Deep in Denial
When the head of the WTO says trade does not impact the environment we should all be worried, says Perrine Fournier.
Last Thursday, as more than 30,000 students skipped school to cram the streets of Brussels and demand action on climate change, the 16-year-old Swede who inspired the remarkable global movement, Schools Strike 4 Climate, was taking her message to Davos.
“At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories. But their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag. And on climate change, we have to acknowledge we have failed,” she told an audience that included Bono and Christiana Figueres.
Yet while Thunberg and a growing number of young people whose futures will be defined by climate breakdown show startling clarity about its causes and the changes needed to halt it, some with the power to shape the planet’s future appear blind to reality.
The latest example is the head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
On the same day Thunberg made her impassioned plea and Belgian students took to the streets, Roberto Azevêdo, director-general of the WTO, told another Davos audience that trade did not impact the environment.
“I don’t have any evidence whatsoever in anything of the literature that I read that supports that,” he said. On the contrary, he added, trade might even be good for the environment.
When the leader of the body responsible for regulating international trade between 164 nations makes such a potentially damaging – and demonstrably untrue – claim, it’s hard to know where to start.
One place, though, would be the WTO’s own literature.
A 2010 WTO report explicitly highlighted links between increased trade, agriculture and deforestation; showing that in Mexico, Tanzania, Thailand, Brazil, Costa Rica, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere, trade liberalisation increased deforestation, which is responsible for roughly 12 per cent of global CO2 emissions.
This report is merely the tip of the iceberg of the vast body of evidence confirming direct and indirect links between trade and deforestation, as well as other forms of environmental destruction.
A recent study showed that between 2000 and 2011 the production of beef, soy, palm oil and wood products in just seven countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea), was responsible for 3.8 million hectares of forest loss annually, leading to 1.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions per year.
If that’s not enough to convince Azevêdo and the many who subscribe to his worldview, then they could look at the Harvard study revealing that trade and growth can exacerbate environmental degradation (particularly CO2 emissions), or this 2016 report showing that opening specific areas of the Amazon to international trade increased deforestation – or for more corroboration, reports here, here and here.
Evidence of the often terrible impact of global trade on the environment may be unassailable, yet the way forward is obviously not to cease trading. It is to create policies that respect the planet and people’s rights.
Thankfully, in contrast with Azevêdo’s irresponsible statement, some policymakers are not oblivious to reality, and are attempting to do precisely this.
Among them is the French government, which in October 2018 published a new national strategy aimed at ending the deforestation caused by its imports of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa and wood. France also plans to encourage financiers to account for environmental and social impacts in their investment decisions. With the EU currently negotiating a raft of Free Trade Agreements with forested countries, including the Mercosur bloc, France’s lead sets an important example.
As the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development has made clear: like it or not, addressing climate change will affect trade policy. And to ensure that their policies fulfil both climate and trade objectives, policy-makers must understand what the linkages are.
Without trade agreements that tackle climate change and protect forests, the hopes of striking school children around the world – and everyone who cares about climate justice – will remain unfulfilled.
Or, as Greta Thunberg told her Davos audience: “Unless we recognise the overall failures of our current systems, we most probably don’t stand a chance.”
Perrine Fournier is a forests and trade campaigner at Fern, and co-author with Saskia Ozinga of the recent paper, Forests and forest people in EU Free Trade Agreements.