Any new trade deal that features 'less climate concern' will simply allow polluting foreign companies to undercut greener UK rivals
Some arguments are so mind-bendingly ill-conceived they remain impervious to logic, reason, or evidence, indestructibly shambling across the economic and political landscape leaving a trail of confusion and destruction in their wake. They are sometimes referred to as zombie myths, which is very unfair on zombies, because as every horror movie aficionado will tell you it is pretty easy to dispatch a zombie with a bit of cunning and brute force. Perhaps vampire arguments is a more appropriate moniker. With a veneer of sophistication these hypotheses swoop around the world for centuries, sucking the life out of economies and political discourse as they go.
The prime example, given another outing this weekend thanks to photographs of civil service documents conveniently handed to The Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday, is the idea that environmental protection and economic success are mutually exclusive, rather than mutually reinforcing.
Tens of thousands of years ago you could probably find a hunter arguing with a gatherer that they could kill more aurochs if only they were allowed to cut down the big tree that provides shade and shelter to the tribe. Numerous millennia on, and we find ourselves having the same deathless arguments, despite centuries of evidence that economic success is built on careful husbanding of natural resources and a complete reliance on underlying ecosystem services.
The crux of this weekend's stories is, in fact, staggeringly boring. Via the old, and cynics might say convenient, Whitehall standard of papers carelessly spied on a train, photos emerged of documents belonging to an unnamed Department for International Trade civil servant. They purport to show notes for a speech from Tim Hitchens, the director-general of economic and consular affairs at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), suggesting consulates will have to change their priorities as the Brexit process continues.
"You have a crucial role to play in posts in implementing our new approach to prosperity against the huge changes stemming from last year's Brexit vote," the notes state. "Trade and growth are now priorities for all posts - you will all need to prioritise developing capability in this area. Some economic security-related work like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be scaled down."
There is absolutely nothing surprising or untoward here. Following the EU referendum the FCO was always going to shift its focus towards securing trade deals and a short term economic boost for the UK as it navigates the treacherous waters of breaking up with its largest single market. It is less than ideal, but the UK government has finite resources and embassies' focus was always going to change, creating winners and losers in the process - such is one of the unfortunate side effects of Brexit. And as the FCO was quick to point out yesterday, engagement with climate change and tackling illegal wildlife trade will not be axed altogether. "Our commitment to both issues is as strong as ever," a spokesperson insisted.
However, what is deeply concerning for anyone who cares about the green economy and global climate action is the heavily spun headline The Sunday Times put on the story and the anonymous Whitehall briefing that encouraged such spin.
"'Less climate concern' key to Brexit trade," the headline trumpeted, while failing to make it clear where the words 'less climate concern' had come from. Below the article offered an insight into the thinking of 'Whitehall sources'. "Hitchens was unavailable for comment but Whitehall sources said the change of emphasis will make it easier to sign trade deals with countries in Latin America and Africa," the story read. "At the moment, trade and aid arrangements with these countries can get bogged down with clauses that put environmental protections ahead of economic prosperity."
This is, in reality, a rather narrow if extremely wrong-headed point about how it would be easier to sign a trade deal with the likes of Brazil if we did not give a toss about whether South American beef or biofuel contributed to the destruction of the world's largest rainforest. But thanks to the headline it can be spun into the wider, and no less wrong-headed idea, that climate concern will hamper UK trade and environmental protections should not be put "ahead of economic prosperity".
There are two reasons why this argument, which continues to circulate on the now influential extremist fringe of the Conservative Party, makes so little sense.
Firstly, compelling evidence that climate action and environmental protection is a genuine obstacle to economic prosperity is simply non-existent. We know this to be true, because if it did exist there would be countless vested interests who, like a curious commuter with a camera, would make sure it was distributed far and wide.
In contrast, there are countless historic examples from Easter Island through to the Communist bloc states where economies have been pushed to the brink of collapse and beyond by an absence of environmental protection.
More recently, as evidenced by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit's important new report today there is more and more data to show economic growth is in no way compromised by deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Regardless of what anonymous Whitehall sources think, most emerging economies understand this. They know that the only path to long term development is sustainable, clean development. Hence the fact every country in the world has signed up to the Paris Agreement. Hence the fact environmental protections in Latin and South America have been driven in large part by domestic governments and popular movements.
Secondly, the idea the UK would benefit from signing quick and dirty trade deals with non-EU states that deliberately eschew environmental protections is, if anything, even more stupid.
The reality is the UK can no doubt find some reckless countries who would welcome a trade deal that contains negligible environmental standards, with Donald Trump's America at the head of the queue, but what would happen then? The EU has already made it clear that it regards the continuation of EU-quality environmental and social standards an absolutely non-negotiable component of any new trade deal between the UK and its largest market. If we want such a deal (and for reasons of economic stability, we really do) those standards, covering everything from renewable energy to air quality and habitat protection to recycling, will have to remain in place.
Even if the Brexiteer extremists get their way and there is no such deal and we crash out of the EU, the British public are absolutely clear they do not want a watering down of environmental standards. Even a salesman of Dr Liam Fox's undoubted abilities will struggle to explain why products containing toxic chemicals or dirtier air are actually a price worth paying for UK 'independence'.
Consequently, any new trade deal that features 'less climate concern' is simply a mechanism for enabling free-riding by businesses in the countries that take advantage of the UK's weakened post-Brexit position. Those businesses will be able to damage habitats or spew out pollution, while their UK competitors will continue to have to comply with rules and standards that are in everyone's long term best interests.
The UK's new approach, as interpreted by The Sunday Times, would pave the way for foreign companies to harm the environment and deliver dirty products that undercut those UK firms that remain committed to building a sustainable global economy. Everyone would suffer. The UK, the EU, and those nations who would be discouraged from delivering the only growth trajectory that is sustainable in the long term. And all thanks to vampire arguments that show no signs of dying out any time soon.
It is high time we all grew up and stopped believing in monsters.
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