China's WTO Updates
WTO Focuses on Sustainable Growth

WTO members last November launched new global trade talks dubbed the "Doha Development Agenda" which includes among its priorities the aim of achieving trade that respects the environment and sustainable development.

This aim is not far removed from the focus of discussions by delegates attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, from August 26 to September 4.

Albeit somewhat timidly, the 144 members of the World Trade Organization have now begun their first negotiations on how to enhance "the mutual supportiveness of trade and environment."

"We are convinced that the aims of upholding and safeguarding an open and non-discriminatory multilateral trading system, and acting for the protection of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development, can and must be mutually supportive," WTO ministers agreed in their final declaration that launched the new trade talks.

Under the critical eye of developing countries, which make up about three quarters of the WTO's membership and are skeptical about the crossover between trade and environment, delegates have a number of targets regarding environmental matters.

Experts believe that the most significant factor in the Doha round, which is scheduled to run until January 2005, will be the way in which subsidies are reduced, principally in agriculture.

Extensive subsidy programs currently encourage intensive farming and fishing in rich countries which put a strain on resources and prevent poorer countries from fully profiting from selling their own raw materials.

"We have to go backwards if we want to stop the destruction of resources. It will be necessary to give subsidies for no longer producing. That's how we will see the difference on the subject of sustainable development," one expert commented.

On agriculture one of the biggest issues is the reduction of these subsidies and how to reorient them towards those which have a less intensive and more favorable effect on the environment.

Meanwhile on fishing subsidies, the discussions so far are shaping up though without a convergence of opinions yet visible on the horizon.

On the European Union's insistence, negotiations are also due to look at how to define the relationship between obligations resulting from WTO accords and those of the 200 or so multilateral agreements that already exist on the environment.

They will also cover reducing customs tariffs for environmental services and equipment.

These are probably the most concrete objectives facing WTO delegates in this field though it remains to be seen if the developing countries, whose priorities include health and food and who demand the opening of world markets to their textiles and farming goods, are interested in buying non-polluting technology, experts say.

As for negotiations on the recognition by the WTO of multilaterally agreed environmental accords, the Doha declaration stipulates that the talks must be without prejudice for non-signatories of those multilateral agreements.

Non-governmental organizations denounce this clause as too limiting.

But the countries of the South fear that environmental norms can be used against them in the dealings of the WTO's dispute settlement body for instance. They denounce "green protectionism" by the North and fear new obligations imposed on their development.

The Doha round foresees the negotiation of "special and differential treatment" for developing countries and for technical assistance to help them fulfill their trade obligations.

Taking note of the preparatory meetings for the forthcoming Earth Summit, Mireille Perrin of the Swiss-based environmental group, WWF, said that it is worrying that "governments are completely confined to the mandate negotiated in Doha on these questions of the environment and do not see Johannesburg as an opportunity to reopen it."

"What was negotiated in Doha seems to put the brakes on what could be done in Johannesburg," she said, while adding that paradoxically on the trade-environment debate, discussions often went much further at the WTO than the preparations for the South Africa meeting have gone.

(Xinhua News Agency August 20, 2002)

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