By Raymond Saner

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) traditional trade-centric approach has been successful in promoting economic growth through trade liberalization. However, this approach has reached a point where it increasingly conflicts with environmental sustainability and the urgent need to address climate change. The WTO’s existing rules and policies do not sufficiently take into account the environmental externalities of trade, which has become a significant point of contention, especially as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced and widespread.

In a 2023 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted a significant increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and the risk that the impacts of climate change may soon become unavoidable and irreversible. This is compounded by alarming findings from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and partners, showing governments plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 relative to 2021, which would be inconsistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Saner’s recent article critically examines the WTO’s current trade policies, which promise to decrease environmental risks linked to globalization. It raises concerns about the effectiveness of these policies in mitigating climate change, especially in the absence of regulatory measures. Its main findings are summarized below.

Critical examination of WTO’s current framework

There is a fundamental misalignment between global trade policies and the urgent need for environmental sustainability. The WTO, designed to promote liberalized trade, has often sidelined environmental considerations, thereby exacerbating the challenges of climate change. In addition, there is no coherent policy that integrates trade with the imperative of sustainable development, and the WTO’s approach has been inadequate in fostering an environment conducive to tackling global warming and achieving the SDGs.

WTO member countries may need to give up some of their sovereignty to enhance the trade and environment (T&E) space and align more closely with environmental objectives. This could involve broadening WTO T&E rules to better integrate with the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The urgency of this integration is emphasized by the fast-paced destruction caused by climate change compared to the slow progress of WTO negotiations on environmental goods and services.

To move WTO discussions forward, a new approach is needed, one that transcends traditional trade theories and legal interpretations. This approach would involve re-evaluating current trade rules and agreements, promoting the transfer of green technologies and fostering local content requirements, especially in the aid for low-income developing countries (LIDCs) and least developed countries (LDCs).

Innovative solutions for integrating trade and environment

Innovative solutions needed to bridge the gap between trade policies and environmental sustainability include:

  • Reinterpretation of WTO articles: Advocating for a reinterpretation of standard WTO articles to explicitly incorporate environmental sustainability and support for renewable energy initiatives, thereby aligning trade policies with climate change mitigation efforts;
  • Promotion of local content requirements (LCRs): Suggesting that LCRs can be leveraged to support the development of renewable energy sources in developing countries, facilitating technology transfer, and fostering local industry development, which are critical for sustainable economic growth;
  • Intellectual property rights (IPR) reforms: Proposing reforms in IPRs to ensure that technology transfer in renewable energy is not hindered by stringent intellectual property laws, thereby enabling less developed regions to access and develop green technologies; and
  • Cross-regime/forum agreement: Calling for a cross-regime agreement that integrates trade policies with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs, aiming at a comprehensive approach to reduce climate risks and promote sustainable development through trade.

Addressing geopolitical fragmentation and climate risks

Geopolitical fragmentation hampers global cooperation towards climate change mitigation and sustainable development. It is therefore important to overcome political and economic divisions to foster a unified global response to climate risks by advocating for trade policies that are congruent with global efforts such as the Paris Agreement.

Challenges and opportunities for reform

There are significant challenges in implementing the proposed reforms, including potential resistance from WTO member countries and the intricacies of aligning diverse international agreements. However, these reforms also present unprecedented opportunities for creating a trade system that is not only economically beneficial but also environmentally sustainable and socially equitable.

Way forward

This expanded summary encapsulates the essence of Saner’s critical examination, theoretical propositions, and practical recommendations for realigning the WTO’s trade policies with the global sustainability agenda. Through a detailed exploration of the challenges and opportunities at the nexus of trade, environment, and development, Saner’s article contributes to a growing body of literature advocating for systemic change in how international trade is conducted in the era of climate change.

The article underscores the need for a paradigm shift in the way trade is conducted. It calls for a “new social contract” for trade, environment, energy, and development, suggesting that unrestricted trade that contributes to climate warming needs to be reined in. The WTO framework must be greened to reduce barriers to global trade of environmental goods and services, and access to green technology must be made possible and affordable for developing countries.

The proposed solutions offer new ways to help developing countries grow sustainably while contributing to the global effort to combat climate change. The article concludes with a call to action for WTO members to move towards a positive trade and environment agreement, emphasizing the urgency of implementing actions against climate warming and achieving the SDGs. The article serves as a clarion call for collaborative action, urging stakeholders across the spectrum to work towards a more sustainable and just global trade system.

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Raymond Saner is Professor Titular, University of Basel, and Co-founder and Director of the Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND), Geneva.