The environment: a specific concern

The WTO has no specific agreement dealing with the environment. However, the WTO agreements confirm governments’ right to protect the environment, provided certain conditions are met, and a number of them include provisions dealing with environmental concerns. The objectives of sustainable development and environmental protection are important enough to be stated in the preamble to the Agreement Establishing the WTO.


More introductory information
> The WTO in Brief

The increased emphasis on environmental policies is relatively recent in the 60-year history of the multilateral trading system. At the end of the Uruguay Round in 1994, trade ministers from participating countries decided to begin a comprehensive work programme on trade and environment in the WTO. They created the Trade and Environment Committee. This has brought environmental and sustainable development issues into the mainstream of WTO work. The 2001 Doha Ministerial Conference kicked off negotiations in some aspects of the subject.

> See also Doha Agenda negotiations


back to top

The committee: broad-based responsibility

The committee has a broad-based responsibility covering all areas of the multilateral trading system — goods, services and intellectual property. Its duties are to study the relationship between trade and the environment, and to make recommendations about any changes that might be needed in the trade agreements.

The committee’s work is based on two important principles:

The WTO is only competent to deal with trade. In other words, in environmental issues its only task is to study questions that arise when environmental policies have a significant impact on trade. The WTO is not an environmental agency. Its members do not want it to intervene in national or international environmental policies or to set environmental standards. Other agencies that specialize in environmental issues are better qualified to undertake those tasks.

If the committee does identify problems, its solutions must continue to uphold the principles of the WTO trading system.

More generally WTO members are convinced that an open, equitable and non-discriminatory multilateral trading system has a key contribution to make to national and international efforts to better protect and conserve environmental resources and promote sustainable development. This was recognized in the results of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio (the “Earth Summit”) and its 2002 successor, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

The committee’s work programme focuses on 10 areas. Its agenda is driven by proposals from individual WTO members on issues of importance to them. The following sections outline some of the issues, and what the committee has concluded so far:


back to top

WTO and environmental agreements: how are they related?

How do the WTO trading system and “green” trade measures relate to each other? What is the relationship between the WTO agreements and various international environmental agreements and conventions?

There are about 200 international agreements (outside the WTO) dealing with various environmental issues currently in force. They are called multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).

About 20 of these include provisions that can affect trade: for example they ban trade in certain products, or allow countries to restrict trade in certain circumstances. Among them are the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer, the Basel Convention on the trade or transportation of hazardous waste across international borders, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Briefly, the WTO’s committee says the basic WTO principles of non-discrimination and transparency do not conflict with trade measures needed to protect the environment, including actions taken under the environmental agreements. It also notes that clauses in the agreements on goods, services and intellectual property allow governments to give priority to their domestic environmental policies.

The WTO’s committee says the most effective way to deal with international environmental problems is through the environmental agreements. It says this approach complements the WTO’s work in seeking internationally agreed solutions for trade problems. In other words, using the provisions of an international environmental agreement is better than one country trying on its own to change other countries’ environmental policies (see shrimp-turtle and dolphin-tuna case studies).

The committee notes that actions taken to protect the environment and having an impact on trade can play an important role in some environmental agreements, particularly when trade is a direct cause of the environmental problems. But it also points out that trade restrictions are not the only actions that can be taken, and they are not necessarily the most effective. Alternatives include: helping countries acquire environmentally-friendly technology, giving them financial assistance, providing training, etc.

The problem should not be exaggerated. So far, no action affecting trade and taken under an international environmental agreement has been challenged in the GATT-WTO system. There is also a widely held view that actions taken under an environmental agreement are unlikely to become a problem in the WTO if the countries concerned have signed the environmental agreement, although the question is not settled completely. The Trade and Environment Committee is more concerned about what happens when one country invokes an environmental agreement to take action against another country that has not signed the environmental agreement.

> See also Doha Agenda negotiations


back to top

Disputes: where should they be handled?

Suppose a trade dispute arises because a country has taken action on trade (for example imposed a tax or restricted imports) under an environmental agreement outside the WTO and another country objects. Should the dispute be handled under the WTO or under the other agreement? The Trade and Environment Committee says that if a dispute arises over a trade action taken under an environmental agreement, and if both sides to the dispute have signed that agreement, then they should try to use the environmental agreement to settle the dispute. But if one side in the dispute has not signed the environment agreement, then the WTO would provide the only possible forum for settling the dispute. The preference for handling disputes under the environmental agreements does not mean environmental issues would be ignored in WTO disputes. The WTO agreements allow panels examining a dispute to seek expert advice on environmental issues.


back to top

A WTO dispute: The ‘shrimp-turtle’ case

This was a case brought by India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand against the US. The appellate and panel reports were adopted on 6 November 1998. The official title is “United States — Import Prohibition of Certain Shrimp and Shrimp Products”, the official WTO case numbers are 58 and 61.

What was it all about?

Seven species of sea turtles have been identified. They are distributed around the world in subtropical and tropical areas. They spend their lives at sea, where they migrate between their foraging and nesting grounds.

Sea turtles have been adversely affected by human activity, either directly (their meat, shells and eggs have been exploited), or indirectly (incidental capture in fisheries, destroyed habitats, polluted oceans).

In early 1997, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand brought a joint complaint against a ban imposed by the US on the importation of certain shrimp and shrimp products. The protection of sea turtles was at the heart of the ban.

The US Endangered Species Act of 1973 listed as endangered or threatened the five species of sea turtles that occur in US waters, and prohibited their “take” within the US, in its territorial sea and the high seas. (“Take” means harassment, hunting, capture, killing or attempting to do any of these.)

Under the act, the US required US shrimp trawlers to use “turtle excluder devices” (TEDs) in their nets when fishing in areas where there is a significant likelihood of encountering sea turtles.

Section 609 of US Public Law 101-102, enacted in 1989, dealt with imports. It said, among other things, that shrimp harvested with technology that may adversely affect certain sea turtles may not be imported into the US — unless the harvesting nation was certified to have a regulatory programme and an incidental take-rate comparable to that of the US, or that the particular fishing environment of the harvesting nation did not pose a threat to sea turtles.

In practice, countries that had any of the five species of sea turtles within their jurisdiction, and harvested shrimp with mechanical means, had to impose on their fishermen requirements comparable to those borne by US shrimpers if they wanted to be certified to export shrimp products to the US. Essentially this meant the use of TEDs at all times.

The ruling

In its report, the Appellate Body made clear that under WTO rules, countries have the right to take trade action to protect the environment (in particular, human, animal or plant life and health) and endangered species and exhaustible resources). The WTO does not have to “allow” them this right.

It also said measures to protect sea turtles would be legitimate under GATT Article 20 which deals with various exceptions to the WTO’s trade rules, provided certain criteria such as non-discrimination were met.

The US lost the case, not because it sought to protect the environment but because it discriminated between WTO members. It provided countries in the western hemisphere — mainly in the Caribbean — technical and financial assistance and longer transition periods for their fishermen to start using turtle-excluder devices.

It did not give the same advantages, however, to the four Asian countries (India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand) that filed the complaint with the WTO.

The ruling also said WTO panels may accept “amicus briefs” (friends-of-the-court submissions) from NGOs or other interested parties.

‘What we have not decided ...’

This is part of what the Appellate Body said:

“185. In reaching these conclusions, we wish to underscore what we have not decided in this appeal. We have not decided that the protection and preservation of the environment is of no significance to the Members of the WTO. Clearly, it is. We have not decided that the sovereign nations that are Members of the WTO cannot adopt effective measures to protect endangered species, such as sea turtles. Clearly, they can and should. And we have not decided that sovereign states should not act together bilaterally, plurilaterally or multilaterally, either within the WTO or in other international fora, to protect endangered species or to otherwise protect the environment. Clearly, they should and do.

“186. What we have decided in this appeal is simply this: although the measure of the United States in dispute in this appeal serves an environmental objective that is recognized as legitimate under paragraph (g) of Article XX [i.e. 20] of the GATT 1994, this measure has been applied by the United States in a manner which constitutes arbitrary and unjustifiable discrimination between Members of the WTO, contrary to the requirements of the chapeau of Article XX. For all of the specific reasons outlined in this Report, this measure does not qualify for the exemption that Article XX of the GATT 1994 affords to measures which serve certain recognized, legitimate environmental purposes but which, at the same time, are not applied in a manner that constitutes a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where the same conditions prevail or a disguised restriction on international trade. As we emphasized in United States — Gasoline [adopted 20 May 1996, WT/DS2/AB/R, p. 30], WTO Members are free to adopt their own policies aimed at protecting the environment as long as, in so doing, they fulfill their obligations and respect the rights of other Members under the WTO Agreement.”


back to top

A GATT dispute: The tuna-dolphin dispute

This case still attracts a lot of attention because of its implications for environmental disputes. It was handled under the old GATT dispute settlement procedure. Key questions are:

can one country tell another what its environmental regulations should be? and

do trade rules permit action to be taken against the method used to produce goods (rather than the quality of the goods themselves)?

What was it all about?

In eastern tropical areas of the Pacific Ocean, schools of yellowfin tuna often swim beneath schools of dolphins. When tuna is harvested with purse seine nets, dolphins are trapped in the nets. They often die unless they are released.

The US Marine Mammal Protection Act sets dolphin protection standards for the domestic American fishing fleet and for countries whose fishing boats catch yellowfin tuna in that part of the Pacific Ocean. If a country exporting tuna to the United States cannot prove to US authorities that it meets the dolphin protection standards set out in US law, the US government must embargo all imports of the fish from that country. In this dispute, Mexico was the exporting country concerned. Its exports of tuna to the US were banned. Mexico complained in 1991 under the GATT dispute settlement procedure.

The embargo also applies to “intermediary” countries handling the tuna en route from Mexico to the United States. Often the tuna is processed and canned in an one of these countries. In this dispute, the “intermediary” countries facing the embargo were Costa Rica, Italy, Japan and Spain, and earlier France, the Netherlands Antilles, and the United Kingdom. Others, including Canada, Colombia, the Republic of Korea, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), were also named as “intermediaries”.

The panel

Mexico asked for a panel in February 1991. A number of “intermediary” countries also expressed an interest. The panel reported to GATT members in September 1991. It concluded:

that the US could not embargo imports of tuna products from Mexico simply because Mexican regulations on the way tuna was produced did not satisfy US regulations. (But the US could apply its regulations on the quality or content of the tuna imported.) This has become known as a “product” versus “process” issue.

that GATT rules did not allow one country to take trade action for the purpose of attempting to enforce its own domestic laws in another country — even to protect animal health or exhaustible natural resources. The term used here is “extra-territoriality”.

What was the reasoning behind this ruling? If the US arguments were accepted, then any country could ban imports of a product from another country merely because the exporting country has different environmental, health and social policies from its own. This would create a virtually open-ended route for any country to apply trade restrictions unilaterally — and to do so not just to enforce its own laws domestically, but to impose its own standards on other countries. The door would be opened to a possible flood of protectionist abuses. This would conflict with the main purpose of the multilateral trading system — to achieve predictability through trade rules.

The panel’s task was restricted to examining how GATT rules applied to the issue. It was not asked whether the policy was environmentally correct or not. It suggested that the US policy could be made compatible with GATT rules if members agreed on amendments or reached a decision to waive the rules specially for this issue. That way, the members could negotiate the specific issues, and could set limits that would prevent protectionist abuse.

The panel was also asked to judge the US policy of requiring tuna products to be labelled “dolphin-safe” (leaving to consumers the choice of whether or not to buy the product). It concluded that this did not violate GATT rules because it was designed to prevent deceptive advertising practices on all tuna products, whether imported or domestically produced.


back to top

Eco-labelling: good, if it doesn’t discriminate

Labelling environmentally-friendly products is an important environmental policy instrument. For the WTO, the key point is that labelling requirements and practices should not discriminate — either between trading partners (most-favoured nation treatment should apply), or between domestically-produced goods or services and imports (national treatment).

One area where the Trade and Environment Committee needs further discussion is how to handle — under the rules of the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement — labelling used to describe whether for the way a product is produced (as distinct from the product itself) is environmentally-friendly.


back to top

Transparency: information without too much paperwork

Like non-discrimination, this is an important WTO principle. Here, WTO members should provide as much information as possible about the environmental policies they have adopted or actions they may take, when these can have a significant impact on trade. They should do this by notifying the WTO, but the task should not be more of a burden than is normally required for other policies affecting trade.

The Trade and Environment Committee says WTO rules do not need changing for this purpose. The WTO Secretariat is to compile from its Central Registry of Notifications all information on trade-related environmental measures that members have submitted. These are to be put in a single database which all WTO members can access


back to top

Domestically prohibited goods: dangerous chemicals, etc

This is a concern of a number of developing countries, which are worried that certain hazardous or toxic products are being exported to their markets without them being fully informed about the environmental or public health dangers the products may pose. Developing countries want to be fully informed so as to be in a position to decide whether or not to import them.

A number of international agreements now exist (e.g. the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, and the London Guidelines for Exchange of Information on Chemicals in International Trade). The WTO’s Trade and Environment Committee does not intend to duplicate their work but it also notes that the WTO could play a complementary role.


back to top

Liberalization and sustainable development: good for each other

Does freer trade help or hinder environmental protection? The Trade and Environment Committee is analysing the relationship between trade liberalization (including the Uruguay Round commitments) and the protection of the environment. Members say the removal of trade restrictions and distortions can yield benefits both for the multilateral trading system and the environment. Further work is scheduled.


back to top

Intellectual property, services: some scope for study

Discussions in the Trade and Environment Committee on these two issues have broken new ground since there was very little understanding of how the rules of the trading system might affect or be affected by environmental policies in these areas.

On services, the committee says further work is needed to examine the relationship between the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and environmental protection policies in the sector.

The committee says that the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) helps countries obtain environmentally-sound technology and products. More work is scheduled on this, including on the relationship between the TRIPS Agreement and the Convention of Biological Diversity.

> more on environment

> See also Doha Agenda negotiations

show previous page  show next page


‘Green’ provisions

Examples of provisions in the WTO agreements dealing with environmental issues

GATT Article 20: policies affecting trade in goods for protecting human, animal or plant life or health are exempt from normal GATT disciplines under certain conditions.

Technical Barriers to Trade (i.e. product and industrial standards), and Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (animal and plant health and hygiene): explicit recognition of environmental objectives.

Agriculture: environmental programmes exempt from cuts in subsidies

Subsidies and Countervail: allows subsidies, up to 20% of firms’ costs, for adapting to new environmental laws.

Intellectual property: governments can refuse to issue patents that threaten human, animal or plant life or health, or risk serious damage to the environment (TRIPS Article 27).

GATS Article 14: policies affecting trade in services for protecting human, animal or plant life or health are exempt from normal GATS disciplines under certain conditions.




A key question

If one country believes another country’s trade damages the environment, what can it do? Can it restrict the other country’s trade? If it can, under what circumstances? At the moment, there are no definitive legal interpretations, largely because the questions have not yet been tested in a legal dispute either inside or outside the WTO. But the combined result of the WTO’s trade agreements and environmental agreements outside the WTO suggest:

1. First, cooperate: The countries concerned should try to cooperate to prevent environmental damage.

2. The complaining country can act (e.g. on imports) to protect its own domestic environment, but it cannot discriminate. Under the WTO agreements, standards, taxes or other measures applied to imports from the other country must also apply equally to the complaining country’s own products (“national treatment”) and imports from all other countries (“most-favoured-nation”).

3. If the other country has also signed an environment agreement, then what ever action the complaining country takes is probably not the WTO’s concern.

4. What if the other country has not signed? Here the situation is unclear and the subject of debate. Some environmental agreements say countries that have signed the agreement should apply the agreement even to goods and services from countries that have not. Whether this would break the WTO agreements remains untested because so far no dispute of this kind has been brought to the WTO. One proposed way to clarify the situation would be to rewrite the rules to make clear that countries can, in some circumstances, cite an environmental agreement when they take action affecting the trade of a country that has not signed. Critics say this would allow some countries to force their environmental standards on others.

5. When the issue is not covered by an environmental agreement, WTO rules apply. The WTO agreements are interpreted to say two important things. First, trade restrictions cannot be imposed on a product purely because of the way it has been produced. Second, one country cannot reach out beyond its own territory to impose its standards on another country.


What the Appellate Body said

‘... We have not decided that the sovereign nations that are members of the WTO cannot adopt effective measures to protect endangered species, such as sea turtles. Clearly, they can and should. ...’



Legally speaking ...

The panel considered that the ban imposed by the US was inconsistent with GATT Article 11 (which limits the use of import prohibitions or restrictions), and could not be justified under GATT Article 20 (which deals with general exceptions to the rules, including for certain environmental reasons).

Following an appeal, the Appellate Body found that the measure at stake did qualify for provisional justification under Article 20(g), but failed to meet the requirements of the chapeau (the introductory paragraph) of Article 20 (which defines when the general exceptions can be cited).

The Appellate Body therefore concluded that the US measure was not justified under Article 20 of GATT (strictly speaking, “GATT 1994”, i.e. the current version of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as modified by the 1994 Uruguay Round agreement).

At the request of Malaysia, the original panel in this case considered the measures taken by the United States to comply with the recommendations and rulings of the Dispute Settlement Body. The panel report for this recourse was appealed by Malaysia. The Appellate Body upheld the panel's findings that the US measure was now applied in a manner that met the requirements of Article 20 of the GATT 1994




PS. The report was never adopted

Under the present WTO system, if WTO members (meeting as the Dispute Settlement Body) do not by consensus reject a panel report after 60 days, it is automatically accepted (“adopted”). That was not the case under the old GATT. Mexico decided not to pursue the case and the panel report was never adopted even though some of the “intermediary” countries pressed for its adoption. Mexico and the United States held their own bilateral consultations aimed at reaching agreement outside GATT.

In 1992, the European Union lodged its own complaint. This led to a second panel report circulated to GATT members in mid 1994. The report upheld some of the findings of the first panel and modified others. Although the European Union and other countries pressed for the report to be adopted, the United States told a series of meetings of the GATT Council and the final meeting of GATT Contracting Parties (i.e. members) that it had not had time to complete its studies of the report. There was therefore no consensus to adopt the report, a requirement under the old GATT system. On 1 January 1995, GATT made way for the WTO.

show previous page  show next page