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Source: Small Island Developing States

The World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade and Environment Week kicked off with a high-level event where agency leaders, ministers, and representatives from civil society and business examined what lessons could be learned from the devastation of COVID-19. The event was co-organized by the WTO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

“We are confronting the most acute health crisis in a century and the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes,” where “years of hard-won development progress are being reversed,” said Chad Blackman, Ambassador of Barbados to the WTO and Chair of the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), opening the event. He noted it is crucial that “trade and environmental policy work in unison and not in discord” in supporting recovery efforts towards a “greener future.”

UNEP Executive Director Inger Anderson warned that a major driver of crisis events is “our unsustainable production and consumption.” She called for action at all levels and in all sectors, including in the realm of trade policy, to address tensions over the role of trade in exacerbating environmental damage. Anderson drew attention to a UNEP report titled, ‘Sustainable Trade in Resources: Global Material Flows, Circularity and Trade,’ which outlines the relationship between trade rules and a circular economy.

WTO Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff said COVID-19 “has become a stark reminder that nature, human health, and the economy are … interconnected.” He said the pandemic offers an opportunity for action on sustainable development and WTO reform. Wolff highlighted examples of where trade policy can lead to improved environmental outcomes, including the ongoing WTO negotiations to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies and the negotiations among a sub-set of the WTO’s membership on new rules on electronic commerce.

Transition to a circular economy will be key in climbing out of a deep crisis.

Wolff further outlined the WTO’s efforts at fostering dialogue and cooperation through initiatives backed by many members to address trade and the circular economy, and fossil fuel subsidy reform. He said efforts to “green” the WTO’s Aid for Trade initiative should also be developed further.  

Ministers from Costa Rica and Rwanda offered national perspectives.

Andrea Meza Murillo, Minister of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica, stated that “environmental issues are part of development models,” and underscored the importance of whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches to ensure transformative outcomes. She highlighted the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability (ACCTS) negotiating process as an example of where an integrated approach can be implemented.

Soraya Hakuziyaremye, Minister of Trade and Industry, Rwanda, noted that developing countries often face the question of how to industrialize in a way that uses environmentally friendly strategies and technologies. She highlighted examples of Rwandan programmes that have worked to strike that balance, and the particular challenges that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) experience.

Noting the disruption of supply chains caused by the pandemic, Hakuziyaremye said incorporating environmental considerations into future manufacturing will be crucial in the recovery and in implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), where UNEP and the WTO could play a role.

Jamshyd N. Godrej, Chairman of the Board, Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Company Limited, India, highlighted the private sector’s “very strong role in making a change for the better,” contingent partly on themselves and partly on the regulatory environment in which they operate. He outlined India’s cement industry’s efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce its environmental footprint, and an initiative to introduce the use of energy standards in household appliances.  

Ellen MacArthur, Founder and Chair of Trustees, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said an “extractive economy” is a “linear economy,” and transition to a circular economy, which is “restorative and regenerative,” will be key in “climbing out of a deep crisis.” [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]

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