Simon Manley speaking at event
Policy Analysis

Chairman Simon Manley Seeks to Breathe New Life Into Trade and Environment Committee

New Chairman of the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment, Simon Manley, aims to uplift the voices of developing countries and achieve environmental goals with open and honest conversation between all parties. Jennifer Freedman, managing editor of IISD’s Trade and Sustainability Review, interviews Manley to gain further insights on his priorities for the year.

By Managing Editor, Jennifer Freedman on June 7, 2022

With people and governments around the world more aware than ever of the urgent need to tackle environmental challenges, we can expect an even brighter spotlight on the work of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO’s) Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE). Committee Chairman Simon Manley, the British ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, has set himself an ambitious agenda to reinvigorate CTE discussions during his 1-year term.

Simon Manley and COP26 President
Simon Manley and COP 26 President at the WTO. Photo: Pierre Albouy

The CTE is in a “unique position” to focus on the global trading system’s role in addressing environmental issues—especially “the relationship between trade and the key environmental challenges of our time: climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution,” Manley said in an interview. “While it is fair to say that WTO committees aren’t always known for being the most energetic places, over the last few years the CTE has grown in profile and activity. I hope to build on this momentum.”

The CTE is in a “unique position” to focus on the global trading system’s role in addressing environmental issues—especially “the relationship between trade and the key environmental challenges of our time".

A key element of his game plan is the WTO’s Trade and Environment Week, which explores issues at the forefront of the trade and environment agenda and can encourage broader stakeholder engagement around CTE meetings. As in past years, this large-scale global forum—planned for the autumn—will feature events and workshops led by WTO members; showcase experiences in making global trade more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive; and allow participants to exchange ideas on the role of trade and the WTO in building back greener and better from the COVID-19 crisis.

“This is an excellent opportunity for stakeholders to organize information sessions to provide input to delegations,” Manley said. “I also anticipate that there will be a number of sessions related to sustainability and the environment in the 2022 WTO Public Forum; this, too, is an important channel for engaging stakeholders.”

Developing Countries: A vital part of the discussion

While Manley is neither an environment specialist nor a trade specialist, his more than three decades in the diplomatic service have taught him “the power of listening.” He intends to do a lot of listening as CTE chairman and is especially keen to hear the voices of developing countries.

“The more inclusive the debate or negotiation, the stronger the product,” he said. “One of my priorities is to encourage greater participation from developing countries and to give them a voice. I am already consulting members of all shapes and sizes to better understand their priorities and concerns.”

He noted that developing countries made a “crucial contribution” at the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26) and that he expects this trend to continue at COP 27, which will take place from November 7 to 18, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt—the first African COP.

I want to stress that my door is always open. I encourage delegations to reach out to me to share their ideas and priorities at any time.

“The most important element in addressing the views of developing countries is ensuring that they are part of the discussion, raising awareness of their challenges and priorities,” Manley said. “That is a key role for the CTE, and in recent years we have had increasing participation by developing countries. For example, delegations such as Bangladesh and Maldives have presented their national experience with sustainable production of jute and tuna, respectively. I want to encourage more of this—particularly the sharing of case studies.”

Many developing countries struggle to engage meaningfully in formal CTE meetings because their teams in Geneva are small and may not have sufficient time, he added. “As chair, I want to stress that my door is always open. I encourage delegations to reach out to me to share their ideas and priorities at any time".

He’s also working to strengthen the CTE’s role in keeping all 164 WTO members up to date on the work of the trade body’s three environmental initiatives: Trade and Environmental Sustainability Structured Discussions (TESSD), the Informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade (IDP), and Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform.

“I want to bolster this function, as I know just how valuable many members find it,” explained Manley.

While he stressed that “the CTE is the multilateral standing forum” dedicated to government dialogue on trade and the environment, Manley sees the committee as a conduit to fresh perspectives on the issues discussed in informal initiatives such as TESSD and IDP that “represent a different way of doing business in the WTO.” For example, the CTE can present these issues to all WTO members and trigger a dialogue that results in different viewpoints about them.

Trade and Environment: Moving into the mainstream

The British diplomat said he “really welcomes” the shift in policy that has nudged trade and environment into the mainstream. One reason for this is that “there is now (almost) universal acceptance that climate change is taking place at an alarming rate,” he said. “We are faced with such an immense threat to our planet that policy-makers and experts have started to look at this issue from every angle—including the trade angle. It doesn’t benefit anyone to look at trade policy and climate/environment in silos.”

Another reason is that consumers are passionate about the environment and increasingly committed to ensuring that the products they buy don’t contribute to global warming, biodiversity loss, or pollution. “As a result, there is pressure for more transparency about how goods are produced, packaged, and shipped throughout the entire supply chain,” Manley said. “Businesses want to respond to consumer needs, and they also see an opportunity for growth through finding climate-smart, sustainable production. The green energy transition, for example, presents an economic opportunity for innovative green businesses.”

This trend also presents an opportunity for the WTO to play a role by facilitating dialogue on the kinds of trade measures that can help members achieve their climate and environmental goals and ensure the efficient functioning of the global trading system,” Manley said.

Countering the Skeptics

Not everyone is convinced that the various environmental initiatives at the WTO are geared as much to reaching environmental goals as to simply increasing trade. While these initiatives share a common objective—ensuring that trade and the WTO help tackle environmental degradation and climate change—some skeptics say the WTO’s liberalized trade agenda is fuelling global environmental degradation. Others, such as Steve Charnovitz of the George Washington University Law School, say the “almost complete absence” of transparency and stakeholder participation at the WTO means it’s not the right venue to solve environmental problems.

“To avoid a counterproductive clash over climate-related trade measures, we need to have serious and constructive discussions at the WTO on how to ensure that trade-related measures adopted—and trade more broadly—contribute effectively to transatlantic ambitions on climate change but are also fair and well calibrated in terms of their trade impact,” according to the Washington International Trade Association.

Here’s what Manley had to say:

“Understandably, WTO members want to boost trade opportunities—particularly in environmental goods and services which, as a market, has a lot of untapped potential. The challenge is that we don’t lose sight of the genuine environmental outcomes we are seeking by getting too caught up in commercial outcomes.”

“Honest and Open Conversations”

Ensuring that trade can be a force for good in achieving environmental goals requires “honest and open conversations between all parties,” he added. “We want to avoid our environmental efforts creating unnecessary barriers to trade that might be good old protectionism disguised as environmentalism. Protectionism in the guise of environmentalism not only distorts trade and economic activity—it can also undermine environmental objectives.”

He believes the WTO provides the tools needed to strike the right balance. Countering Charnovitz’s claim, Manley says there is transparency about environment-related trade measures at the WTO. There is also “support for harmonization, which both facilitates trade and encourages higher levels of environmental protection; fora for the discussion of unintended impacts on trade or for calling out disguised, unjustified barriers to trade; and a venue for negotiations on new trade rules to align with environmental objectives, if that is the direction that members want to go.”

We want to avoid our environmental efforts creating unnecessary barriers to trade that might be good old protectionism disguised as environmentalism.

Manley has hit the ground running since his February 24 appointment as CTE chairman—something he juggles alongside his ambassadorial duties at the United Nations and other international organizations. He’s also a father, a husband, and a dog owner, which leaves little time for hobbies.

Still, it’s not all work and no play. “As you might expect from the CTE chair, I love nature, not least gardens and gardening,” he said. “And I love exploring the beautiful Swiss countryside and its elegant towns and cities.”

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