Tony Juniper and Ronnie Hall
Negotiators at the WTO could seek to trade reductions in environmental standards in industrialised countries for corporate access to more and cheaper natural resources in developing countries.
IN A conference room on the shores of Lake Geneva, trade negotiators are drawing up plans that could eventually have a devastating impact on the global environment. The World Trade Organisation's member states are negotiating what they call "non-agricultural market access" or Nama, and have started compiling a wish list of national laws they would very much like to bury.
Analysis by Friends of the Earth has revealed nearly 200 challenges so far. They range from measures to fight climate change to protection of forests and fish stocks. Those labels that manufacturers have to put on freezers and fridges that state how energy efficient they are? South Korea wants them to go. American laws promoting fuel efficiency? They, too, are "excessive and unreasonable," says South Korea. Meanwhile, the U.S. wants to stop other countries promoting fuel efficiency, arguing that countries should not be giving tax breaks to people with smaller cars — as is done in the U.K.
Measures controlling the use of toxic chemicals are taking a hammering, too, with countries including Japan and Argentina challenging legislation that seeks to manage the environmental hazards posed by certain chemicals. Labels and regulations relating to the use of some dyes, mercuric oxide, nickel oxide and 1,2-dichloroethane are all mentioned specifically, even though they are hazardous chemicals that are carefully regulated under European law.
Even chemicals legislation that has been in place since the 1960s could be under threat. Japan is clearly intent on using the Nama negotiations to try to stop the EU introducing its proposed new Reach (registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals) legislation.
Forests and fish stocks are not being spared either. Challenges to eco-labelling and certification systems could dismantle the Forest Stewardship Council certification scheme, as well as government timber procurement schemes and EU illegal logging legislation, all of which will soon require certificates of legal origin from certain importing countries.
Egypt and Norway are objecting to labelling fish and fish products with information about where the fish were caught, despite the parlous state of fish stocks. These are among a range of challenges relating to fish products which when combined with the complete liberalisation of this sector (also planned) puts fish and fish products right at the top of this corporate hit list.
The negotiators seem to be oblivious to the fact that three-quarters of the world's fish stocks have collapsed, are on the verge of collapsing or are just recovering. Nor do they appreciate that millions of artisanal fishing communities that rely completely on fish for food and income are finding it increasingly hard to secure a livelihood. The WTO approach seems clear: trade takes priority.
Even the simplest recycling measures could be under threat. Argentina is arguing that it is too expensive to label containers and products with symbols providing consumers with information on recycling possibilities. South Korea, meanwhile, is objecting to national requirements that manufacturers and retailers recycle scrapped automobiles — as European laws require.
The Nama negotiations also include proposals to liberalise and increase the trade in gemstones, precious metals and primary aluminium. If the U.S. gets its way, the same would apply to all natural resources. This could mean more raw materials on the market at ever lower prices, which might be good for some companies now, but is not good for the conservation of dwindling natural resources.
While there is a chance that some of these challenges will be quietly withdrawn because governments have not agreed to negotiate in some of the areas listed, most of them could stay the course as they are backed by powerful corporate lobby groups.
There is a real possibility, too, that negotiators will seek to trade reductions in environmental standards in Europe, and other industrialised countries, for corporate access to ever more and cheaper natural resources in developing countries. A preliminary deal could even be done by the end of December at the WTO's next ministerial meeting in Hong Kong.
The U.K. Government is an enthusiastic champion of free trade. The Nama negotiations show the dangers posed by this approach and highlight the urgent need for countries to develop alternative, fair and sustainable economies that combat poverty while respecting environmental limits. If this is to happen, the new Labour Government must do all it can to halt the Nama negotiations.
(Tony Juniper is the executive director of Friends of the Earth. Ronnie Hall is trade campaign coordinator of Friends of the Earth International.)