WTO environment talks — official text with 70 members: China, US, Israel too

The post-Ministerial Conference “structured discussion” would only be among some members and would, follow a proposed timetable.

Surprising: the text is innocuous, so why the opposition? | Cassie Boca, Unsplash licence

By Peter Ungphakorn

On November 4, the US reportedly announced it was joining other World Trade Organization (WTO) members in calling for “structured discussions” on trade, environment and sustainability — a fortnight after China reportedly did the same (on October 22).

This was confirmed on November 15, when the participants released the text as a public statement for the November 30–December 3 WTO Ministerial conference. By then Israel had also joined, bringing total participants to 57 WTO members. On December 3 a revision was circulated adding 13 new participants bringing the total to 70, but with no change to the main content.

With so much attention being paid to environmental issues, not least during the fortnight of the UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, agreeing on an innocuous text like this should be straightforward.

But it isn’t. Why? And why isn’t this automatically part of the work of the WTO’s Trade and Environment Committee?

Continue reading or jump to:
What’s so controversial? | What is being proposed? | Comment

What’s so controversial?Back to top

The original proposal was surprising in two ways.

One is how little information was publicly available about it.

The drafts were secret (“restricted”) documents. There wasn’t even an up-to-date list of the participating members. The previous latest was from September (a public document). It listed 53 (counting the EU as itself + 27 member states):

Albania, Australia, Canada, Chad, Chile, Costa Rica, EU, Fiji, Gambia, Iceland, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Maldives, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Senegal, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK.

A Twitter thread by Carolyn Deere listed 56 WTO members: the 53 above plus

China, Colombia, and the US.

By December 3, the list of participants was public. It now had 70 WTO members (counting the EU as 28), adding:

Bahrain, Cabo Verde, Ecuador, Honduras, Hong Kong, Israel, Macao, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Suriname, Turkey, Ukraine, Uruguay and Vanuatu.

The other surprise is the small number of participants — less than half (43%) of the membership — even though environmental sustainability should by now be a topic of interest to all members.

Without any formal explanation, we can only speculate about the possible reasons.

A likely candidate is the complaint from some developing countries that they are already struggling to keep up with the workload in the WTO.

Related to this is the controversy over “joint statements”, which have become toxic for a small but influential number of members, particularly India and South Africa.

“Joint-statement initiatives” has become code for negotiations among subsets of the membership, also known as “plurilateral”, who are willing to go ahead even when others refuse to join in.

Some of these initiatives are not actually negotiations — at least for now they do not aim to create new rules or obligations for WTO members, simply to provide information and strengthen awareness among the membership, for example on trade and gender.

That is also the case with these talks. But the draft does mention “good practices” and “voluntary actions”.

India, South Africa and some other countries do not want to touch anything that might hint at new rules and obligations, particularly when their own priorities are among a large pile of deadlocked topics in WTO negotiations. For them, simply talking about a subject can be controversial.

What is being proposed?Back to top

A revised text prepared for ministers and issued on December 3 is here in pdf and here in html. It adds 13 new participants from the November 15 original (pdf). (The previous draft text, circulated on October 19, although still restricted, is here in pdf.)

That latest text is the fifth version of a draft originally circulated on July 5, 2021, intended to be issued as a statement by ministers at the November 30–December 3 WTO Ministerial conference in Geneva.

By including “structured” in the title, the proponents are showing that they do not want the discussion to be random, but to follow an agenda designed to produce an outcome at the next Ministerial Conference.

1. Only some members: With over half of the membership of 164 still cool to the idea, the statement is only being made by some ministers:

“We, the Ministers representing the following Members of the WTO: Albania; Australia; Bahrain, Kingdom of; Cabo Verde; Canada; Chad; Chile; China; Colombia; Costa Rica; Ecuador; European Union; Fiji; The Gambia; Honduras; Hong Kong, China; Iceland; Israel; Japan; Kazakhstan; Korea, Republic of; Liechtenstein; Macao, China; Maldives; Mexico; Moldova, Republic of; Montenegro; New Zealand; North Macedonia; Norway; Panama; Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of; Senegal; Singapore; Suriname; Switzerland; Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu; Turkey; Ukraine; United Kingdom; United States; Uruguay; and Vanuatu issue this statement …”

2. Preamble: The next 10 paragraphs set down the context: the need for action, with reference to activities in various other international organizations as well as the WTO itself.

“Agree to”: The members issuing the statement would agree to act according eight bullet points including to

“Launch dedicated discussions on how trade-related climate measures and policies can best contribute to climate and environmental goals and commitments while being consistent with WTO rules and principles”

Most of the actions are about working harder on the subject and where the discussions should focus — how to boost trade in environmental goods, where the challenges lie for trade and sustainability, how to help developing countries, and so on.

For now, no new commitments or obligations are envisaged, but the draft does speak of developing “good practices”:

“Identify and compile best practices, as well as explore opportunities for voluntary actions and partnerships to ensure that trade and trade policies are supportive of and contribute to:

(i) achieving a more resource-efficient circular economy;

(ii) promoting sustainable supply chains and addressing the challenges and opportunities arising from the use of sustainability standards and any related measures, in particular for developing Members; and

(iii) promoting and facilitating access to environmental goods and services, including encouraging the global uptake of new and emerging low-emissions and other climate-friendly technologies”

3. A timetable: Annexed to the statement is a roadmap for 2022, with meetings in these months:

  • February: adopt workplan to implement operational part of this 2021 Ministerial Conference statement.
  • April: implementation of workplan. Begin planning and preparations for high-level event.
  • July: take stock of implementation status of this statement and need to adapt workplan to achieve its full implementation.
  • October: implementation of workplan.
  • December: High-level stocktaking event to review progress achieved (notably identification of good practices, voluntary actions and partnerships in the relevant areas) and adopt next steps towards the next Ministerial Conference.
CommentBack to top

When China and the US joined the group, activists welcomed the moves and told us to “stay tuned” for a statement to be released in coming weeks.

Presumably they were enthusiastic because they had seen leaked copies of the actual “restricted” draft text.

The discussions are not entirely secret, however.

Meeting summaries and announcements of next meetings are “unrestricted” public documents, the latest available summary being for the meeting on September 16–17.

If the members involved, the WTO’s leadership, and the activists did want broader support for this move, then the public should have been able to see what was on the table. Transparency by leaking is not ideal.

See also: WTO news on the discussions, the latest news story (from September), and search result for all documents circulated. At the time of writing the WTO news items had not reflected the Ministerial Conference versions of the text.

December 12, 2921 — updating with the December 3 revised statement
November 15, 2021 — updating with the public document for the Ministerial Conference
November 6, 2021 — clarifying the list of 56 participants; minor edits for clarity

Image credits:
Wind farm and stormy skies in Indiana | Cassie Boca, Unsplash licence

Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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