The nexus between trade, sustainable development, and the protection and preservation of the environment came to the fore during the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade and Environment Week 2020. Two proponent groups of WTO members launched initiatives to deepen discussions on sustainable development at the Organization.

The Trade and Environment Week took place from 16-20 November. As we note in our preview, it included meetings of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), a high-level session on the role of trade in promoting an environmentally sustainable and inclusive recovery from COVID-19, and a series of WTO member-led events and workshops, which explored “issues at the forefront of the trade and environment agenda,” showcased experiences in making global trade more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive, and exchanged ideas on what role trade and the WTO can play in “building back greener and better” from COVID-19.

The Week also featured two sessions organized by civil society. A panel convened by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) brought together stakeholder perspectives on trade, environment, and sustainable development. An event organized by Geneva Trade Platform, the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Environment and Trade Hub, the Graduate Institute Geneva’s Global Governance Centre, and Chatham House’s Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy sought to identify priority areas for the trade and environment debate at the WTO.

The Week’s discussions provided an important impetus to the preparations for the 12th Ministerial Conference.

The Week kicked off with a CTE meeting where the EU introduced its European Green Deal, describing it as “a decisive action” “to transform the EU’s economy for a sustainable future” while leaving no one behind. The EU highlighted efforts to introduce a carbon border adjustment mechanism to manage the risk of “carbon leakage” to make up for situations where “climate action ambitions are not shared globally.” The EU is conducting assessments covering the measure’s various impacts and its legal feasibility in light of WTO rules, EU trade agreements, and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

Canada, Colombia, India, Norway, Paraguay, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Turkey offered comments on the European Green Deal, with several, including the US, expressing concerns over the carbon tax. Members called for the EU to ensure its initiatives comply with WTO rules and bilateral and regional agreements, recognize the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), ensure costs are not solely born by producers, and maintain transparency in policy making, among other actions.

On 17 November, a group of WTO members launched “structured discussions on trade and environmental sustainability.” Its proponents intend “to collaborate, prioritize and advance discussions on trade and environmental sustainability” and involve interested WTO members and external stakeholders. The structured discussions will be based on a statement to the CTE by Australia, Canada, Chad, Chile, Costa Rica, the EU, the Gambia, Fiji, Iceland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Liechtenstein, Maldives, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Senegal, Switzerland, Chinese Taipei, and the UK. It is supported by 49 members.

Another group of members launched an “open-ended informal dialogue” to promote a sustainable plastics economy. The informal dialogue aims to “explore how improved trade cooperation, within the rules and mechanisms of the WTO, could contribute to domestic, regional, and global efforts to reduce plastics pollution and transition to a more circular and environmentally sustainable global plastics economy.” Proponents of this process are Australia, Barbados, Canada, China, Fiji, Jamaica, and Morocco.

In addition, the SDG Knowledge Hub provided coverage of the following events convened during the WTO Trade and Environment Week:

The events sought to help inform the deliberations of the CTE, which reconvened on 20 November. Several members reported back on the events they had organized during the Trade and Environment Week. Chad Blackman, Ambassador of Barbados to the WTO and CTE Chair, expressed confidence that the Week’s discussions provided “an important impetus” to the Committee’s work and the preparations for the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12).

Other updates and presentations heard by the CTE covered, among other issues:

  • Ongoing discussions among Costa Rica, Fiji, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland relating to the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability (ACCTS), which is now in its third round of talks;
  • The Glasgow Climate Change Conference scheduled to take place from 1-12 November 2021, with the UK pledging to accelerate progress towards reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement;
  • Environmentally friendly coffee growing in Colombia;
  • Sustainable mechanized production systems for agriculture in Paraguay;
  • Manufacture of paper from bio-waste in Sri Lanka; and
  • Members’ trade-related environmental measures as reflected in their 2019 Trade Policy Reviews (TPRs) where the agriculture and energy sectors were found to have the highest number of such measures. 

The SDG Knowledge Hub provides regular updates on latest developments in the area of trade and sustainability, which can be found here and here.