A campaign group has taken the first step towards legal action against the UK government over its free trade deal with Australia, arguing that it flouts Britain’s international climate obligations.
Global Feedback, a UK and Netherlands-based group, said it would seek a judicial review, claiming ministers failed to carry out proper due diligence on the environmental impact of importing Australian agricultural products, such as beef and dairy.
The move is the latest in a series of legal actions taken by campaigners against the government on environmental grounds. One recent successful case in the High Court forced the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to rewrite its net zero strategy.
The UK-Australia trade deal, signed in December 2021, was regarded as Britain’s first post-Brexit agreement negotiated “from scratch”. But critics argue it was rushed through to meet arbitrary targets set by then trade secretary Liz Truss, leaving the UK in a worse negotiating position.
Former environment secretary George Eustice said last November that the deal “gave away far too much for far too little in return”. He had previously urged former prime minister Boris Johnson to avoid repeating the one-sided concessions made to Australia in UK trade negotiations with India.
Global Feedback claimed the deal did not take into account the fact that Australian cattle and dairy industries are likely more carbon intensive than their UK equivalents, and called the government’s impact assessment “inadequate”.
A government-commissioned independent report by former food adviser Henry Dimbleby in 2021 suggested that the carbon footprint of Australian beef was 50 per cent higher than UK beef.
“The deal is poised to flood the UK market with Australian beef, sheep meat and dairy,” said Carina Millstone, executive director of Feedback.
“We want the government to listen to experts and establish once and for all whether this trade deal — and others — will support our national climate pledges and global responsibilities under the Paris Agreement or fatally undermine them,” she said.
The Paris Agreement is an international accord signed by 196 parties with the goal of limiting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
In a letter seen by the Financial Times, Feedback called on the government to publish any additional analysis and information on which the decision to sign the deal was based.
The letter, sent on Thursday and addressed to the chancellor and the secretary of state for international trade, asked for an environmental impact assessment of the deal and threatened to bring formal legal action if the government failed to do so.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said the government had “missed the opportunity to reach a genuinely innovative and world-class FTA with Australia”.
“This FTA simply opens up UK agricultural markets for Australian produce, whether or not produced to the same environmental and climate-friendly standards that are expected of UK farmers,” she said.
This is not the first time an NGO has threatened legal action against the government over climate obligations. Last year, the High Court ruled the government’s plan for reaching zero emissions was unlawful due to a lack of detail.
A spokesperson for the government said it “does not comment on legal proceedings”. They added: “The UK is a global leader on climate action, and we continue to uphold our high environmental standards in our free trade agreements.”
“We have agreed an ambitious environment chapter with Australia which affirms our shared commitment to the Paris Agreement — the first time Australia has done this in a trade deal — as well as strengthening co-operation on a range of environmental issues.”
Additional reporting by Judith Evans