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Source: Small Island Developing States

The renewed interest in finding trade policy solutions to environmental challenges – and in understanding the impact of environmental policy on trade – must translate into collaborative discussions that include all stakeholders, according to a panel convened by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) during the WTO Trade and Environment Week.

Soledad Leal Campos, Senior Policy Advisor, IISD, moderated the session.

Noting the “long history” of the trade and environment debate, Nathalie Bernasconi-Osterwalder, Executive Director, IISD Europe, noted that today’s consumers are increasingly interested in the environmental impact of their purchasing choices. She said the environmental and economic challenges of our time demand policy responses whose impacts extend “beyond the border,” requiring a closer look at trade policy and disciplines. Bernasconi-Osterwalder called for an open, creative, solutions-oriented, and inclusive discussion on environmental and trade policy issues, including implications for developing countries.

Chad Blackman, Ambassador of Barbados to the WTO and Chair of the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), welcomed the discussion as “critical and timely,” and stressed the value of a strong contribution from civil society. He noted that stakeholder events “can plant the seed of constructive communication and new approaches to complex trade and environment issues.”

Blackman noted WTO members’ more active participation in the CTE’s discussions, which have become more substantive in recent years. Among the topics raised by some WTO members at the CTE, he highlighted the circular economy and role of trade policy to overcome obstacles in value chains, and the removal of environmentally harmful distortions, including fossil fuel subsidies.

Development remains the overarching objective of developing and least developed countries, and trade is a means to achieve that.

Peter Wooders, Senior Director, Energy, IISD, reported on key takeaways from the sustainability pillar of Geneva Trade Week, including the need for greater international cooperation across all levels. He highlighted an IISD-organized high-level plenary as an example of the wide scope of what sustainability encompasses, with speakers hailing from the fields of biodiversity, public health, agriculture and trade, labor, fisheries and environment, and climate change.

Rashid Kaukab, Executive Director, CUTS International, Geneva, said that looking ahead, considering context issues and ensuring harmony across the various parts of the global governance architecture will be essential. “Development remains the overarching objective of developing and least developed countries, and trade is a means to achieve that,” he noted.

Kaukab said the understanding of the term “sustainable development” can vary significantly across stakeholders, and called for a “thoughtful, calibrated, and inclusive approach.” Among “win-win” scenarios for growth, development, environment, and trade, he mentioned disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies, reaching a deal that reforms domestic agricultural support, revisiting the relationship between biodiversity frameworks and intellectual property rules, and addressing trade in plastic waste.

Isabel Jarrett, Manager, Pew Charitable Trusts’ Program on Reducing Harmful Fisheries Subsidies, noted that WTO members have two political mandates to reach a deal this year: the 2020 deadline included in SDG target 14.6 and the decision from the WTO’s Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference in 2017 to conclude an accord before the next ministerial gathering.

She said while “we have more data on the damage we are wreaking on our oceans and the need to act,” subsidies for boat construction or fuel can lower the cost of fishing and incentivize more fishing than what our marine resources can bear. Jarrett highlighted a policy statement signed by 174 civil society organizations from around the world supporting a deal in 2020, known by the hashtag #StopFundingOverfishing.

Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, Senior Researcher, Graduate Institute Geneva’s Global Governance Centre, called for a “new narrative on trade and environment” that is both responsive to immediate crises and forward-looking. She said this agenda must address developing countries’ challenges and priorities, especially given that COVID-19 has complicated efforts towards achieving the SDGs and ensuring a just transition.

Deere Birkbeck stressed the need to align trade, environment, and the SDGs at the national level, including when considering the impact of trade policy abroad. At the international level, she said the WTO can play a greater role by promoting dialogue, information sharing, and capacity building. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]

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