WTO webinar explores way forward for sustainable trade after COVID-19

Trade and environment

Trade and the WTO have an important role to play in steering global recovery towards a sustainable course for the well-being of the world’s population and the planet in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, speakers said at a June 4, 2020, webinar organised to mark World Environment Day. The aftermath of the pandemic provides a window of opportunity to reinvigorate work so that trade policies help generate greener and more resilient economies, they said.

Protecting the planet is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. The COVID-19 pandemic has rightly drawn our attention to the health crisis, along with its immense social and economic effects,” WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said in a video message to the online event convened by the chair of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), Ambassador Chad Blackman of Barbados, with the support of the WTO Secretariat.

“Rising environmental stresses leave our societies vulnerable to natural disasters, resource scarcity and disease. And we know that it is the poorest who suffer the most. In fact, a collective response on trade that fosters sustainability, inclusiveness and resilience is what this crisis calls for,” said DG Azevêdo. His full remarks are available here.

“The good news is we are not starting from scratch,” Ambassador Blackman said.

Before the pandemic, he said, the CTE already served as a global forum dedicated to promoting global cooperation on sustainable trade by discussing WTO members’ policies to establish circular economies, address plastic pollution, and eliminate trade barriers on environmental goods and services. Ambassador Blackman encouraged WTO members to intensify policy dialogue, invigorate efforts to make trade policies supportive of sustainability and explore creative ways to make trade more resilient to growing environmental risks.

“We must keep the momentum going within the committee. The saying always goes that we should never waste a good crisis. I truly believe COVID-19 presents the opportunity for us to harness all that we have been trying to achieve for a number of years within the WTO and outside the WTO,” Ambassador Blackman said.

Other speakers stressed how the COVID-19 crisis has served to magnify persisting challenges in trade and the environment and how global cooperation can be intensified in its aftermath.

Ambassador Andrew Staines of the United Kingdom noted how WTO members have yet to conclude an agreement to liberalize trade in environmental goods and services that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution and improve energy efficiency. The need to rebuild in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and to address the climate crisis presents a new opportunity for members to try again on that front, he said. Trade is a key driver of technology dissemination and can support the innovation needed to drive the green transition.

Diane Holdorf, Managing Director for Food and Nature at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, reflecting on trade disruptions during the pandemic, said the private sector can play a significant role in pursuing sustainable trade and ensuring global supply chains are made more resilient. The WTO can help economies to evolve to be more inclusive and environmentally conscious.

UN Environment Programme’s chief of the market and resources branch, Steven Stone, highlighted the importance of upholding multilateral rules for global and national prosperity, forging partnerships across the trade and environment communities, and taking advantage of the current tipping point to deliver long-awaited outcomes on fisheries subsidies, fossil fuel subsidy reform, carbon markets, and illegal and unregulated wildlife trade, among other things.

Daphne Ewing-Chow, a Forbes senior contributor, looked at the impact of the crisis on trade from the perspective of Caribbean and small island developing states which have to grapple with climate disruptions.  She stressed the importance of trade in building resilience, creating jobs and supporting economic diversification as a means for economic recovery after COVID-19.

Céline Charveriat, Executive Director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), drew attention to the risk that economic recovery strategies after COVID-19 may protect inefficient and environmentally harmful industries through beggar thy neighbour policies. She called for recovery strategies that aim not only to allow countries to bounce back but to bounce forward towards a more sustainable future.

Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, senior researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, supported Ms Charveriat in suggesting that the WTO step up existing work on its environmental agenda but also consider the sustainability dimension in all negotiations outside the environmental portfolio. They highlighted the importance of helping developing countries to manage the green transition and build capacity through Aid for Trade.

The WTO Secretariat stands ready to support members in their efforts to pursue more sustainable trade, Aik Lim Hoe, Director of the WTO’s Trade and Environment Division, said in closing the webinar.

The webinar programme and video recording is available here.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.

More information: Trade and environment