Enlisting the Support of Liberal Trade for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development

By Eglin, Richard | Environmental Law, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Enlisting the Support of Liberal Trade for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development


Eglin, Richard, Environmental Law


The decision to enlist the support of liberal trade for environmental protection and sustainable development has already been taken, at the, regional level for example in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and on a global scale in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The myth that trade and the environment are on a collision course has been thoroughly debunked, and the direction of policy change deems in no doubt. Clever governments are not looking for a trade-off between the two, but for the means of capitalizing on the broad popular and political support that both enjoy. They now need to settle on how best to design and implement mutually supportive policies.

Proper environmental protection depends on government intervention. Free market forces alone will not do the job as long as so many key environmental resources remain unpriced or underpriced in relation to the value that society attaches to them.

That does not amount to a rejection of market forces, and still less to the conclusion that modern, growing market economies are incapable of taking care of their environments. On the contrary. The extent of environmental decay in Eastern Europe, after forty years of neglect, has destroyed whatever faith there may have been in total reliance on state intervention. Closer to home, the environmental damage that Organization on Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries inflict on themselves through agricultural protectionism, at an annual cost of more than $300 billion, makes the point as clearly as anything: bad economic policies lead invariably to miserable environmental consequences.

With proper pricing policies in place, vigorous competition and undistorted markets have a key role to play. They encourage innovation, technological progress and productivity gains that will be crucial if the challenge of sustainable development is to be met, and they deliver the greatest possible increase in the quality of the environment at least cost by allocating resources, especially environmental resources, as efficiently as possible. The more efficiently governments set about environmental improvement, the more demand there win be for it.

Government intervention is not anathema to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The GATT is not about free trade at any cost, nor is it a policy-maker's straight-jacket. A wide range of trade-related measures, whether of the market-based or the command and control variety, can be applied to protect environmental resources without- running a risk that they win face a commercial challenge from another GATT Contracting Party.

The proof is there, in the extensive environmental legislation that most developed countries have already on their books. If the GATT were even half the obstacle to environmental policy-making that it is sometimes claimed to be, we would be swamped in Geneva by environment-generated trade disputes. Yet we are not. Where then, do the real problems lie?

That is the question on which GATT Contracting Parties began work in 1991, and on which they agreed at the end of last year to broaden their approach to encompass the results and recommendations of the UNCED on trade and environment. Two main areas are under examination.

One is the use of trade measures to enhance and enforce legislation aimed at protecting domestic environmental resources. This covers a wide area of,policy-making. Neither the GATT as it stands at present, nor the improvements to the trade rules that will follow from completion of the Uruguay Round negotiations, prevent governments from applying such measures. What the rules do demand is that they should not create unnecessary barriers to trade in the process, The cardinal trade rule is nondiscrimination, and it is hard to accept that environmental policies need to be discriminatory in order to be effective. Beyond that, there may well be need for clarification of the GATT rules in some areas and for creative thinking in others to provide policy-makers with the full range of tools they need to meet their objectives constructively. …

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Enlisting the Support of Liberal Trade for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development
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