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Preparing for the Next Chapter in Trade and Sustainable Development Governance

The WTO's Marrakesh Agreement famously enshrined the objective of sustainable development in its preamble 25 years ago. Now, policy in this realm has evolved dramatically, but we must not become complacent. Below, our expert reflects on key takeaways from Geneva Trade Week. 

By Sofia Baliño on October 7, 2020

The debate over how to ensure sustainable development considerations are incorporated within trade policymaking is now decades old. The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Marrakesh Agreement famously enshrined this objective in its preamble 25 years ago, shortly after the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit that launched some of the key environmental frameworks of our time, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Now, the discussion in policy circles has evolved dramatically and the term “sustainable development” is far better known and understood. That does not mean, however, that we should be complacent. Many of the old battles from the early 1990s and 2000s are still being waged, while newer concerns have emerged that would have been difficult to predict at the time that any of these institutions and frameworks were enacted.

There is now an increased understanding that national and global economies function better when they are inclusive, where inequalities are addressed, and where sustainability considerations are put front and centre. Yet while there is now an active, engaged community on trade and sustainable development, often this work continues in silos. Meanwhile, those who do not work directly in this space may have a broad sense of the importance of sustainability, but not have a window into the technical and political nuances of these policy decisions and what these mean for daily life.

National and global economies function better when they are inclusive, where inequalities are addressed, and where sustainability considerations are put front and centre.

Active, creative, and open discussion is vital to ensure that the next 25 years of economic and environmental governance can learn from the challenges of the past, while also future-proofing these frameworks. This was exactly the type of discussion on display during Geneva Trade Week, held virtually from 28 September until 2 October 2020, by the Geneva Trade Platform.

Taking a Holistic View

Geneva Trade Week’s high-level panel on sustainability, organized by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), sought to set the stage for the week’s sustainability pillar by showcasing the breadth and depth of issues that fall under this heading and how they interact with our trading system. Along the way, it sought to draw from the early lessons of the COVID-19 crisis and from the past few decades of environmental and economic governance.

While the speakers’ backgrounds differed significantly, their subjects complemented each other in ways that were sometimes unexpected, and served as a useful reminder that the silos we may work in may not reflect the interconnectedness of our world.

Asked to consider the road ahead to overcoming COVID-19’s challenges and fulfilling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, each of the plenary speakers gave us two “to dos” that they felt were valuable for policymakers and civil society to consider. Their responses reflected the diversity of their backgrounds, while also highlighting their complementarity.

One of the recurring themes was the impact of environmentally harmful subsidies, and the role of governments and the trading system in curbing them. Elizabeth Wilson, Senior Director, Environmental Policy, the Pew Charitable Trusts, urged governments to conclude a WTO agreement to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies by year’s end, in line with the target date in SDG 14.6, while also urging them to direct some of their energies to tackling marine plastic pollution over the longer term.

Alexander Shestakov, Director, Science, Society, and Sustainable Futures Division, CBD, called for eradicating all subsidies harmful to biodiversity, while also urging that policymakers mainstream biodiversity into all strategies, including trade. John Murton, the UK’s envoy for next year’s Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP 26), highlighted the urgency of the climate challenge and stressed the need for promptly abolishing export subsidies for coal and subsidies for coal-fired power stations, while urging big economies to set a target date for becoming carbon neutral over the medium to long term.

African Union Commissioner for Trade and Industry, Albert Muchanga, called for governments to follow an aggressive economic reform programme aimed at poverty reduction to meet the African Continental Free Trade Area’s (AfCFTA) commitments, while also boosting agricultural investment. Taking a longer-term view, he urged governments to work towards reforming the multilateral trading system (MTS) with a renewed focus on development.

Drawing from the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis, Suerie Moon, Co-Director, Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, urged for health-related technology transfer to receive greater funding and political support, especially in terms of the COVID-19 response. Looking further ahead, she said that governments should rework intellectual property rules to ensure that technology transfer is on an equal footing with intellectual property rights protections.

Moustapha Kamal Gueye, Coordinator, Green Jobs Programme, International Labour Organization (ILO), urged for more efforts to be made to support innovation and sustainable entrepreneurship and promote employment and decent work, especially given the current economic climate. In the long term, he said governments need to boost productive capacity to support sustainable production and consumption, especially in food and health.

Preparing for the Future

These to-dos may seem varied, but they carry across them a shared concern over the future of our policy frameworks and their ability to fulfil the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda. They also nod towards a potential sea change that is soon to come, partly influenced by COVID-19 and partly the result of efforts that long pre-date the current pandemic.

Trade negotiators at the WTO have been racing to conclude nearly two decades’ worth of negotiations on fisheries subsidies, while also debating how to approach institutional reform and revitalize the development dimension in the global trade club’s work. After WTO meetings were initially put on hold as a result of the pandemic, discussions have since resumed in hybrid formats and, in some cases, have already begun to integrate what is known about COVID-19’s economic effects. In parallel, there is a growing interest in understanding the nexus between gender and trade, while topics such as the circular economy and plastic pollution are now taking center stage in the WTO’s trade and environment committee.

Continuing engagement is imperative, especially when discussing the future of sustainable development: we are standing at the cusp of a potential new era of environmental and economic governance

Geneva Trade Week also came at another pivotal moment for environmental governance, as climate negotiators look to ensure that the promise of the UN’s Paris Agreement is realized, despite delaying their annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to next year. Meanwhile, UN negotiators are working to finalize a post-2020 biodiversity framework in time for next year’s meeting of the CBD COP in Kunming, China, despite concerns that the existing biodiversity targets for 2020 will go unmet.

New economic rules and frameworks are regularly being negotiated, both in Geneva and beyond. Regional trade agreements are set to reshape the way that entire continents trade internally and with the rest of the world, with one of the key accords to watch being the AfCFTA, though its implementation has also been delayed as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis, with its devastating loss of life and painful implications for jobs and livelihoods, has again brought to the fore the question whether our current systems are sufficiently equipped to address these and other large-scale challenges.

Continuing engagement is imperative, especially when discussing the future of sustainable development: we are standing at the cusp of a potential new era of environmental and economic governance, similar to what we saw in the 1990s. Yet we are also facing a series of threats, including the current pandemic, that are testing the resilience of our systems and our ability to prepare for future shocks, including those we cannot foresee.


A version of this article was published on the Trade for Development News platform run by the Enhanced Integrated Framework – an initiative housed at the WTO for helping least developed countries (LDCs) better engage in trade.

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