The Doha mandate on multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs)

These negotiations aim to reaffirm how important it is for trade and environmental policies to work together for the benefit of both. They focus on how WTO rules are to apply to WTO members that are parties to environmental agreements, in particular to clarify the relationship between certain trade measures taken under the environmental agreements, and WTO rules.

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Relationship between WTO and MEA rules 

There are over 250 multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) dealing with various environmental issues which are currently in force. About 20 of these include provisions that can affect trade. For instance, they may contain measures that prohibit trade in certain species or products, or that allow countries to restrict trade in certain circumstances.

A question that may arise is whether measures under a multilateral agreement are compatible with WTO rules. For example, a multilateral agreement could authorize trade in a specific product between its parties, but ban trade in the same product with countries that have not signed the agreement.

This could be found to be incompatible with WTO’s non-discrimination principle known as “most favoured nation treatment”, which requires countries to grant equivalent treatment to the same (or “like”) products imported from any WTO member country. On the other hand, WTO rules do allow members to derogate from their obligations in some cases, for instance where a measure is aimed at the conservation of natural resources, provided certain conditions are met.

No formal dispute involving a measure under a multilateral environmental agreement has so far been brought to the WTO. However, the complexity of the relationship between environmental and trade rules was highlighted in the “Chile — Swordfish” case.

At the 2001 Doha Ministerial Conference, members agreed to negotiate on the relationship between WTO rules and the multilateral environmental agreements, particularly those that contain “specific trade obligations” (STOs). These negotiations take place in special sessions of the Trade and Environment Committee. Members have agreed that the scope of these negotiations would be limited to applicability of WTO rules to WTO members that have signed the multilateral environmental agreement under consideration.

Since the beginning of the negotiations, discussions have focused on the scope of the negotiating mandate (including the definition of specific trade obligations) and on potential outcomes of the negotiations. In parallel, members have also embarked on an exercise of sharing their national experiences in the negotiation and domestic implementation of trade measures under multilateral environmental agreements.


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Collaboration between WTO and MEA secretariats 

In addition to looking at the relationship between specific trade obligations in the environmental agreements and WTO rules, the negotiations have covered procedures for MEA secretariats and relevant WTO committees to exchange information regularly.

Closer cooperation between MEA Secretariats and WTO Committees is essential to ensure that the trade and environment regimes develop coherently. This objective was recognized in the Plan of Implementation of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, which calls for efforts to “strengthen cooperation among UNEP and other United Nations bodies and specialized agencies, the Bretton Woods institutions and WTO, within their mandates.”

Various forms of cooperation and information exchange between WTO and MEA secretariats are already in place (see the document on collaboration between WTO and UNEP/MEAs). These include information sessions held by the WTO Trade and Environment Committee with MEA Secretariats; exchange of documents; collaboration between the WTO and UNEP and MEAs in providing technical assistance to developing countries on trade and the environment; and the organization of side events by the WTO Secretariat in the margins of MEA meetings of their parties. A number of concrete elements have been put forward since the beginning of the negotiations to improve or complement these existing set ups.

The issue of criteria for the granting of observer status to MEA Secretariats is also part of the negotiations. Several MEA Secretariats and international organizations have already been granted observership to the Trade and Environment Committee, and a number of them are also invited to attend meetings of the committee’s special negotiating sessions (as “ad hoc” observers). The negotiations could further enhance the participation of these organizations in the work of various WTO committees.