To achieve zero carbon, Britain needs to rethink its trade policy

To achieve net-zero targets, the UK needs global trade to be smaller, shorter, and slower.

A placard with text reading "There is no planet B"

As Brexit negotiations continue and the UK makes trade agreements with countries such as Vietnam, Japan and Singapore, it’s an important time to reflect on UK trade policy in the context of achieving zero carbon trade.

There is no doubt that trade can be beneficial. It has, for one, helped lift many people out of immediate poverty. However, the social and environmental costs of trade are often overlooked.

Climate hit

While domestic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have fallen in some EU countries (including the UK), global emissions due to industrial processes, transport and manufacturing and construction have increased by 174% – 71% and 55% respectively. Additionally, roughly one-third of global emissions are embodied in goods and services that are traded internationally. 

Transport associated with trade equates to 36 million tonnes of carbon emissions, and UK exports are twice as likely to be air freighted compared to Germany. Shockingly, Ireland is the only country in the EU which exports a higher percentage via air.

It is not difficult to realise that trade agreements with countries further afield, outside of the EU, will contain more ‘embedded’ emissions through longer journeys. The UK’s overall trade carbon footprint is estimated at 20 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year for imports and 10.6 million tonnes for exports. This figure is far more significant with the rest of the world than with the European Union.

Jet zero delusions?

While Boris Johnson’s race to “jet zero” – zero carbon flights – would have huge implications on the UK’s trade carbon footprint, experts have called jet zero “severely underfunded” and long-haul electric or hydrogen planes are unlikely before the middle of the century, which will be too late.

Despite the direct impact of trade on carbon dioxide emissions, it is excluded from negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and is not included in the Paris Agreement.

Highlighting the issue, the Green House Think Tank has proposed a Zero Carbon Trade and Investment Toolkit which suggests three trade policy interventions to achieve zero carbon: reducing the scale of trade and material consumption; localising supply chains; and, when possible, shipping goods rather than airfreighting.

Eliminating ‘pointless trade’

This starts with addressing ‘pointless trade’ – like-for-like trade and does little for wellbeing – which is bereft of environmental considerations. The tendency to ‘buy low, sell high’ in exports and imports is driven by a consistent trade deficit.

As it stands, the UK exports more scrap steel to Turkey than it re-melts each year. Eidence suggests that the UK would likely meet its steel demand from domestic scrap. If blast furnaces were replaced by regional electric arc furnaces, the UK could be self-sufficient in steel which would decarbonise one of the UK’s largest polluters.

Similarly, 125,000 tonnes of salmon were exported last year compared to 101,000 tonnes which were imported. This made up some 74% of the UK’s fish-trade carbon footprint. 

If Britain could supply domestic markets first and move exports from air to sea, we could reduce transport emissions by 300-400 thousand tonnes for salmon alone. Eliminating pointless trade and ending the airfreight of fish would reduce our fish-trade carbon footprint by 90%.

By the same token, the UK imported over 430,000 more tonnes of apples and pears than it exported in 2019, despite having a perfectly capable climate for growth. To reach zero carbon in the food sector we must stop airfreighting fruit and vegetables by changing the types of products we import or import them as juice, dried or canned so they can be shipped.

Reforming clothing trade

The UK’s clothing’s trade footprint is another area that needs to be looked at. Sourcing textiles for disposable fashion is incompatible with a zero-carbon world. We must therefore encourage fewer, higher quality garments produced locally or imported by shipping. As such, clothing should be designed to modify, repair and adapt which could be achieved by introducing mandatory five, ten, or 15-year guarantees or introducing a ‘Right to Repair’ with manufacturers obligated to repair.

If we are to be successful in tackling climate change, we must also stop constructing things which will burn fossil fuels, such as gas power stations or gas heating systems. This could be achieved by only approving planning applications which are zero-carbon compatible, offering state support for a transition of workers and retrofitting high carbon assets.

Replace GDP with wellbeing

In addition to transforming business, the government must change the rules of the game by replacing GDP with wellbeing, reforming the UK Treasury’s Green Book to compare greenhouse gas implications and cost, and require businesses with a turnover above £1m to have a carbon audit and ‘Road to Carbon Zero Plan’.

Lastly, government subsidies to aviation must be phased out and emissions taxed to discourage consumers and incentivise manufacturers to offer low-carbon alternatives.

The current global economic, trading and material system strengthens the inertia of ‘business as usual’. However, to achieve net-zero we must advocate a shift to smaller, slower and shorter global trade.

Ed Sawyer is a campaign and communications professional, podcast editor and part-time MSc student in Public Policy.

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