Patrick Grady and Kathleen Macmillan
Greening the Rules
from Seattle and Beyond: the WTO Millenium Round(1999), Chapter 11.

Global Environmental Concerns

Seen from space, the Earth is a lovely blue and green sphere enveloped in white, whispy clouds. Back on the ground though, in one of the world's mushrooming mega-cities, the picture is not as pretty. The air is choked with black industrial smoke and the rivers are brown with industrial and residential waste.

Global ecosystems are coming under increasing stress from human activity. The global common is being abused. The overall global environment is becoming more and more fragile. Planet Earth faces problems of global warming, desertification, the destruction of the rainforest, the extinction of species, the loss of bio-diversity, water and air pollution, and the contamination of soils. These are all extremely serious, some would even say to the point of threatening the future of humankind on our planet.

Many environmentalists blame the WTO for doing little to solve environmental problems. This is no doubt true as the WTO is an organization set up to administer the rules of the international trading system and is not the international environmental policing agency. Some environmentalists even take their criticism of the WTO farther and hold it responsible for worsening environmental problems, claiming that it is encouraging "a race to the bottom" with respect to environmental standards. This is an obvious misrepresentation of the facts.

While the WTO's mandate is not to protect the global environment, its impact on the environment still needs to be taken into account. "What has the WTO been doing and what can it do for the environment?" are important questions for everyone, not just for environmentalists.

Economists view environmental problems as arising when all environmental costs of economic activity are not borne by the beneficiaries of the activity – the so called "negative environmental externalities." In this case, the unfettered functioning of the free market will lead to the production of too much of the good in question. Economists prescribe environmental policies that seek to internalize these externalities and to restore the optimum allocation of resources, including environmental resources of clean air, water and soil.

But even if national governments are successful in establishing environmental policies that successfully internalize all national externalities (and only the most naive economist would ever argue that they are), there are still international externalities to consider. Since these are not borne by national governments or their citizens, there is little reason for national governments to take them into account and in fact none do fully. There are many examples of such externalities. The most global are the so called greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane – emitted by the burning of fossil fuels and by agricultural production. Examples of more regional externalities would be untreated sewage in rivers flowing across national boundaries and certain air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide that cause acid rain.

Trade actions are one possible response to cross-border environmental damage. From the point of view of economic theory, however, trade actions are not usually the best response as they introduce production and consumption inefficiencies by distorting the relative prices of domestic and international goods. Better measures usually exist in theory that can produce the same environmental result at a higher level of output and income. But in some cases, trade actions may be the best practical response even if they are not the best response from a theoretical point of view. One example is when the imported goods themselves are the potential source of the damage as in the case of hazardous or nuclear wastes. Another example is where the production techniques used on one side of the border are the cause of the damage on the other such as when untreated wastewater from a food processing plant is dumped in to a river upstream from the border.

Trade measures can also be useful as levers in encouraging lagging countries to introduce policies that are environmentally sound from a global point of view. An example of such a policy where it may be appropriate to consider trade measures in the future is the Kyoto Protocol target for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These gases are believed to be the cause of global warming, which could be a serious threat to life on our planet. The Kyoto Protocol commits signatory countries to reduce these emissions 6 per cent from 1990 levels by 2008-12 Although trade sanctions are not specifically authorized in the Kyoto Protocol, they may ultimately prove necessary if the target is to be met. Since currently only developed countries and Eastern European countries that are signatories of the Protocol have quantitative targets for reductions, it will be necessary to find some means to get developing countries also to reduce greenhouse gases. After all, it wouldn't make much sense to force domestic industries in developed countries to comply with stiff greenhouse gas emission requirements if their offshore competitors in developing countries were not to be subjected to similar requirements. The overall effect of this would be just to encourage greenhouse-gas-intensive economic activity to move offshore and not to reduce greenhouse gases at all. Trade sanctions could prevent this from happening and provide some protection to domestic industries that are forced to comply with the greenhouse gas reduction requirements. They would also encourage developing countries to sign on to the Protocol.

Trade measures have been used successfully to achieve environmental objectives in at least two important instances. Under the Montreal Protocol, there was a ban on the import of CFCs and other substances that were damaging the ozone layer. This encouraged other countries that were not signatories to stop using CFCs too, since they could no longer export products that used CFCs such as refrigerators. The ban was thus successful in ending the use of CFCs and preventing further damage to the ozone layer. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), there was also a trade ban, this time on ivory. It helped to stem the decline in African elephants, which were being slaughtered for their tusks.

The WTO Agreements and the Environment

The Preamble to the WTO Agreement mentions the objective of sustainable development and the need to protect and preserve the environment. Under WTO rules, countries are allowed to impose trade restrictions for environmental and for health reasons. Two provisions in GATT Article XX permit governments to take measures to protect the environment: section (b) for measures "necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health"; and section (g) for measures "relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources." To qualify, measures cannot involve arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or be disguised trade restrictions. An additional, more controversial, qualification set out in Articles I and III proscribes discrimination based on process and production methods (PPM). This means that taxes and regulations on imported goods must be the same as those on domestic regardless of the PPM used in producing the good. This is important because the process and production methods utilized often have significant environmental consequences with some methods generating much more pollution than others.

The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS), which together allow measures for the protection of human, animal and plant life, and health, or the environment, also impose disciplines on technical regulations and SPS measures. Again such regulations and measures can't discriminate between countries or constitute disguised trade barriers. In addition, there is a "necessity test" that requires the regulations or measure to be no more trade restrictive than necessary. SPS measures must also be based on scientific evidence. Furthermore, regulations and measures that are based on international standards are presumed to be consistent with the agreements. SPS measures can be stricter than international norms if there is a scientific justification and if they are supported by an appropriate risk assessment. Finally, regulations and measures must also be transparent if they depart from international standards. Eco-labelling programmes are another important environmental policy instruments that are subject to the disciplines of the Agreement on TBT.

Other WTO Agreements also have environmental provisions. The Agriculture Agreement excludes environmental subsidies from the agricultural subsidy totals that must be cut back. The Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures makes non-actionable government assistance to industry for up to 20 per cent of the cost of upgrading existing facilities to comply with new environmental legislation. The General Agreement on Trade in Services, similarly to GATT Article XX, permits measures "necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health" in Article XIV (b). The TRIPs Agreement can facilitate access to environmentally-friendly technology and products. Its Article 27 (2) allows the refusal of patents "to protect human, animal or plant life or health or to avoid serious prejudice to the environment." Article 27 (3) allows the exclusion from patentability of "plants and animals... and essentially biological processes."

Countries are becoming more sensitive about the impact of trade negotiations on the environment. Under pressure from environmental groups, the European Union, the United States and Canada all intend to carry out environmental reviews of the proposals for trade liberalization that come up in the round.

Some Recent WTO Decisions Enrage Environmentalists

The WTO’s bad reputation with environmentalists, particularly in the United States, stems from recent WTO panel decisions on several controversial cases against the United States – the Tuna-Dolphin, the Shrimp-Turtle, and the Gasoline Standards case. In each of these, the rulings limited the ability of the United States to enforce its environmental laws, and have led, or will lead, to a watering down of these laws.

The Tuna-Dolphin case arose from a complaint by Mexico in 1991 under the old GATT regime that its exports of yellowfin tuna to the United States had been banned. The Mexican tuna was embargoed because the Mexican government was unable to prove to the US Authorities that the tuna had been caught using fishing techniques that protected dolphins as required under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. This Act forbids the sale in the United States of tuna caught using the mile-long nets favoured by Mexico that were notorious for killing the large schools of dolphins that typically swam above the tuna, revealing their location. The embargo on Mexican tuna also applied to intermediary countries, including Canada, that processed and canned Mexican tuna.

The panel ruled that the United States could not ban tuna products from Mexico simply because the way the tuna was caught did not meet US regulations. This decision was based on the GATT Article III proscription against discrimination based on process and production methods. The panel also concluded that the United States could not take trade action to enforce its own domestic laws in other countries such as Mexico in this case. Under the old GATT regime, the United States never had to formally accept the ruling. It was able to maintain its restrictions during lengthy bilateral consultations with Mexico and in the face of another, contrary ruling by a second panel requested by the European Union to enforce the decision of the first. During this time, observers were introduced on Mexican tuna fishing boats and there were some improvements in Mexico’s fishing practices but not enough to satisfy environmentalists and the US government. Nevertheless, the United States eventually agreed to comply with the ruling. Amendments to the MMPA proposed by the Clinton Administration will soon allow foreign tuna to be imported even though it is still caught using mile-long nets lethal to dolphins. And to add insult to injury in the view of environmentalists, the tuna will be able to qualify for the label, “dolphin-safe.”

The Shrimp-Turtle case was launched in 1997 by India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand against a US ban on the import of shrimp caught using nets without a turtle-excluder device (TED). This is a metal grid sewn into a net which protect turtles by guiding them through a hole in the net. In contrast, shrimp pass through the grid into the back of the net where they are captured. Nets without these devices are the biggest killers of sea turtles, which are listed as endangered species under the CITES. The US Endangered Species Act requires foreign countries selling shrimp in the United States to use nets with TEDs. The WTO panel, supported by the Appellate Body, confirmed the earlier Tuna-Dolphin decision and ruled that the United States could not ban the import of products that did not meet US PPM regulations. Again the United States was slapped on the wrist for attempting the extraterritorial application of its domestic environmental laws.

The Gasoline Standards case against the United States was the first heard under the new WTO dispute settlement mechanism in 1995-96. Venezuela and Brazil challenged a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule, which enforced Congressionally-mandated clean air standards to reduce smog and toxic air pollutants, on the grounds that it discriminated against their exports. The standards required that the cleanliness of gasoline sold in the most polluted US cities improve by 15 per cent and that gasoline sold elsewhere in the US maintain 1990 levels. For operational purposes, the EPA rule established a standard for contaminants in gas from domestic and foreign refiners without adequate documentation on their 1990 levels of contaminants, such as those in Venezuela and Brazil, that was based on the 1990 average of all refiners able to provide documentation. The WTO panel ruling, confirmed by the Appellate Body, was that the EPA rules discriminated against foreign refineries. Consequently, the United States relaxed the standards.

In contrast, a 1994 GATT panel ruling on a EU challenge of the US gas guzzler tax and other conservation measures ruled in favour of the United States even though the US exempted primarily US-produced small trucks and utility vehicles from the fleet-wide, fuel-efficiency standards. This exemption made the required reduction in fleet-wide average gasoline consumption much larger for European automobile manufacturers. A clearer case of disguised protectionism is hard to find.

For those interested in the legal fine points, it is worth noting that, while the Shrimp-Turtle and Gasoline Standards cases both ruled against the United States, they provided a different interpretation on the issue of the “extra-jurisdictional” application of domestic laws than in the Dolphin-Tuna case. Based on these cases, it is now accepted that measures “necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health” Article XX (b) and measures “relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources” Article XX (g) can be applied “extra-juridictionally” as long as the measures are really “necessary” and are not a “disguised restriction on international trade.” The earlier decision against the United States in the Dolphin-Tuna case is attributed by some trade law experts to the fact that the United States acted unilaterally before taking a reasonable approach to try to resolve the issue and not to any inherent prohibition on the “extra-jurisdictional” application of domestic law.

In another, environmentally-related case, Canada, which produces 95 per cent of exported asbestos, is the complainant against a EU ban on asbestos imports, which applies even to asbestos embedded in building materials. It claims that the ban is a violation of the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and runs counter to GATT Articles XI and III banning quantitative restrictions on imports and discriminatory trade measures. The EU counterclaim is based on the right to a safe workplace free of a known carcinogen. However, while there is ample scientific evidence on the carcinogenic properties of asbestos, it is not clear that asbestos in building materials constitutes a threat to human health. A panel decision is awaited.

A final case with environmental implications, which is discussed fully in Chapter 3 above, is the EU ban on beef treated with growth hormones. Suffice it to say here that it puts limits on the extent to which any country can set its own food standards that are higher than international standards unless they are backed by substantial scientific evidence. The precautionary principle, which applies to drugs and requires the manufacturer to demonstrate that a drug is safe, does not apply to foods, which are governed by the less strict criterion of risk assessment.

Unilateral vs. Multilateral Action

A common element in all the WTO decisions in the cases involving environmental issues is an abhorrence of unilateral trade action. Such actions are considered to be inconsistent with a rules-based international trading system. They allow large industrialized countries like the United States to throw their economic weight around to the disadvantage of smaller, often developing, countries. However, there is little recognition that for environmental problems unilateral action may be the only action possible and that some action is better than none given the gravity of the situation.

The WTO’s preferred instruments for dealing with international environmental issues are strengthened multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). There are about 200 of these instruments, which are usually negotiated under the United Nations Environment Programme. Around 20 of these MEAs have trade bans or rely on trade sanctions for enforcement. The CITES is an example of an agreement that allows the imposition of trade sanctions on countries threatening endangered species. The Kyoto Protocol is an example of a MEA without trade sanctions. So far, no WTO panel has yet been faced with a clear cut case of the use of trade sanctions mandated by an MEA. How such a case would be decided is anyone’s guess.

How to Green the WTO

After over twenty years of discussion and debate on trade and the environment in the GATT, the WTO, the OECD and elsewhere, the time has come for action to make the WTO more environmentally-friendly. Surely, it is not beyond our capacity to reach agreement on some ways to make sure the WTO treads more softly in the sensitive environmental field and does not overturn domestic environmental laws unless they are truly discriminatory and constitute disguised barriers to trade.

The WTO Agreements need to be modified to make clear that the essential principles of non-discrimination for environmental measures should be national treatment and most-favoured-nation. GATT Article III also needs to be amended to make clear that prohibitions on restraints on process and production methods do not apply to environmental measures. This is very important because many of the most pressing environmental problems that must be addressed such as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions may have to be handled on the level of process and production methods. Trade-Related Environmental Measures (TREMs) should not be the first weapons in our environmental arsenal, but they should be available for use where necessary.

There are many proposals to make the WTO more environmentally-friendly. Even though the United States has borne the brunt of the WTO challenges of domestic environmental legislation, the European Union has been more progressive than the United States on the environment front and has provided leadership in attempting to green the WTO. At Singapore, the EU proposed that the WTO recognize MEAs that utilize trade sanctions and that changes to GATT Article XX permit the enforcement of MEAs in violation of WTO rules. Surprisingly, the US didn’t support this proposal.

GATT Article XX should also be amended to allow countries to take trade measures to protect endangered species or marine mammals. Changes may have to be made elsewhere in the GATT to make sure that this right is not overruled by other provisions. So far, no panel has accepted the legitimacy of a measure permitted as an Article XX derogation if it were otherwise inconsistent with other GATT provisions.

Another proposal is to substitute a “proportionality test” for the “necessity test” in the WTO TBT and SPS Agreements. Under this, it would just be necessary to show that the environmental benefits of the measure were greater than the trade costs. Under the necessity test now in place, the measure must be the least trade restrictive available.

A final proposal is to eliminate all duties and barriers on environmental goods and services. This would make it cheaper to use the latest technologies to clean up or protect the environment. Canada would also benefit as a leading international supplier of such goods and services.

Success in other areas of the Millennium Round could also contribute to the achievement of environmental objectives. The proposed reduction in agricultural subsidies (discussed in Chapter 3 above) would promote more environmentally sound land use and curtail overproduction which not only wastes water, energy and chemicals, but creates pollution as well. Cuts in fisheries subsidies would reduce over-fishing and the depletion of fish stocks. Unfortunately, there is one particularly environmentally damaging form of subsidies that won’t get addressed in the round because they don’t directly affect trade. These are coal subsidies, which encourage the burning of a particularly dirty fossil fuel.

The WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) was created with much fanfare as a result of the Uruguay Round purportedly to make the WTO greener. Environmentalists argue with some justification that, contrary to its initial promise, it has acted perversely identifying environmental measures that need to be eliminated to avoid trade disputes and advancing proposals for greater constraints on the ability to enforce MEAs through trade sanctions. The CTE needs to become greener in its outlook.

Developing countries can be expected to resist the legitimization of TREMs, which they consider a particularly insidious form of disguised protectionism directed largely at them. But the developing countries need to recognize that they are not the worst polluters, and that all of humanity will gain from an improved global environment.

It’s the industrial countries of the North that burn the most fossil fuels and produce the most greenhouse gases. This is believed to be the cause of global warming which could have a devastating effect on the global environment if it hasn’t started to already. Developing countries, largely in the South, still produce less greenhouse gas than the industrialized countries and are not the main cause of global warming. But in the next century, if developed countries are successful in meeting the Kyoto Protocol targets, the developing countries, which are not signatories of the Protocol, will overtake the developed world as the leading producers of greenhouse gases. It’s for this reason that some have argued that the Kyoto Protocol with its coverage limited to industrialized countries was inadequate and would only slow the progress of global warming by twenty years or so.

The Millennium Round offers a unique opportunity for a much larger North-South consensus to improve the global environment. The countries of the North could offer liberalized access to their markets to the countries of the South in return for enforceable commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, as part of the package, the North could also seek commitments from the South on the conservation of rain forests. They are an important source of the world’s oxygen supply by breaking down the carbon dioxide in the air. They are also invaluable reservoirs of global bio-diversity. Furthermore, the package could be sweetened, as suggested by Jeffrey Sachs in a recent article in The Economist, by transfers of funds from the North to the South derived from a new proposed carbon tax on Northern fossil fuel consumption. More realistically, this is all probably dreaming in technicolour given the lack of past progress on environmental issues. Countries were all ready to make firm commitments to reduce greenhouse gasses under the Kyoto protocol, but very few have yet ratified it and actual performance has been very disappointing against the benchmark established. Nevertheless, we have to keep trying to make progress on the environment on all fronts, including the WTO.

The Environmental Benefits of Trade Liberalization

It’s also important not to forget the environmental benefits of trade liberalization. The economic growth produced will raise income all around. The increases in income can be used to improve the environment. Richer countries tend to spend a larger portion of their GDP on improving the environment. The technology diffusion facilitated by trade makes the latest and usually more environmentally-friendly technology more widely available. This also will have a positive impact on the environment. Trade liberalization is good for the environment and can be made even better if the rules are greened.