Skepticism as “Green Goods” Trade Talks Begin
WASHINGTON – Formal negotiations began this week around the increasingly significant global trade in “environmental goods”, those technologies seen as environmentally beneficial, including in combating climate change.
Attempts have been made to liberalize this market for years. But on Tuesday, 13 countries, constituting nearly 90 percent of the current trade in green goods such as solar panels, wind turbines and wastewater treatment filters, came together in Geneva to try again to reach agreement.
Yet there remains significant confusion around the actual potential – or even broader aim – of the talks, towards what’s being called the Environmental Goods Agreement. Green groups are expressing open skepticism of the process, taking place under the World Trade Organization (WTO).
“From our perspective, we think increasing trade in and use of environmentally beneficial products is incredibly important. But we have really serious concerns about the approach the WTO is taking,” Ilana Solomon, the director of the Responsible Trade Program at the Sierra Club, a conservation and advocacy group, told IPS.
“This approach is about removing tariffs on a list of products that are supposedly beneficial to the environment. But there is no definition yet of what actually constitutes an ‘environmental good’, and many of the goods being considered are actually harmful to the environment.”
The WTO talks are taking place between the United States, the European Union, China, Australia, Japan and others. Representatives are starting from a list of 54 product categories, agreed upon in 2012 among the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.
The APEC countries are now working to reduce tariffs on these products to below five percent by 2015.
Yet the list includes many items that can be used in ways that could be either environmentally positive or negative. This includes, for instance, waste incinerators, centrifuges, gas turbines, sludge compactors and a variety of technical machinery.
The list would also seem to largely exclude poor countries. Currently, only Costa Rica has joined what are otherwise industrialized and middle-income economies in the talks.
“Poor countries are probably not producing these items,” Kim Elliott, a senior researcher on trade at the Center for Global Development, a think tank here, told IPS. “If they don’t participate in these talks they’ll likely lose out around high tariffs, but they’re probably not going to be doing much exporting.”
While proponents tend to characterize the negotiations in terms of lowering overall prices for green goods, little is said of the potential impact on nascent domestic industries.
“There might well be reasons a developing country would want to develop its own industry in, say, solar panels or wind turbines,” the Sierra Club’s Solomon says. “But having low or no tariffs could impede the ability of these countries to develop their own domestic renewable energy industries.”
The World Trade Organization does not include climate change in its purview. Yet since the mid-1990s the multilateral organization says it has worked to establish “a clear link between sustainable development and disciplined trade liberalization – in order to ensure that market opening goes hand in hand with environmental and social objectives.”
Momentum behind the new talks is in part due to a push from President Barack Obama. Last year, as part of a major new focus on climate, the president announced that U.S. officials would engage in the negotiations in order “to help more countries skip past the dirty phase of development and join a global low-carbon economy.”
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