12 May 2020

Venue: Live | Webex Event & Facebook

Organization: Geneva Environment Network

Through its goals, rules, institutions and forward-looking agenda, the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides an important means of advancing international environmental goals. The Trade and Environment Committee (CTE) is the standing forum dedicated to dialogue between governments on the impact of trade policies on the environment, and of environment policies on trade. At the 2020 WTO Ministerial Conference in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan, that has now been postponed, WTO Members States were expected to commit to a number of existing and new environment and trade priorities that would advance progress on the SDGs.

About the GENeva Environment Dialogues

The GENeva Environment Dialogues’ special COVID-19 series discusses the impacts of the pandemic on the global environmental agenda. Experts are concerned that the world is losing critical time to turn around alarming trends in biodiversity loss, climate change, sound management of chemicals and other environmental threats.

The series addresses the following topics:

  • The impact of the crisis on the invited organization activities
  • The response of the invited organization to the COVID-19 crisis
  • The impacts on the preparations of the conferences and negotiations they are hosting
  • New schedules and programmes for these conferences and negotiations


Facilitators: GEN Team

Aik Hoe LIM

Director, WTO Trade and Environment Division


Barbados, WTO Committee on Trade and Environment Chairman


Opening remarks

Moderation: Diana Rizzolio, Geneva Environment Network

The Geneva Environment Network has the pleasure to welcome you today virtually for a new session of the Geneva Environment Dialogues, focused on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global environmental agenda. This new series of events will take place bi-weekly and is aimed at keeping you informed on the latest developments of major upcoming negotiations.
Those who generally attend our events in Geneva know that, although our events are broadcasted live, we like to organize physical meetings, where our guests can have informal discussions with other guests or with the experts involved. Unfortunately, most of us are closed at home for a few more weeks or months, and therefore we reconnect with our usual public and some new guests through these virtual events.
Today we will discuss the impact of this crisis on the World Trade Organization, and more specifically on its trade and environment activities, and on the agenda of the Committee on trade and the environment.
Two important points before introducing our guests and give them the floor:

  • The World Trade Organization expects trade to fall by up to 32% in 2020 as the pandemic disrupts normal economic activity and life around the world, with numerous consequences.
  • The 2020 WTO Ministerial Conference was scheduled to take place in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, in June this year and has now been postponed. WTO Members States were expected to commit to several existing and new environment and trade priorities that would advance progress on the SDGs.

WTO and the Committee on Trade and Environment

Aik Hoe Lim, Director, WTO Trade & Environment

  • Impact on WTO: COVID-19 had significant impact on activities
  • WTO Ministerial Conference in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, in June had to be suspended – looking at next year for the rescheduling
  • In Geneva, meetings of WTO Councils and Committees had to be suspended
  • Work continuing in a virtual form and it is very intensive
  • This week [11 May to 17 May 2020] started phase 1 of the return strategy for WTO
  • Substance of the work:
    • WTO is engaged in monitoring and keeping the cooperation going on COVID-19 related trade and trade flows, particularly on medical equipment and food
    • COVID-19 impact on trade is a one third decrease in exchanges
    • Priority in keeping markets open, particularly for goods related to the fight against COVID-19 (medical equipment, PPEs, …)
    • We all depend on global value chains
    • Countries and governments need to take immediate actions to ensure that population has essential supplies, but a balance has to be reached as we all depend on global trade
  • Internal COVID-19 and trade task force
  • General Council Meeting of WTO – special informal meeting on trade related measures with representatives
  • COVID-19 changes things substantially and logistically, but consultations show that WTO members feel it is important to discuss trade and environment, especially in the recovery phase

H.E. Amb. Chad Blackman. Barbados, Chair, WTO Committee on Trade and Environment

  • Context:
    • Since the suspension of in-person meetings, different WTO bodies are still working and discussing
    • WTO online discussions for delegations have been taking place
    • 15 May – General Council – informal discussion on trade and COVID-19
    • WTO is active and responding to the challenges of COVID-19 and lockdown
  • As Chair, recently completed a round of consultations on trade and environment
  • Level of activity intensive at the end of last year
  • Major progress on a number of topics: circular economy and plastic pollution
  • Common interest to act is very positive
  • Recent consultation: take practical and creative measures to ensure the Committee is the right platform to advance solutions
  • Members expressed intention and commitment on continuing working on initiatives on circular economy, plastics, fossil fuels subsidies, climate change (which is not going away even though we are in a pandemic), sustainability
  • Challenging weeks and months ahead
  • How will sustainable development fit in the recovery of the pandemic?
  • Do not halt progress in sustainable development while restarting economy and production
  • Permanent solid foundation to go forward with sustainable development
  • Able to resume activities soon in a virtual form
  • Exploring possibility to host a webinar discussion on World Environment Day
  • Public forum organized for late September
    • Including “collective action for sustainable trade”
  • Pandemic gives opportunities for sustainable development and trade
    • Virtual events can, for instance, help reduce carbon footprints
  • Positive on ability of WTO to respond to these challenges
  • Experienced and passionate people in delegations that can contribute greatly to the discussions
  • Lastly, important for trade community and environment community to have constructive dialogue – break down silos for discussing sustainable trade


Elisabeth Tuerk, Director Economic Cooperation and Trade, UNECE

  • I would love to hear more about discussions on Circular Economy and on supply chains (e.g. does this include work on transparency and traceability of supply chains)? Thank you!

Daniela Guaras, UNEP-WCMC

  • The post-2020 global biodiversity framework is under development and consideration of the issue of perverse incentives would be crucial for its success. Is the WTO in general or the WTO CTE working with CBD secretariat and its Members States on this?

Burnice Karimi Ieri, Egerton University

  • How is WTO dealing with illegal trade of wildlife since it’s allegedly the cause of zoonotic diseases?

Sandeep Sengupta, IUCN

  • Please could you say something about what the WTO/CTE doing or planning to do on: (i) delivering on the goals of the Paris Agreement and (ii) the issue of wildlife trade? Thanks.

Sonia Taoufiq-Cailliau, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat

  • What are your views of the impact of the present crisis on the Doha Round, will it help to reboost the negotiations taking into account a new deal on environmental issues…?

Vira Khoroshavina, UNEP

  • What is the role of Voluntary Sustainability Standards in ensuring sustainable trade?


A. Hoe Lim

  • Members looked at the question if trade policy can support circularity
  • Interested to have a further dedicated discussion looking concretely at supply chains
    • Thinking about reverse supply chains – from end of product use to reaching the original producer – there are trade restrictions in place
      • ex. electronic products are difficult to retrieve because of trade challenges (customs, quotas, bans, restrictions)
      • Need to look at that before circularity becomes reality
    • Definitions, standard and classifications:
      • Customs are not used to think about products in a circular supply chain
      • Consider products waste, which has strict bans in certain countries and makes it difficult to import
    • Plastics:
      • Trade, plastics and circular economy
      • Present in different products
      • How can trade policy play a role?
    • Use of natural products:
      • Substitute for less environmentally sound products
      • Trade challenges for these products
  • Evolving area, but linkage between circular economy and trade growing

C. Blackman

  • Issue of capacity in circular economy, particularly from a government perspective
  • Government facilities for good treatment of supply chain products are lacking
  • Many benefits thanks to circular economy, a very large economy to tap into once resources and capacities are there
  • If we are talking about sustainable development as a model for achieving the SDGs and domestic growth, it is something that has to be looked at in terms of capacity-building to be able to participate in the circular economy aspect

A. Hoe Lim

  • Long lasting relationship with CBD
  • Committee on Trade and Environment’s (CTE) function is to enhance cooperation with MEAs
  • Work with CBD as well as CITES
  • CBD can always report to the WTO and to the CTE
  • On perverse incentives, fisheries subsidies for instance – not all subsidies are bad, but if subsidies lead to wrong market signals and bad outcomes in terms of environment, then they are perverse
  • Challenge to get a consensus on what a perverse subsidy is
  • WTO is against illegal trade and treaties allow members to take action to fight illegal trade
  • Collaborate with CITES, which are leaders in fighting illegal trade in wildlife
  • Combatting pandemics and zoonotic disease needs to deal with that, as well as phyto-sanitary regulations

C. Blackman

  • WTO is a collection of members
  • There is a number of countries that support the Paris Agreement
  • MS push in the direction of the Paris Agreement in their domestic jurisdictions
  • CTE can play the role of facilitator to remind MS of the commitments of the Paris Agreements
  • How to see WTO policies through the lenses of Paris Agreement?

C. Blackman

  • Mindful of the reality of COVID-19
  • Aid for Trade countries are going through challenging times
  • Ask the question: how we can match the resources of Aid for Trade in the framework of post-pandemic recovery?
  • Measure needs and resources and match them to create the most sustainable impact
  • How do you make Aid for Trade more sustainable, since demands for aid will be increasing?
  • Sustainability is key

C. Blackman

  • WTO is member driven – appetite by MS to bring negotiations forward
  • Nothing should be off the table, given the reality we are in as a global community
  • All of the existing platforms have not prepared us for this pandemic
  • There has to be a rethinking of how we do work
  • Doha Round perhaps is something we have to push and agitate, but it depends from the MS
  • Personally, I think there should be new views on issues relative to the environment
  • We are on a very thin line between going back and going forward in terms of achieving what we aim for
  • People have seen positive environmental responses because of the pandemic
  • We can’t be in lockdown forever, economic activity cannot be slowed down forever
  • How we go forward without compromising the environment?
  • Perhaps the revitalization of the Doha Round could be an answer

A. Hoe Lim

  • Once in a generation opportunity for the post-pandemic recovery stimulus packages
  • Sustainability need to feature in the packages
  • Aid for Trade is going to be part of it
  • WTO members will play an important role in relation to Aid for Trade, green economy and green trade
  • Before the lockdown there were discussions looking at how to integrate Aid for Trade and green economy and growth
  • We have seen activity on environmental goods negotiations – most recently the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability, launched by New Zealand, joined by Switzerland and others – put forward a negotiating agenda, including liberalizing environmental goods and services
  • COVID-19 might sharpen minds on the relation between pollution and vulnerability to pandemics
  • Push to include Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) in the negotiations – setting guidelines on the use of VSS, so that they do not slow down or halt trade
  • Must look carefully at the perverse effects of VSS

Closing remarks

C. Blackman

  • We should have, not knowing if there is already one, a Sustainability Implementation Index, which helps evaluate the environmental impacts when drafting, negotiating or developing policies
  • Must be able to analyse the impacts of what we are going to do and evaluate if it achieves the objectives we set out
  • If we are in silos, in the absence of the best scientific and analytic information, we are going to make unintended mistakes, which lead to unintended consequences
  • This crisis presents a very unique opportunity for the global trade and environment community:
    • reassess where we are
    • where we want to go
    • how we get there
  • We are in a situation when we can do things we have been agitating for decades
  • In crisis mode, you see things differently
  • Building a new global economy: resilient, sustainable in short-, medium- and long-term


The event will be live on Facebook.