Berlin meet favours environment-oriented trade policies

by Ramesh Jaura

Berlin, 22 Mar 2001 (IPS) -- Government ministers and high-level officials from over 70 countries said in Berlin Thursday that environmental considerations need to be taken into account in the negotiation of new trade agreements.

They were participating in a meeting organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the German federal ministry of environment (BMU) on 20-22 March in the German federal capital, Berlin.

Greenpeace International, however, said in a statement Thursday, that this was “hypocritical empty rhetoric as long as the US, Canada and Australia were undermining the Kyoto Protocol on climate change”.

“In the last few days, we have seen those governments making every effort to sink the Kyoto Protocol,” said Greenpeace International’s Bill Hare, “while at the same time asking developing countries present in Berlin to act responsibly.”

The industrialised countries, clubbed together in the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), are responsible for approximately 80% of carbon dioxide emissions, a major cause of global warming.

The Berlin meeting was held nearly a fortnight after the Environment Ministers from the Group of 8 (G8) major industrial nations - Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, USA, Japan and Russia - met in Trieste.

The G8 communique took note of “the serious environmental effects of violations of MEAs and the need to prevent them.” MEA is an acronym for Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

“There are some 200 of such agreements,” noted Malaysia’s Environment Minister Dato’ Law Ding, “which several developing countries - with hardly any know-how - can hardly keep track of, not to speak of implementing them.”

He was explaining the viewpoint of developing countries, which feel that industrialised nations are deploying environmental regulations to bar their competitive exports.

The Berlin meeting was held to “contribute to the ongoing debate on trade and environment issues in the run-up to a potential new WTO round”, said a background paper that was made available by UNEP.

A new round of trade liberalisation talks will likely be launched at the WTO’s (World Trade Organisation) ministerial meeting from 9-13 November in Qatar.

With an eye on Qatar, WTO Director-General Mike Moore, in a speech at the Ministerial Roundtable on Trade and Poverty in Least-Developed Countries (LDCs) in London on 19 March, said that “a new Round (of trade negotiations) is the surest way to prevent the further marginalisation of LDCs from the world economy and to deal with problems that they may have with existing WTO agreements”. He said that the new Round “must have implementation issues at its heart” and encompass other issues that are important to developing countries.

The Berlin meeting looked at the linkages between environment, sustainable development and trade policies that are often in conflict with one another.

“Until now, the discussion of MEA-WTO linkages has focussed primarily on potential tensions. UNEP believes that focussing more on potential synergies and involving more active input and participation by environmental policy-makers will help to advance the discussion,” the UN agency said in a background paper.

With this in view, the UNEP convened a meeting in cooperation with the WTO on 23 October last year. The focus was on discussing ways “to enhance synergies and mutual supportiveness between environment and trade regimes”. The Berlin meeting was intended to follow up on what was discussed last October, the UNEP added.

In his opening address, UNEP’s Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said that over the last 50 years, there has been a rapid expansion of world trade with the total value of global exports growing from $350 billion in 1950 to almost $5.5 trillion in 1999.

“Trade liberalisation contributes to economic growth, yet the benefits have not been fairly shared between countries and, in some cases, have led to greater environmental degradation and increased poverty,” said Toepfer.

“One part of the solution is for trade and environment policy-makers to work together to develop mutually supportive trade and environment policies. Such collaboration will maximise the economic and ecological benefits that can be gained from trade liberalisation,” he said.

Also speaking Thursday, Jurgen Trittin, Germany’s Environment Minister, called for a “fresh start” at the Qatar meeting, saying that globalization must be geared towards sustainable development.

He said international trade policy must promote sustainable development and future WTO negotiations must give greater consideration to environmental issues.

Discussion in Berlin, which included representatives from trade as well as environment ministries, focussed on the methods for conducting environmental assessments of trade policies at the national level, the relationship between MEAs and WTO, and also the role of economic instruments in promoting coherent and consistent trade and environment policies.

Examining UNEP-led country studies that show how environmental assessments can help maximise the net development gains of trade liberalisation by minimising negative environmental effects, the meeting focussed on concrete solutions to the complex trade and environment relationship.

Stressing the important role that environmental assessments of trade policy can play, Toepfer said, “only when you know the likely consequences of a policy decision can you take the necessary remedial action”.

The UNEP Executive Director highlighted the example of Uganda, where trade liberalisation in the form of industrial privatisation, and tariff reduction on fishing technology has contributed to over-fishing of the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria.

“While export revenues increased, over-exploitation led to a 20% reduction in catches and degradation of the lake ecosystem, including negative impacts on water quality,” he said.

Other examples from the UNEP country studies include India. There, trade liberalisation in the form of tariff reduction and liberalisation of foreign investment in the automotive sector helped increase automobile production by 136%. This contributed to a doubling of urban air pollution levels between 1991 and 1997.

In Argentina, trade liberalisation and promotion of fisheries exports led to a five-fold growth in fish catches in the decade 1985-95. The profits that the fishing firms gained from this liberalisation are estimated at $1.6 billion.

However, the resulting depletion in stocks has ultimately led to a net direct cost of about $500 million to the country, in terms of damage to the stocks of the most exploited species.

“One of the main messages coming out of the Earth Summit in 1992 was that trade and environment policy should be mutually supportive,” said Toepfer, who was then Germany’s federal Environment Minister and played a crucial role in the negotiations in Rio de Janeiro.

“Trade and environment topics will be on the agenda of the ten-year follow-up to Rio, The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next year. This meeting in Berlin sends an important signal to Johannesburg that environment and trade policy-makers are working together towards the overall goal of sustainable development,” he said.

The G8 want the Johannesburg summit to “identify ways to promote better integration and coherence between the global development agenda, poverty eradication and global environment protection”.