Green issues must be at the heart of the WTO, says Brittan

Trade and environment can no longer be seen as two separate issues by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), according to former European Commission Vice-President Sir Leon Brittan.

Sustainable development must be placed at the heart of WTO decision making – including within the Millennium round, said Brittan Speaking at a high level WTO meeting on trade and the environment in Geneva. “We need to reconcile the competing demands of economic growth, environmental protection and social development. Pursuing any of these three at the expense of the other two will inevitably lead to an unbalanced approach. If we get the balance wrong in one direction or another, we will end up either with inadequate recognition in trade policy terms of legitimate environmental concerns, or with ‘green protectionism’.”

Brittan highlighted four main areas for action:

First, he stressed the importance of fostering effective Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs) to tackle particular environmental problems. He emphasised the importance of a framework to help ensure compatibility between MEAs and WTO rules. He added, “Where an MEA commands wide support among WTO members, we need to be more confident than at present that WTO trade rules do accommodate the aims of the parties to the MEA, and therefore allow the necessary trade measures to be taken under such an MEA. If, to achieve that confidence, we need a new interpretation of, or even a textual amendment to, WTO rules, I believe we should go down that route.”

Second, on Process and Production Methods (PPMs), Sir Leon suggested that governments concerned about the methods by which goods were produced in other countries and their effects on the environment should use MEAs and/or labelling to deal with these problems, rather than resorting to direct trade measures. He argued, “It is one thing for there to be an agreed international standard on a particular production method or use of a particular substance, such as CFCs. It is quite another for each WTO member to decide, purely unilaterally, that it disapproves of some practice elsewhere in the world and for it to ban imports on that basis.”

Third, on labelling, Sir Leon said he believed it was important to take a clear and workable approach to the compatibility of labelling schemes with WTO rules. “It seems to me perfectly legitimate to inform the consumer that particular goods have been produced in third countries in a way which meets certain agreed standards or is, at least, more environmentally friendly than other methods” he said.

Finally, on the precautionary principle, under which governments may take account of potential environment risks even before there is complete scientific evidence, Sir Leon said he was in favour of building on existing WTO jurisprudence. He explained: “I accept the legitimacy of the concept of precaution in the field of environment and health. However, there are dangers in allowing a general, open-ended precautionary principle without defining what it means and in what circumstances it might be used.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie