5 October 2021
TESS Events Explore Trade and Environment Efforts at WTO in the Run-up to MC12
Photo by IISD/Francis Dejon
story highlights

A Geneva Trade Week event by the Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs highlighted recent developments on trade and environment at the WTO, and updated participants on WTO member initiatives.

A Public Forum 2021 session explored how governments can work together at MC12 to support a green and fair global economy.

Events organized by the Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs (TESS) as part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Public Forum 2021 and Geneva Trade Week (GTW), explored environment initiatives at the WTO in the run-up to the Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) and how governments can work together to support a green and fair global economy.

A GTW session, convened on 27 September, highlighted recent developments on trade and environment at the WTO, and updated participants on WTO member initiatives. Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, Director, TESS, moderated the event.

Jean-Marie Paugam, WTO Deputy Director-General, noted that the view of the environment as an obstacle to growth “has made a U-turn”  in recent years, with unsustainable growth being seen as an obstacle to trade itself. He said nowadays negotiators look at trade as a possible, yet to be fully harnessed, solution to environmental problems. Paugam highlighted the role of trade as a means to achieve the common good, as evidenced by the ongoing fisheries subsidies negotiations.

Paugam outlined the range of topics currently covered at the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), ranging from circular economy to deforestation, and highlighted plurilateral discussions at the WTO, such as the Trade and Environmental Sustainability Structured Discussions (TESSD) and the Informal Dialogue on Plastic Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade (IDP), among others. Emphasizing the urgency of concluding the talks on eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies, he warned that “no outcome would be the worst possible outcome.”

Ambassador Manuel Teehankee, Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the WTO and CTE Chair, identified “the three most important topics” besides fisheries: fossil fuel subsidies; trade and environmental sustainability; and plastics. He said the WTO can contribute to mainstreaming SDGs on sustainable agriculture, water and sanitation for all, affordable and reliable energy, the circular economy, and many more.

Ambassador Stephen de Boer, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the WTO and TESSD Co-chair, provided an update on the structured discussions, highlighting their role in “incubating new ideas” within the WTO. “By opening up more avenues for discussion and collaboration, we believe that TESSD can provide a valuable contribution to advancing work on environment and climate change issues,” he said. De Boer reported that the 53 TESSD members are preparing an MC12 ministerial statement, which is meant to reaffirm and recognize their work, highlight topics for future exchanges, and outline a roadmap to implement discussed activities on a range of topics and future action.

Daniela Garcia Freire, Deputy Permanent Representative of Ecuador’s Mission to the WTO, updated participants on the IDP’s work to address the “urgent” topic of plastic pollution. She said the 18 members of the IDP see a strong need for coordinated action to achieve a sustainable global plastics economy, and identified trade as an integral part of the solution.

Alison Hamilton, Deputy Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the WTO, stated that there is also a fossil fuel subsidies statement in preparation for MC12, which aims to cover a broad geographic spread with a broad range of sponsors.

In ensuing discussion, Paugam offered some insights on carbon border adjustment mechanisms. He said carbon pricing “is coming in one way or another,” noting that the WTO can provide a good forum for ex ante negotiations rather than for ex post litigation.

Another TESS-organized session on trade and environment was held as part of the WTO Public Forum, on 30 September. The event explored how governments can work together at MC12 to support a green and fair global economy. Deere Birkbeck moderated the session.

Joyce Msuya, Deputy Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said  humanity is “starring down the barrel” of three environmental crises – climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. She cautioned against trade policies and agreements that endanger the environment by enabling trade in harmful products or by providing for damaging subsidies, particularly fossil fuel subsidies. Msuya called for a move from destructive subsidies towards incentives for circularity and a green economy, and identified the following priority actions:

  • align trade policy with the SDGs at country level;
  • support the capacities of developing countries to encourage businesses to pursue green opportunities; and
  • pursue a policy of “do no harm,” by making sure that every trade agreement is good for the environment and does not undermine the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Paugam stressed that on environmental issues, he sees the WTO to be “around 15 years behind other actors.” He said it is “now or never” for environmental issues at the WTO.

De Boer said multilateral efforts are key in addressing today’s environmental issues, and MC12 will be good opportunity to advance discussions to pursue overlapping trade and environment objectives.

Ambassador José Valencia, Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the WTO, said the IDP process aims to identify opportunities to enhance trade cooperation to support efforts to fight plastic pollution and move to a more circular economy. He invited other WTO members to join the IDP. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources] [Geneva Trade Week] [WTO Public Forum 2021]

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