Nearly two dozen representatives from civil society and intergovernmental agencies gathered to discuss what items should be a matter of priority in the trade and environment debate. This was the second of two civil society-led events of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade and Environment Week.

The event, which took place on 18 November, was organized by the Geneva Trade Platform, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Environment and Trade Hub, the Global Governance Centre at the Graduate Institute Geneva, and Chatham House’s Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy.

Coming just one day after a WTO member group launched “structured discussions” devoted to trade and environmental sustainability, the interventions largely built around what items could be raised in these talks, and what approach these could take.

Anja von Moltke, UNEP Environment and Trade Hub, opened the event by calling for “all hands on deck to push leadership and action for a sustainable future.” With event co-organizer Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, Global Governance Centre, Graduate Institute Geneva, she stressed that the new narrative on trade and environment “must be about looking at how to ensure trade policy is a central part of the toolkit” that governments use for achieving their sustainability objectives.

Carlos Vanderloo, Canadian Mission to the WTO, said global cooperation and the involvement of all stakeholders will be crucial for addressing sustainability imperatives. Several panelists echoed the need for collaboration, inclusiveness, and coherence.

Many speakers described the convening power of the WTO as a valuable strength in this agenda-setting process. They highlighted a range of policy priorities that governments should address together with other actors in the trade and environment arena, many of which were directed at the “triple threat” of biodiversity loss, climate change, and pollution.

One of the recurring themes was the circular economy, with speakers like Vanessa Erogbogbo, International Trade Centre (ITC), noting the need to manage environmental trade-offs, while calling for a better understanding of the environmental impact profile of value chains.

Malena Sell, Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, described the circular economy as “the only way forward” in addressing the triple threat, as this approach “cuts to the heart of how we produce, consume, and trade.” Trade facilitation could be a tool for supporting the circular economy, said Aditi Sara Verghese, World Economic Forum (WEF).

Elisabeth Tuerk, UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), highlighted the issue of supply chains, referring to UNECE’s work on transparency and traceability. Åsa Persson, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), called for a better understanding of climate and sustainability risk in supply chains.

Speakers including Soledad Leal Campos, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), David Vivas Eugui, UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Shardul Agrawala, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and Rashid Kaukab, CUTS International Geneva, identified environmentally harmful subsidies as another crucial priority for a future trade and environment agenda. Kaukab noted that this does not only include fisheries subsidies, but also those directed at agriculture.

Several participants, including Lily Sommer, UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Posh Pandey, South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE), and Crispin Conroy, International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), referred to the need for lowering barriers to trade in environmental goods and services. Conroy said in the business world, many are talking about progress in this area as a “must-have” moment.

Many participants said development considerations must be front and center in the new agenda on trade and environmental sustainability. For example, Sommer called for examining carbon border adjustment measures, which are being debated in many countries as a trade policy tool for tackling greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, to ensure that these do not undermine developing countries’ development priorities. Kaukab cautioned against a “carrot-and-stick” approach, and urged greater support for capacity building and other assistance for least developed countries (LDCs). Leal Campos stressed that the policy community must “place sustainable development at the heart of any initiative, not only at the multilateral level, but at all levels and by all actors.”

Jan Yves Remy, Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy and Services, University of West Indies, said we need a better understanding of countries’ vulnerability to shocks, such as climate change and pandemics. He called for a better metric for country needs than traditional measures, such as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

Vicente Yu, Third World Network (TWN), highlighted the need for greater flexibility and special differential treatment for developing countries, and the value of agreeing on a “peace clause” for developing countries to protect them from legal disputes when they undertake environmental measures that impact trade.

Céline Charveriat, Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), called for greening trade for a green recovery. She stressed the need to “go beyond plastic litter” to talk about waste prevention and the challenges inherent in the petrochemical sector.

Angela Francis, WWF UK, called for a closer look at food and farming, especially the environmental challenges linked to agricultural production and trade.

Manuel Ruiz, Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, urged exploring the relationship between biodiversity, intellectual property rights (IPRs), fair and equitable access and benefit-sharing, and the wider trade regime. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]