MC12: Countries call for greater cooperation on trade and environment

Containers are stacked at the Port of Long Beach in Long Beach in California, 1 October, 2021. (Keystone/AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Countries including China, the United States and the European Union are calling for greater cooperation on environmental sustainability in the global trade arena.

A group of 57 countries on Monday released a draft roadmap for intensifying talks around how trade policy can play its part in protecting the planet and combatting climate change.

The proposed ministerial statement, released ahead of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference at the end of November,  sets out how member states plan to expand work on addressing trade and environmental challenges in 2022.

This includes exploring ways to facilitate trade in environmental goods and services to meet environmental and climate goals, “greening” Aid for Trade, incentivising low carbon trade frameworks, promoting sustainable supply chains, and encouraging uptake in climate-friendly technologies.

The idea for such a roadmap emerged in November last year when 53 WTO members launched the “trade and environmental sustainability structured discussions”  – also known by their acronym TESSD – with the aim of delivering a set of objectives in time for this month’s ministerial meeting.

Momentum behind discussions on how to “green" the WTO agenda has been growing and also comes in the wake of Cop26, where negotiations on how to achieve more ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions inevitably affect trade.

Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta of Costa Rica, one of the co-conveners of the initiative, said in a statement last week: “We are faced with a unique opportunity to recognise the role that trade and trade policy have in supporting not only environmental and climate objectives, but also the responsibility they have in achieving the (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. We also have the ability to demonstrate political will by supporting the ministerial statement, and it is in our hands to make trade part of the solution to climate change.”

Backers of the draft ministerial statement include major trade powers such as the European Union, China, the United States, and Japan, as well as the United Kingdom and Australia, and developing countries ranging from Colombia, Chile and Fiji to Senegal and Chad. Canada and Costa Rica are leading the initiative.

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Some non-governmental and international organisations have also been allowed to participate in the process, in a first for WTO discussions. A so-called “plurilateral initiative”, it involves just some of WTO 164 members although the aim is to encourage more, if not all, members to support it.

"The proposed TESSD ministerial statement is significant because it affirms the commitment of a diverse and growing group of WTO members to more environmentally sustainable trade and because it sets in motion a much-needed process for stronger, more inclusive cooperation,"  Dr. Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, director of the Forum on Trade, Environment & the SDGs (TESS), a partnership between the Graduate Institute and the UN Environment Programme, told Geneva Solutions.

The TESS process "offers governments and stakeholders a chance to make headway on how trade and trade policies can help address pressing global environmental crises, like climate change, nature loss and pollution, and on ways forward that address developing country priorities," she added.

Among the other initiatives at the WTO addressing environmental sustainability are a proposed treaty to end billions of dollars in harmful fisheries subsidies, as well as discussions on combatting plastic pollution and fossil fuel reform.