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WTO initiatives on trade and the environment — likely to receive a warm welcome under a Biden Administration

The challenges facing the world from climate change are staggering and getting worse. While the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, a Biden Administration will have the U.S. rejoin and work with other nations to find solutions to the pressing problems.

Today in Geneva, two initiatives were announced by groups of WTO Members. One addresses trade and environmental sustainability and was presented in a communication from 49 Members. Communication on Trade and Environmental Sustainability, WT/CTE/W/249 (17 November 2020). Neither the U.S., China, India, Brazil nor South Africa are on the communication though most developed countries and other Members are initial sponsors. The communication is embedded below.

W249

The second initiative was the launch of an informal dialogue on plastics pollution and environmentally sustainable plastics trade. Seven Members are launching the informal dialogue. All Members are welcome to participate. The seven Members involved in the launch are Australia, Barbados, Canada, China, Fiji, Jamaica and Morocco. Only Australia, Canada and Fiji are part of both initiatives. The press release from the Secretariat on today’s initiatives included the following discussion of the plastics initiative.

“The dialogue is borne out of the recognition of the need for coordinated action to address the rising environmental, health and economic cost of plastics pollution and the importance of the trade dimension as a solution.

“Proponents aim to circulate their communication soon. * * *

“Ambassador Xiangchen Zhang of China said at the online event that possible subjects for discussion include improving transparency, monitoring trade trends, promoting best practices, strengthening policy coherence, identifying the scope for collective approaches, assessing capacity and technical assistance needs, and cooperating with other international processes and efforts. Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji said they hope this informal dialogue will encourage discussion and exploratory work on how the WTO can contribute to efforts to reduce plastics pollution and transition to a circular, more environmentally sustainable plastics trade.”

Deputy Director-General Alan Wm Wolff spoke at today’s event and identified a range of initiatives that have been looked at by the Committee on Trade and Environment, or that could be, that could help move forward both initiatives including resuming talks at eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers on environmental goods and services, reforming subsidies on fossil fuels, promoting a global circular economy, addressing the carbon content of traded products and other actions.

The press release and DDG Wolff’s remarks are embedded below.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-New-initiatives-launched-to-intensify-WTO-work-on-trade-and-the-environment

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff-remarks-on-the-Structured-Discussions-on-Trade-and-Environmental-Sustainability

Likely U.S. engagement in a Biden Administration

Because addressing the challenges from climate change are a core priority for the incoming Biden Administration, I would expect that once the new trade team is in place, the U.S. will become involved in both of the initiatives and other activities at the WTO on the importance of finding rules and solutions to pressing trade and environment issues.

The Biden team almost certainly supports most if not all of the items identified in paragraph 1 of the Communication (WT/CTE/W/249), including the importance of multilateral environmental agreements, that there is an urgent need for action on climate change, that trade and environmental objectives and policies should be mutually supportive, that trade and trade policy need to support efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, among others. Similarly, the Biden Administration will presumably strongly support the four areas of activity identified in paragraph 2 of the Communication:

“2. Therefore, express our intention to collaborate, prioritize and advance discussions on trade and environmental sustainability, including by:

“intensifying our work to share experiences and best practices; promote transparency, dialogue and information sharing along the full value chain of products and materials;

“strengthening coherence at the national and international level with a view to identifying areas of common interest and for future work within the WTO, in order for WTO to address more effectively sustainable development issues;

“working in cooperation with relevant international organizations and relevant actors, including the private sector, to identify and support technical assistance and capacity building needs of Members, and in particular least-developed countries (LDCs).

“working on possible actions and deliverables of environmental sustainability in the various areas of the WTO.”

Similarly, I would expect the Biden Administration to have an active interest in working with industry and other governments to address the challenges of plastics pollution, although U.S. interests are likely to be more action oriented than the items teed up by China at today’s announcement.

Conclusion

For years, many Members have fought focusing energies at the WTO on issues involving trade and the environment. With the climate change crisis and consequences being felt around the world, it appears that many or most WTO Members are appreciating the need for the WTO to play its role in addressing sustainable development and the climate change challenge.

With a new U.S. Administration, the U.S. should be a very active participant in moving the WTO and its Members forward.