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Trade fears blocking progress on REDD+ at UN climate talks

By Christina MacFarquhar and Matt Leggett
Global Canopy Programme

Negotiators at last week’s UN climate change negotiations in Bonn wrestled with the question of how to go about discussing the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation – the source of about 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Central to this discussion are the strong market incentives, operating on a global scale, that currently drive the production of commodities in ways that destroy forests. That means discussing international trade.

However, some negotiators argued that questions relating to trade should be left out of the talks altogether.  And their reason seems straightforward: trade is the domain of the World Trade Organisation, while climate change sits under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

If the negotiators venture into this debate, any agreements they reach could clash with those of the powerful global trade body, possibly triggering disputes.

Palm oil plantations are reshaping vast tracts of land around the world – demand is expected to triple by 2050

But, while there are legitimate questions surrounding the differing mandates of the two multilateral bodies, these are neither reasons for negotiators to fear that all trade-related action under the UNFCCC will result in conflict, nor justification for them to avoid discussing issues that could impact trade – a result that would severely reduce, if not destroy, the negotiators’ chances of addressing forest emissions.

The WTO aims to liberalise international trade, by ensuring that trade flows ‘as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible’.

To this end, its principles forbid members from discriminating between ‘like products’ (products which are determined to be similar according to WTO criteria) and from subjecting each other to restrictions on imports and exports, other than charges such as duties and taxes.

Certainly, the WTO is not on a mission to address climate change.

However, both on paper and in practice, the WTO does recognise exceptions to its principles, allowing measures to protect human, animal or plant life or health, or to conserve exhaustible natural resources – on the condition that such measures apply not just to member countries’ trading partners, but also at home.

So, with the WTO’s constraints and exceptions in mind, it is immediately possible to identify measures that Parties to the UNFCCC could adopt without fear of provoking trade disputes.

A good starting point is public procurement. Governments have considerable buying power, constituting up to 10% of the market for a product, and up to 25% when the knock-on effects on other suppliers and retailers are considered.

Their procurement policies can therefore lead the way in creating increased demand for sustainable products derived from tropical forests, such as timber and palm oil.

Countries can also work together to define ‘sustainable’ products, and to implement bilateral or multilateral agreements that restrict trade of products that don’t fulfil the criteria.

Mechanisms already exist which function in this way, an example being the Voluntary Partnership Agreements within the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, which has been used to combat the trade in illegal timber.

Other possible measures that could be considered under the UNFCCC include preferential import tariffs for sustainable commodities.

Of course, action under the UNFCCC by no means makes the WTO an inappropriate place to recognise the centrality of trade related measures within global efforts to address forest emissions: simultaneous efforts to understand address the problems and solutions, under the UNFCCC, the WTO and other bodies worldwide, can only be a good thing, especially if these organisations learn to speak the same language and communicate with each other.

But climate negotiators must not use the existence of these other organisations to shy away from their task of addressing forest emissions through the most effective means possible.

Ultimately, if our ambition to maintain the status quo under the WTO exceeds our ambition to tackle climate change, we’re in dire straits.

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