Information about the organization


Briefing note: Trade and environment

The WTO’s main function is to help trade flow as freely as possible but not at the expense of the environment. With 2015 being a landmark year for advancing global environmental goals, WTO members have reaffirmed in the Nairobi ministerial declaration that international trade can contribute towards delivering sustainable growth for all.


Updated: November 2015

THIS EXPLANATION is designed to help the public understand developments in the WTO. While every effort has been made to ensure the contents are accurate, it does not prejudice member governments’ positions.

The key principles of sustainable development and the protection of the environment are enshrined in the Marrakesh Agreement, the founding charter of the WTO, in which the preamble recognizes the need "both to protect and preserve the environment and to enhance the means for doing so in a manner consistent with their respective needs and concerns at different levels of economic development”.

Ministers also signed a "Decision on Trade and Environment", which states that efforts to uphold the multilateral trading system and to protect the environment must be complementary. The WTO’s principles aim to ensure members’ environmental measures are not unnecessary trade barriers, unjustifiable discrimination or protectionism in disguise. The WTO also provides a forum for discussions and negotiations on environmental issues as they relate to trade.

WTO rules prohibit members from discriminating against products from different trading partners. However, Article XX of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, particularly paragraphs (b) and (g), lays out exemptions for necessary measures to protect human, animal or plant life or health or to conserve exhaustible natural resources. These exemptions are provided on the condition that the measure must not constitute a “means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination” or a “disguised restriction on international trade”. Several other WTO texts also address the balance between trade and environment goals.

The WTO has also handled disputes concerning environment-related trade measures, such as the conservation of sea turtles and the welfare of seals. WTO jurisprudence has affirmed that WTO rules do not take precedence over environmental concerns. These have also required members to pursue environmental solutions in a cooperative manner.


Negotiations and MC10 outcomes

Members have been confronted with issues that require further clarification when it comes to implementing trade commitments vis-à-vis fulfilling international treaty obligations to protect the environment. There has also been interest in using market opening to favour environmentally friendly goods and services.

Negotiations on trade and the environment were launched in November 2001 as part of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA). Specifically, the talks cover three areas as provided by Paragraph 31 (i) (ii) and (iii): the applicability of existing WTO rules in relation to obligations set out in multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), procedures for coordinating with MEA secretariats, and the reduction or elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers to environmental goods and services. Negotiations on these are carried out by the Committee on Trade and Environment Special Session (CTESS).

There have been proposals to recognize principles of mutual support, no subordination, and recognition of respective expertise in approaching issues that concern both MEAs and the WTO. Related to these are proposals on the exchange of information between the WTO and MEAs and the provision of observer status to certain MEA bodies. There have also been proposals for an approach to disputes that would oblige a WTO panel to call in the expertise of the MEA involved in the issue. The establishment of a ’Group of Experts on Trade and Environment’ and provision of technical assistance has also been suggested to advise members in need on ways to secure flexibilities.

As for the reduction of trade barriers for environmental goods and services, several members have suggested different approaches for identifying which products can qualify for lower or zero tariffs. There are six separate lists for such, covering 409 unique tariff lines. Members have also identified several possible non-tariff barriers that may need tackling although to this point limited work has taken place. There has also been limited discussion on environmental services in the CTESS although some work on this takes place in the Council for Trade in Services Special Session.

Besides these initiatives, negotiations have also been launched on disciplines for fisheries subsidies which contribute to overfishing. These talks, meanwhile, are carried out under the Negotiating Group on Rules. A separate briefing note on fisheries subsidies can be accessed here.

At the close of the 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, members agreed on a ministerial declaration which acknowledges that "international trade can play a role towards achieving sustainable, robust and balanced growth for all." Furthermore, the declaration states that there is a strong commitment of all members to advance negotiations on the remaining Doha Round issues. It also acknowledges that members have different views on how to address the negotiations.


Environmental Goods Agreement

Separately, 17 WTO members* have been negotiating an Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) with binding tariff concessions to be taken by the parties. Talks were launched in July 2014 and since then the participating members have identified 450 environmental goods. Once agreed, the tariff concessions will be offered to all WTO members on a most-favoured-nation (MFN) basis. Progress in the negotiations is reported by EGA parties to the Committee on Trade and Environment at its meetings.

On 14 December 2015, Australia’s Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Robb (EGA chair) issued a statement saying that there has been considerable progress and a high degree of convergence in many areas of the negotiations and that negotiators would be re-engaging early in 2016. Director-General Roberto Azevêdo welcomed this, saying that the  agreement will be an important contribution of the international trade community towards realizing the complementary benefits of trade and environmental policy.  Read more here.

*The 17 WTO members are: Australia, Canada, China, Costa Rica, the European Union, Hong Kong China, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, Chinese Taipei, Turkey and the United States.

Jargon buster

MEAs: Multilateral environmental agreements between three or more states relating to the environment, such as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Environmental goods and services: Thesedo not have a precise definition and some members have attempted to resolve this by listing products of interest to them. These have generally fallen into six categories, namely air pollution control, renewable energy, waste management and water treatment, environmental technologies (i.e. emission reduction, heat and energy management, environmental monitoring equipment), carbon capture and storage, and other areas that may deal with disposal, natural resource protection, etc.

Tariff line: Product as defined in members’ lists of tariff rates.

Non-tariff barriers (NTBs): Trade impediments other than tariffs, such as import quotas, import licensing systems, and measures that may have an impact on trade including sanitary regulations, and product or labelling regulations.

Most Favoured Nation (MFN) tariff: Non-discriminatory tariff applied to a certain import regardless of its country of origin.

Fisheries subsidies: Government expenditure that privileges extractors of fish by supplementing their income or lowering their cost. Negotiations at the WTO aim to define which types are allowable and which should be prohibited.