian producers significant access to the UK market to sell beef, lamb and mutton and dairy.  Represented by law firm Leigh Day, we previously sent a legal letter to Environment Secretary Therese Coffey. The response received was unsatisfactory, and so Leigh Day filed a claim form at the Administrative Court, signalling the start of the process for judicial review of the impact assessment of the deal.

The government suggested data uncertainties made drawing conclusions on the emissions impact of the trade deal difficult, choosing not to apply an internationally recognised methodology to ascertain livestock emissions – the ‘gold standard’ methodology according to experts from the Institute of Environmental Science at Leiden University. As these same experts demonstrate, a consistent application of that methodology would have shown considerable difference in the climate impacts of livestock produced in the UK and Australia.

Experts clearly state that the impact of the Free Trade Agreement on overall emissions will have a material impact on international climate targets. Globally agricultural emissions alone are enough to breach 1.5 and even 2 degrees of warming this century. This is in line with evidence from the government’s former advisor on food, Henry Dimbleby, who found that Australian beef had greater emissions intensity and a considerably larger deforestation footprint than beef produced in the UK. The UK government is bound by various legal and international obligations to take climate change, biodiversity and emissions reduction into account when setting policies.

The government has recklessly sacrificed both British farmers and the climate in a rush for post-Brexit headlines. At a time of crisis in food and farming, the government must ensure all trade deals work towards our emissions reduction targets rather than towards further catastrophic heating.” Carina Millstone, Executive Director of Feedback

The impact assessment also fails to quantify the carbon impact of any changes to domestic UK meat and dairy consumption. Cheaper Australian goods were touted as one of the key benefits of the agreement for the UK. Australia’s biggest cattle farmer suggested that the trade deal could result in Australian beef exports to the UK rising tenfold. The greater availability of cheap meat on UK supermarket shelves and in the food service industry will increase consumption , undermining recommendations from both the independent review of the National Food Strategy, commissioned by the government in 2019, and the Climate Change Committee (CCC), that substantial reductions in meat and dairy are essential to tackle climate change. The legal challenge will test whether the government has adequately assessed the impact of this trade agreement and in doing so risks the UK’s capacity to deliver on Net Zero targets.  This has important implications for future trade deals.

“The meat industry is one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis by sector, and one of the biggest winners from this Free Trade Agreement. Our client’s scientific evidence shows that Australian beef is far more damaging for the climate than UK beef, yet tens of thousands of tonnes of it will be imported tariff free as a result of this deal. The legislation implementing the new tariff rules was, our client will argue, based on an impact assessment, which completely ignored that science. It is argued that this irrationality renders the statutory instrument unlawful, and our client is asking the Court to quash it.”  Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith

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