Campaigners have challenged the UK government over its assessment of an imminent free trade agreement with Australia, which critics say ignored the full climate impact of meat farming and consumption.
NGO Feedback has launched a formal legal challenge against the UK government, arguing that it risked flouting its international climate obligations by not properly assessing the environmental impacts of the deal.
The UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which enters into force at the end of the month, gives Australian producers better access to the UK market to sell beef, lamb and dairy.
Agreeing the deal in 2021, the UK government said Australia shared domestic “beliefs in high standards in areas such as animal welfare and the environment” and maintained that the deal would uphold these.
Brexit dash for deals
But critics believe it was passed in haste and risks undercutting UK producers with food that does more damage to the environment.
Carina Millstone, executive director of Feedback, said the UK government had recklessly sacrificed both British farmers and the climate in a rush for positive headlines after the UK left the European Union and faced accusations that it was now globally isolated.
“At a time of crisis in food and farming,” she said “the government must ensure all trade deals work towards our emissions reduction targets rather than towards further catastrophic heating.”
A government impact assessment of the free trade agreement suggested there would be an increase in transport-related greenhouse gas emissions as more goods are moved between Australia and the UK.
They estimated that increase would be 0.1-0.3 MtCo2 a year, about the annual emissions of Liechenstein.
Claims of uncertainty
But it said data uncertainties on the emissions impact of farming, particularly of beef, made drawing conclusions on these emissions difficult.
Campaigners instead point to a 2021 independent review of the UK’s national food strategy. It used a 2020 study in Global Environmental Change to conclude that carbon emissions from UK beef was 30kg Co2/kg compared to 45kg Co2e/kg from Australian beef.
The authors of that study found that these differences between different countries were “largely attributable to deforestation for grazing lands and higher methane emissions from…belching”.
Campaigners said the food strategy clearly shows that the free trade agreement will have a material impact on the UK’s legally binding climate targets.
They also say the impact assessment fails to quantify the carbon impact of any changes to overall 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.
However, Feedback says the greater availability of cheap meat on UK supermarket shelves and in the food service industry will increase the amount that gets eaten.
This would go against recommendations from both national food strategy review and those of the UK’s advisory Climate Change Committee that substantial reductions in meat and dairy are essential to tackle climate change.
Feedback sent a letter to environment secretary Thérèse Coffey last year, warning that it was prepared to take legal action, and said the response it received was unsatisfactory.
Rowan Smith, a solicitor for law firm Leigh Day which is representing Feedback in the case, said they would be arguing that the legislation implementing the new tariff rules was based on an impact assessment that completely ignored the science.
“It is argued that this irrationality renders the statutory instrument unlawful, and our client is asking the court to quash it,” he said.
The government would not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.