Bad news for the environment – Bad news for the economy

Published 6 December 2016 in:

Photo: Gilles Lougassi

Few people know failure as well as trade negotiators. We fail on a consistent basis. We learn to deal with it. The main reason that we manage to move on is because we know that on the few occasions that we actually do conclude agreements, they can make a substantial difference.

Getting used to failure does not mean that it does not hurt. I still get upset and annoyed every time we fail. I was upset this weekend, still am actually, because we failed at something that was important, and because failure was unnecessary.

Since July 2014 17 members (counting the EU as one) have been negotiating the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA). It is a plurilateral agreement within the WTO. Plurilateral means that not all WTO members have to join, but the benefits of the agreement will apply to all, even nonmembers.

The idea behind EGA is simple but powerful. We will liberalise trade on a number of products that can contribute to environmental protection and climate change mitigation. In the EGA we find products related to waste management, helping clean air and water, energy efficiency, renewable energy, reducing air pollution etc.

The advantages of the EGA are not only related to climate. Many of the sectors included in the agreement are economically important and drivers of innovation and new technology. Therefore there is a strong economic incentive as well and EGA represents a real investment for the future.

There has been some criticism that the EGA is not broad enough, that more products should be included, that it should include services as well, that the environmental gains of some products are unclear etc. All these are relevant points. But it is important to remember that the negotiations that are taking place now are just a first step. The agreement will be an open one, meaning that new members, new products and even new categories (such as services) may be added in future reviews. This is crucial for an agreement like this where technological development is happening fast.

The ambition was to conclude the EGA this weekend. We failed. A lot of finger pointing is taking place right now, as usual after negotiations stall, but trying to assign blame is not really meaningful. In trade negotiations defensive interests are usually the most difficult obstacles to get past. Even in an agreement like the EGA where the gains for all are so obvious, we could not avoid getting stuck on a few defensive positions.

But all is not lost. As stated in the beginning, trade negotiators are nothing if not resilient. On the 12th October 2014 on this blog I lamented the fact that we had failed to conclude negotiations on another plurilateral agreement, the Information Technology Agreement (ITA). But on the 17th December 2015 I wrote an article celebrating the fact that the ITA review was finally concluded during the WTO ministerial meeting in Nairobi. The next WTO ministerial will be held in Buenos Aires in December 2017. So watch this space. In December 2017, there might be an article by me on this blog celebrating that the EGA is finally concluded.