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WTO reform — trade and environment issues to be examined should include addressing ocean/sea trawling effects on carbon capture/release

While the WTO has had a Trade and Environment Committee since 1995 and interest on the intersection between trade and environment predates the formation of the WTO (i.e., back in the GATT), there has been renewed calls by many Members for increased activity in the WTO on trade and environment issue as part of the future agenda. The WTO provides a short history of WTO involvement in the area. See WTO, Trade and Environment, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/envir_e/envir_e.htm.

Ongoing talks on fisheries subsidies are aimed at helping make fishing sustainable and meeting one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14.6). See, e.g., WTO, Civil society call for fishing subsidies deal welcomed by Dr Ngozi and negotiations chair, 3 March 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_01mar21_e.htm. There is interest in addressing plastics in the oceans (circular economy issues) and for some, an interest in restarting the Environmental Goods Agreement negotiations. See WTO, Role of trade in promoting circular economy highlighted at WTO Environment Week, 27 November 2019, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/envir_03dec19_e.htm; WTO, Plastic waste, ‘blue economy’ among issues taken up at trade and environment committee, 28 November 2018, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news18_e/envir_30nov18_e.htm.

In a New York Times article from Wednesday, there is interesting information on the effects of fish trawling on carbon release. See New York Times, Trawling for Fish May Unleash as Much Carbon as Air Travel, Study Says, March 1, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/17/climate/climate-change-oceans.html. The opening sentences of the article reads, “For the first time, scientists have calculated how much planet-warming carbon dioxide is released into the ocean by bottom trawling, the practice of dragging enormous nets along the ocean floor to catch shrimp, whiting, cod and other fish. The answer: As much as global aviation releases into the air.” The study referenced is an article that was published online by Nature on 17 March 2021 by 26 authors entitled “Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate.” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03371-z. The New York Times article notes that the study estimated that 1.9 million square miles of the sea floor is scraped every year which can release the carbon that is stored in the sea floor and that would remain captured for thousands of years if left undisturbed. The NYT article continues, “The carbon released from the sea floor leads to more acidified water, threatening marine life, and reduces the oceans’ capacity to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. China, Russia, Italy, the United Kingdom and Denmark lead the world in such trawling emissions.”

While carbon release from fish trawling is not presently part of the ongoing negotiations on fisheries subsidies nor a topic being discussed within the Committee on Trade and Environment (at least that I have seen), it would seem to be a topic that could meaningfully be examined within the WTO in an effort to have trade be sustainable and contribute to reducing carbon emissions. Some possible approaches within the WTO or by individual WTO Members could include identifying less environmentally damaging approaches (sharing experiences, best practices), potential negotiations to terminate or phase out such practices, review of such practices in trade policy reviews, inclusion within any carbon border adjustment plan adopted by Members.

Addressing the topic would appear to be an important opportunity to promote sustainable development as the world deals with and comes out of the pandemic. Let’s hope Members take an ambitious approach to the role the WTO can play on sustainable development.