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In fact, that is already happening. In 1999, Japan announced that it would require more fuel-efficient midsize cars to cut greenhouse-gas emissions under the Kyoto treaty. The E.U. and the United States, on behalf of Daimler-Chrysler and Ford, challenged Japan's new laws under the WTO's dispute-resolution process. The matter, which will be decided by a panel of three economists, is still pending. But the WTO has only one job: to reduce trade barriers. Of the more than 200 distinct trade challenges brought before the WTO, many of which involve domestic environmental legislation, only once has it ever ruled in favor of the green. So far, it has simply sidestepped any issue that involved international eco treaties.
So the WTO is about to test the limits of its power. Whom do you trust? Excuse the cynicism, but you know something stinks when U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick suddenly flops his long-held position and comes out in favor of these MEA-WTO negotiations. The United States has been terrified that the WTO might be burdened with a meaningful environmental-review process. After a background chat reiterating that it is the official U.S. position that getting rich (through liberalized trade) is best for the environment, spokesman Richard Mills says only, "We view these trade and environment improvements as mutually supportive."
Mark Ritchie, director of the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy, points out that's because the WTO left them a loophole: If you don't sign an MEA, and the United States rarely signs any of them, then you can go ahead and keep using the WTO as your cudgel. The WTO has very toothy sanction power, which MEAs do not.
"If your country was not a member of an MEA but was in the WTO," says Ritchie, "then you could use the WTO dispute mechanism to defend yourself against any trade sanctions that you might suffer. This will have the effect, I believe, of encouraging other countries to follow the U.S. example of thumbing our nose at global environmental treaties."
That might explain why the U.N. secretariats have been enthusiastic about this proposed rule clarification at the WTO: The U.N. is already devoid of any real sanction power, and appears happy to simply be at the table with the big boys.
"In our view, [the Doha declaration] represents a significant step forward in the trade and environment arena," e-mails Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity at the U.N., which also administers the Cartagena Protocol on genetically modified organisms. "After seven years of discussion . . . WTO members now agreed to address the relationship between MEAs and WTO rules, thus agreeing that the globalization of trade and the reduction of trade barriers must take into account environmental issues and the development needs of poorer countries."
But that process, however closely coordinated with U.N. secretariats, is still technically unilateral. Only the 144 WTO-member trade missions will be involved in this "clarification." U.N. secretariat staffs who oversee the MEAs will be granted "observer" status. Though they will have good input into the process, in the end they have no vote. Metaphorically speaking, they'll be up in the peanut gallery, along with environmental ministers (already a compromise: Consider that our EPA chief is Christie Todd Whitman). Meddling eco-Luddites like, say, Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth will have to wait in the hall.
"That process is totally untransparent and nondemocratic in nature," says Danny Kennedy, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace. "As an international-governance issue, we don't want MEAs to fall prone to the WTO process, in particular to its dispute- resolution mechanism."