Albion Monitor /News

Global Enviro Protections At Risk, Groups Warn

by Paul Weinberg

Agreements on ozone protection, endangered species, and toxic waste could be overturned

(IPS) TORONTO -- Three international treaties that rely on trade measures to protect the environment will be in jeopardy when government ministers gather for the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting next December, prominent environmental groups warn.

At risk when the ministers convene in Singapore will be agreements that cover ozone depletion, hazardous waste disposal, and endangered species, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Greenpeace and the Friends of the Earth, which issued a joint statement expressing their concerns.

There are some 118 multilateral environment agreements, but only three of them -- the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) -- are enforceable through the use of measures such as bans on products or practices that harm the environment.

About half of nations on WTO committee want treaties cut back

The 1987 Montreal Protocol is an example of how the incorporation of trade measures created a workable treaty, say WWF International, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth.

Under the accord, countries agreed to eliminate the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other substances which deplete the ozone layer in the stratosphere and undermine the planet's main protector against cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation.

"Trade measures proved to be a key factor in persuading some countries producing or consuming CFCs, such as Korea, Israel, and Myanmar (Burma), to join the agreement and to phase out production and use of those ozone-depleting substances," the three organizations say.

An effort to reconcile the use of trade measures to achieve specific environmental goals with the WTO's strict enforcement of its trade liberalization rules "has been turned on its head," says Charles Arden-Clarke, a senior policy analyst for WWF International in Geneva, Switzerland.

So far, none of three major environmental accords has been challenged before a WTO dispute panel or the previous General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). But over the past year, warns Clarke, the sentiment among at least half of the 60 countries actively participating on the WTO's ad hoc committee on trade and environment has shifted in favor of curtailing the scope of these treaties.

The campaign, he notes, is led by New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

"It is one of the largest (WTO) committees, attracting consistent attendance because of the contentious issues," Clarke says.

Trade officials with no expertise in environmental issues will be making decisions on how international environmental treaties should function

Among the major WTO players, the European Union so far is most supportive of using trade measures to enforce environmental standards. The United States, a major force behind the creation of the special WTO committee, "appears to be sitting on the fence, which doesn't help matters," Clarke adds.

Of particular concern to Clarke and other activists are the recommendations by committee members that the WTO be given the final say in determining on a case-by-case basis whether environmental treaties violate global fair trade rules.

If the WTO adopts these recommendations, trade officials who have no expertise in environmental issues will be making decisions on how international environmental treaties should function, "second-guessing the scientists" who helped establish them, says Christine Elwell, an international trade expert and a law professor at Queens University at Kingston, near Toronto.

So far, public health and the environment have not fared well under WTO rules, according to Elwell. She says several groups have been unsuccessful in their efforts to use the WTO provisions which places stringent conditions on where the practice of trade discrimination between countries is to be permitted.

Unlike the WTO, she adds, the "greener" North American Free Trade Agreement does stipulate that multilateral environmental treaties take precedence over its own provisions.

An example of how trade and environment rules have clashed in the past, says Elwell, is the 1991 GATT panel, which ruled that the United States had imposed unfair trade restrictions when it banned tuna from Mexico because of fishing practices leading to the deaths of many dolphins.

Meanwhile, Clarke, who has closely monitored the proceedings of the WTO trade and environment committee, expects the body will recommend a tougher approach to the environmental treaties sometime in October. A final vote would then be held at the WTO ministers conference two months later.

"The best bet is a deadlock in December," says Clarke, noting that the U.S. presidential election in November complicates the matter.

Despite his ambivalence, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, is considered slightly more environment-friendly than his main rival, Republican Bob Dole.

Canada may play crucial role

Depending on the position Washington eventually takes, Canada may find itself in the role as tie-breaker in Singapore. Up to now, Elwell says, Ottawa has been hostile to trade barriers, including those aimed at protecting the environment in mind, opposing the Basel Convention and endorsing the Montreal Protocol with reservations.

"Canada has been an obstructionist on the committee," adds Ken Traynor, a researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association. He said the country's position at international trade forums is determined by officials in the powerful federal departments of International Trade and Foreign Affairs, as the nation's environmental agency carries "little weight."

However Traynor argues that upcoming elections may affect Canada's stance. With the ruling Liberal Party facing re-election next year, he explains, it may be forced to take a more pro-environment position in an effort to attract voters.

Former Canadian senior trade official Sylvia Ostry is even more optimistic about the possible fate the Montreal Protocol and the two other major environmental treaties in Singapore, noting, "My feeling is that it would be very hard to reject the existing agreements."

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Albion Monitor August 27, 1996 (

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