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Agricultural protectionism hurts environment

by Mario Osava

Rio de Janeiro, 31 Aug 2001 (IPS) -- The liberalisation of trade in agriculture would benefit developing countries as well as the environment, the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Rubens Ricupero, and Maurice Strong, chairman of the Earth Council, said in Brazil.

That argument should be taken into account in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations, because protectionism and farm subsidies promote “excessively high levels of production” based on the intensive use of toxic agro-chemicals that wreak havoc on the environment, said Ricupero.

It is a vital question, underlined Strong, not least because the issues of greatest interest to developing countries in the multilateral trade talks, like agriculture, are moving forward slower than those of interest to industrialised nations.

Ricupero and Strong are coordinating the 5th UNCTAD/Earth Council Policy Forum on Trade, Investment and the Climate Change Regime, which has drawn some 300 business representatives and officials from more than 30 countries to Rio de Janeiro from 29-31 August, to discuss the new mechanisms for fighting the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming.

The Rio Policy Forum was convoked by UNCTAD, the Costa Rica-based Earth Council, and the International Emissions Trading Association.

The stated mission of the policy forum is “to further the discussions among all nations, and contribute to the growing concerns about trade and investment implications of climate change, as well as experience and expectations in developed and developing countries, and their industry and financial sectors.”

The development of the market for carbon emissions trading requires implementation of the Kyoto Protocol to the Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1997, which sets targets for the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions and creates mechanisms allowing countries to negotiate their obligations towards curbing climate change.

Ricupero estimates that $10-15 billion could be invested over the next few years in greenhouse gas emission mitigation projects in the developing world, which allow industrialised countries to negotiate their emissions allowances.

That would account for just one-third of the potential future market for environmental services, he added.

In multilateral talks on climate change, rich countries like the US, Japan and EU members call for non-tariff restrictions, to condition imports on whether or not they comply with environmental and labour standards.

Such conditions are rejected by developing countries, which fear they could be used as protectionist barriers.

But many question the subsidies that the governments of rich countries shell out to farmers, thus distorting global trade.

“Without subsidies, there would be a redistribution of global agricultural production according to a logic of costs and natural conditions, with the result that there would be less aggression to the environment,” said Ricupero, in response to a question posed by IPS.

The clearest cases are those of sugar and alcohol produced from sugar cane in tropical countries, which face a “varied and complex set of protectionist measures” throughout the world, despite their environmental and cost advantages, said Ricupero, a diplomat and former finance minister from Brazil.

Brazil is a major producer of fuel alcohol, a cleaner fuel, although it has a hard time exporting the product, even as a substitute for the lead that many countries continue to add to their gasoline despite the well-known damages that the mixture causes to human health and the environment.

Industrialised countries are the biggest producers of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, which cause global warming and threaten to lead to serious environmental disasters in the future, because they remain in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries.

Industrialised countries are to cut emissions by an average of 5.2% on 1990 levels by 2012.

The crucial question is how to distribute the costs, according to Gylvan Meira Filho, president of the Brazilian Space Agency and proponent of the concept of industrialised countries’ historic responsibility for global warming.

The US government refused to press for the ratification by Congress of the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that its implementation would entail huge economic losses, since the US, as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases - one-quarter of the world total - would be the most heavily affected country. The US decision stands in the way of effective efforts to fight the planet’s worst environmental threat, say experts.

“It was a disappointment,” but there is still hope that the US will change its stance under public pressure, said Strong. He pointed out that 70% of the US populace wants the government to take action against climate change.

Washington has already committed itself to taking domestic action on the question, and has acknowledged the link between emissions of greenhouse gases and global warming, he added.

“The United States will adhere to the Kyoto Protocol sooner than we imagine,” because private companies in that country do not all hold the same position on the protocol, and many are already getting ready to take advantage of the business opportunities that it opens up, said Ricupero.

As the world’s leading exporter of technology, the US has much to gain in that new market, he added. – SUNS4960

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