WTO must be more compatible with environmental agreements

UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher has called on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to make its rules compatible with the major international environmental agreements before beginning another round of negotiations.


Stressing the need for the WTO to learn from the failures of Ministerial Conference in Seattle last year, Meacher told delegates at a conference in London that the EU and UK must convince the developing world that its environmental agenda is not a smokescreen designed to protect the interests of the richer countries. “We are right to seek a resolution of tensions between WTO rules and key environmental policies,” Meacher said. “This is a necessity for the next trade round, but we must avoid over-concentration on rules-based issues at the expense of wider sustainability issues and the challenge for the UK and the EU in the months ahead is to make trade and the environment a truly global agenda.”

Meacher’s statement reflects a growing consensus among developed countries that the WTO can no longer treat trade and environment as two separate issues. A year ago, European Commission Vice-President Sir Leon Brittan called for sustainable development to be placed at the heart of WTO decision making. He warned that failure to do so would lead either to inadequate recognition of legitimate environmental concerns, or to accusations from the developing world of ‘green protectionism’ (see related story).

Meacher told the conference on Sustainability, Trade and Investment that convergence between the WTO and the Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) – such as the Montreal Protocol and the Biosafety Protocol – could offer a way out of the post-Seattle impasse. But, he added, any further round of negotiations was dependent on learning the lessons of Seattle. “Misunderstandings, as we saw at Seattle, surrounding the linkages between trade and sustainable development, have absolutely not got to be repeated… The one thing we don’t want is to have another Seattle and for that to fail again.”

Meacher reiterated his commitment to launching a round of negotiations that includes topics outside the WTO’s ‘built-in’ agenda. If handled properly, Meacher believes, comprehensive negotiations could deliver trade liberalisation in a manner which promotes sustainable development.

Meacher said that rather than contradicting WTO rules, MEAs could be employed by the WTO to prevent trade damaging the environment. “Where trade does have the potential to magnify environmentally-harmful activity with global consequences, we believe that the most effective means of redress is through the MEAs. And it is essential that this body of international law continues to develop and that we address the interface with WTO rules. I think there is nothing more important in trade and environment terms than that. The Government believes that this endeavour should be directed towards the confirmation of mutual supportiveness and not the creation of hierarchies.”

This aim could be achieved, Meacher said, by following the example of MEAs – such as the recently-adopted Biosafety Protocol – which address the idea of linking trade and environmental agreements. Meacher added that the UK and other EU states will work to ensure that the final outcome of negotiations on the control of the production and use, import and export of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) also fully incorporates the doctrine of mutual supportiveness (see separate artice in this edition of edie news).

Meacher also believes WTO rules would not necessarily conflict with the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon emissions permits scheme. He said that the emerging legal consensus is that emissions permits do not constitute a good or a service for WTO purposes and that any EU restrictions on trading should therefore not contravene WTO rules.

The role of voluntary initiatives and eco-labelling in a trade regime enforced mainly by MEAs should, said Meacher, be restricted to situations where unsustainable production methods and trade-related impacts are more localised, or to sectors where it would be extremely difficult to design an effective MEA, for example forestry. “Such initiatives engage producers, retailers and consumers within the sustainability loop without the need for government intervention,” Meacher said.

Communicating with the developing world

Not only must the WTO become more compatible with the MEAs, Meacher told the conference, but the EU and UK must convince the developing world that its environmental agenda is not merely a ruse designed to protect the interests of the richer countries.

One of the key lessons of Seattle, Meacher said, was the need to find new and better ways of articulating what the EU wants and why. “That can only be done in a genuinely consultative and participative process,” he said.

The EU is not, Meacher said, seeking to export its environmental standards to the developing world, but was trying to ensure that the WTO rules do not undermine or inhibit the development of legitimate environmental policy.

Suspicions in the Third World about the EU’s motives, Meacher said, are very much a matter for concern. “If we are going to have a Millennium Round it cannot, this time round, be a stitch-up between the EU and the US,” said Meacher. “It has to be a genuinely inclusive process.

“And there’s no doubt that at Seattle we faced a very difficult task in gaining support for the trade and environment agenda. Many developing countries remain suspicious of our motives – I remember seeing Ministers particularly from Egypt, Pakistan and India – and they clearly see our agenda as a means to erect new trade barriers. That is not – I underline it six times – not the intention, but that is how it is still widely perceived.”

Progress, said Meacher, depends upon addressing areas which may not be important to the EU, but which may figure very high on other countries’ agendas. Meacher cited agriculture and fishing subsidies as the most important of these, along with the liberalisation of trade in environmental goods and services, as the areas which present “the most clear cut win-win opportunities to reduce subsidies which are trade distorting and environmentally damaging.”

Meacher added his voice to those calling for a sustainability impact assessment of the WTO negotiations (see related story). This, Meacher said, could help identify the benign impacts of subsidy reduction and influence countries which are suspicious of the EU’s trade and environment agenda (see related story).

Meacher’s comments were not entirely supported by Ambassador Ransford Smith, Jamaica’s representative to WTO, speaking as part of a panel on ‘Sustainable Development: which way now for the WTO?’ at the conference.

Smith argued against the relentless expansion of the WTO, stating that the “history of the organisation is not one which has inspired developing countries to approach it with much confidence or trust”. Smith said the WTO should not deal with international environmental concerns, but he agreed that environmental concerns must be confronted. He argued in favour of new MEAs and the expansion of existing MEAs, with some type of binding legal dispute system similar to the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism in order to give MEAs teeth. Smith says that the relationship between MEAs and the WTO needs to be formalised, with MEAs being treated as equal to the WTO.

  • Michael Meacher has announced that the UK will donate £100,000 to a capacity building task force on trade environment and development recently established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The taskforce, Meacher said, is intended to strengthen the capacities of developing countries to engage in international dialogue on policy making and environment issues and promote understanding of the linkages between trade and the environment and the formulation of policies to address those linkages.

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