23 July 2020
WTO Committee on Trade and Environment Continues Efforts on Plastics Pollution, Circular Economy
Photo Credit: Atonie Giret on Unsplash
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The WTO Committee on Trade and Environment held a formal meeting on 3 July 2020, covering topics of plastic pollution, circular economy, and the resumption of work delayed by COVID-19.

The discussions continued previous conversations, including an update from China and Fiji on how the WTO can support global efforts on plastics pollution and a submission from the US on circular economy.

The Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) met on 3 July 2020 to discuss how trade policy can address plastics pollution and a circular economy and to review the resumption of work on other initiatives disrupted by COVID-19.

The meeting, chaired by Ambassador Chad Blackman (Barbados), served to continue conversations previously introduced by members at the WTO, including a discussion on addressing plastics pollution in November 2019 and an informal consultation on the subject held in February 2020, co-hosted by China and Fiji. At the request of the delegations of Fiji and China, a communication by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on the trade in plastics, sustainability, and development was circulated in advance of the July 2020 meeting.

China and Fiji provided an update on how the WTO can support global efforts on plastics pollution, noting that there were plans to launch a WTO plastics initiative at the 12th Ministerial Conference, originally scheduled for June 2020. That meeting has been tentatively postponed to June 2021. In the interim, China noted that they will continue to reach out to interested members on the initiative.

Other members also provided updates on and expressed openness to exploring how the WTO can take action on plastics pollution, including Norway, which is supporting a comprehensive global agreement to combat marine plastic litter. Members also recognized that new rules to govern international shipments of waste plastics among signatories of the Basel Convention will enter into force on 1 January 2021.

This is a particularly important year for trade and sustainability, not least because of the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on people and planet.

On circular economy, the US called for the WTO to focus on trade facilitation for recovering and reusing recyclable materials, pointing to the country’s November 2019 submission that suggests that the CTE draw on earlier global value chains work to promote reverse supply chains.

Several members presented their plans to resume work on initiatives that have been temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic. Countries expressed eagerness to resume efforts intended to be presented or launched at MC12, albeit with the understanding that the workstreams must reflect the new realities brought on by the pandemic.

Costa Rica described plans for a joint statement by a group of members known as Friends Advancing Sustainable Trade (FAST Group), originally slated for presentation at MC12. The informal group, Costa Rica noted, could host future discussions on, inter alia, climate change, fossil fuel subsidy reform, plastic pollution, and conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Picking up on the fossil fuel subsidy reform, New Zealand flagged that countries are launching subsidy programmes that present new opportunities for reform. These opportunities, New Zealand noted, could be utilized as part of a “green recovery” from COVID-19. The intervention was met with division, as some members expressed support, while others were of the perspective “that fossil fuel subsidy reform should not be taken up at the WTO.”

Members and observer organizations also reported news of upcoming events relating to trade and the environment.

Commenting on the outcomes of the 3 July meeting, Ambassador Blackman lauded members for keeping “the productive momentum and engagement built up from the high level of activity from last year’s CTE, even with the restrictions imposed by the current situation.” He highlighted 2020 as “a particularly important year for trade and sustainability, not least because of the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on people and planet.”

The next CTE meeting is tentatively scheduled for the week of 16 November 2020. The meeting “will provide another important opportunity for engagement and reflection,” said Ambassador Blackman, signaling the intention of some members to host a series of side events in collaboration with non-governmental stakeholders back-to-back with the meeting. “This new edition of a WTO Trade and Environment Week,” he noted, “will also allow other stakeholders to raise awareness and improve understanding on a number of important topics at the intersection between trade and environment, in the re-imagination of a new sustainable global economy.” 

[WTO News Release] [IISD Sources]

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