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Trade talks should also be climate talks

And this year, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, promised in a speech to the European Parliament a carbon border tax, which is meant to protect local companies from “unfair” competition by raising the cost of products from countries that fail to take adequate action against climate change. As long as it does not turn into protectionism under another guise, it’s an idea with some merit.

Even the World Trade Organisation is starting to discuss ways in which climate change could become part of future negotiations. As global trade has greatly expanded, there is a growing awareness of the detrimental impact more economic activity will have on greenhouse gas emissions. Extreme weather will also play havoc with the roughly 50,000 cargo ships at sea at any one time and coastal infrastructure, especially ports, will become highly vulnerable.

So when Senator Birmingham says he believes trade agreements were “overwhelmingly commercial undertakings between countries” and should “focus on commercial realities”, he is most likely in the land of wishful thinking. And it’s not like those most affected by these changes to trade negotiations are going to be too surprised. Much to the annoyance of the Coalition government, big business has become much more vocal about the need to do more on climate change. It should also be remembered that trade negotiations are increasingly about non-trade matters. The recent free trade agreement with Indonesia included a deal over the number of work visas for young Indonesians coming to Australia.

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While The Age is hopeful the climate talks in Madrid this week prove surprisingly successful, what seems more likely is that many countries will continue to put political interests in front of the need for collective global action. The demand for change is taking place in boardrooms as well as on placards in the street.

As climate warnings become more dire, the heavy lifting on getting countries to move quicker may end up coming from unlikely places – our mining companies, our blue-ribbon conservative electorates, our superannuation funds. Trade deals may just be the forum that turns action on climate change into an enforceable reality.

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