Sustainable development

Trade is a powerful ally of sustainable development. The WTO’s founding agreement recognizes sustainable development as a central principle.

It is the potential impact of economic growth and poverty alleviation that makes trade a powerful ally of sustainable development. The multilateral trading system is an important tool to carry forward international efforts aimed at achieving this goal. The purpose of trade liberalization and the WTO’s key principle of non-discrimination is a more efficient allocation of resources, which should be positive for the environment.

Back in 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, the Earth Summit) in Rio recognized the contribution that the multilateral trading system could make to sustainable development. At that time, the system came under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO’s predecessor.

The Rio declaration stated that an open, equitable and non-discriminatory multilateral trading system had a key contribution to make to national and international efforts to better protect and conserve environmental resources and promote sustainable development.

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The WTO Agreement 

This was recognized again when the WTO was created in 1995. The Preamble to the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization (the “WTO Agreement”) includes direct references to the objective of sustainable development and to the need to protect and preserve the environment.

It says WTO members recognize that “their relations in the field of trade and economic endeavour should be conducted with a view to raising standards of living, ensuring full employment and a large and steadily growing volume of real income and effective demand, and expanding the production of and trade in goods and services, while allowing for the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development, seeking 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.”

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The Doha Declaration 

The 2001 Doha Ministerial Declaration, which launched the current negotiations, strongly reaffirmed this mandate (see Paragraph 6). Ministers also called on the Trade and Environment and Trade and Development committees to act as forums for identifying and debating the environmental and developmental aspects of the negotiations, in order to help achieve the objective of sustainable development (see Paragraph 51).

As a result, sustainable development has been a standing item on the agenda of the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE). The committee decided to look at the subject by sector and in 2003 the Secretariat briefed it on relevant developments in the following areas of the negotiations: agriculture WT/CTE/GEN/8, market access for non-agricultural products (NAMA) WT/CTE/GEN/9, rules WT/CTE/GEN/10 and services WT/CTE/GEN/11.

The committee then debated: non-trade concerns mentioned in the Preamble of the Agreement on Agriculture; trade-distorting agricultural policies; fishery subsidies; liberalization of environmental goods and services; classification of environmental services; regulatory issues concerning services; Paragraph 51 of the Doha Declaration on sustainable development and developing countries; and coordination between the Trade and Environment and Trade and Development committees under Paragraph 51.

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Secretariat compilation on negotiations 

In 2006, the Secretariat compiled the latest developments related to the environment in the various negotiating groups: agriculture, non-agricultural market access, rules, services and trade and environment. The purpose was to help members identify and debate the issues (as prescribed in Paragraph 51 of the Doha Declaration).

For each area, the paper contained a brief summary of the status of the negotiations, sub-sections setting out the environment-related aspects, specific proposals and discussions related to the environment, and benefits to the environment and the contribution the negotiations may bring to sustainable development.

UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides common goals for the wellbeing of people and the environment.  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call on countries to seize trade-related opportunities to promote sustainable development.

SDG 17 provides a mandate for global partnerships and collaboration for sustainable development. For the trade and environment communities, this means that governments, businesses, civil society and intergovernmental organizations must pull in the same direction to tap into the numerous “win-win” trade opportunities that can improve countries’ economies and the environment in tandem.

Read more in this publication.