WTO talks achieve little for the environment

The latest round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Qatar’s capital, Doha, have ended with little commitment to environmental concerns, bar agreement to phase out agriculture export subsidies and plans for further discussions.

The 142 members of the WTO ended almost six days of talks in Doha with little visible success on furthering an environmentally-friendly trade agenda, which the European Union and United Nations had been driving for, except a commitment to “reductions of, with a view to phasing out, all forms of export subsidies and substantial reductions in trade-distorting domestic support”, and an agreement to a mini trade round in 2003 to include new negotiations on industrial tariffs and the environment. The failure to integrate sustainable development into all WTO agreements frustrated the European Commission and environmental groups.

Apart from the commitment to attempt to phase out subsidies such as Europe’s hated Common Agricultural Policy, members also declared their aim to reduce or eliminate “tariff and non-tariff barriers to environmental goods and services, especially in relation to developing countries”. Environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth (FOE) fear that next year’s environmental discussions will only serve to threaten biological diversity, with planned liberalisation of trade in non-agricultural products leading to “increased natural resource extraction, the destruction of ancient forests and threats to conservation measures”. The EU’s call for a “clarification” of “a number of grey areas between trade and environment rules, notably as regards Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs), precaution and labelling”, was also not satisfied.

The European Union, calling itself, “among the most active supporters of a positive ‘environment’ and ‘sustainable development’ agenda in WTO”, said that

“the time has come for action, which in the WTO requires a mandate to negotiate in order to reach conclusions”, adding that “we cannot go on talking endlessly”. Although it does “not want to subordinate WTO to MEAs or vice versa”, the EU calls for “a green light” for MEAs, especially those with very specific trade provisions applied to a circumscribed list of products, which it says “are more manageable than MEAs, which leave significant discretion to national authorities”. The EU also called for provisions for precaution for environmental purposes and clarified and reinforced rules on eco-labelling of products to “enhance the legitimacy of the eco-labelling growth industry and to keep compliance costs as low as possible, all round the world”.

“The environment text may look like a big step for the negotiators, but it is a small step for humankind,” commented Bertram Zagema from Friends of the Earth. “Governments have pushed for trade liberalisation measures that pose a risk to the future of our planet. This happened in an untransparent process in which developing countries were put under heavy pressure. In Doha much more has been lost than gained.”

However, Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), disagreed. “Negotiations on trade and the environment were, until recently, a taboo subject in the WTO but the Ministerial Declaration issued in Qatar has shown that countries are now willing to address these complex links between the need to liberalise trade and the need to protect the world’s forests, fisheries, wetlands, wildlife and other precious natural resources,”he said. “We still have a long way to go. But the agreements in Doha are, I believe, a new beginning. I am particularly pleased that trade ministers have acknowledged the role UNEP can play in charting a more environmentally friendly and sustainable course in world trade.”

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