Courtesy Reuters

The Greening of the WTO


Anyone who has followed the negative press coverage of the World Trade Organization over the last few years would be shocked to learn that the WTO has started to develop an environmental conscience. With only a few tweaks, it can turn greener still.

The most memorable assault on the WTO's environmental record came at its 1999 meeting in Seattle, where antiglobalization demonstrators dressed as sea turtles to highlight the alleged damage wrought by the organization's policies. Similar protests have dogged multilateral trade meetings ever since. But a careful look at the WTO's record shows that such attacks are unwarranted. The organization is in fact developing constructive principles for accommodating both trade and environmental concerns. A series of rulings by the WTO's dispute-resolution bodies -- judicial panels that settle conflicts among member states -- has established the principle that trade rules do not stand in the way of legitimate environmental regulation.

The gradual greening of the WTO throughout its seven-year life reflects changes made to international rules when the organization was created in 1994. In particular, the preamble to the WTO agreement noted the importance of protecting the environment and the need for enhanced means of doing so. Environmental sensitivity has also been heightened by the stalwart efforts of environmentalists in and out of government to influence the system of global trade. The environmental movement has, in fact, achieved most of the goals it pursued in the early 1990s -- although the need to keep their supporters energized makes some groups loath to say so.

Moreover, and contrary to what protesters often claim, further progress can take place within the current system. This is reassuring, because modest reform is the only politically realistic way to further the green agenda. The WTO's rules can be changed only by a consensus of its 142 members, and many developing nations want no part of a costly environmental program they regard as an imposition by the wealthy industrialized powers. Radical demands in this area would increase

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