Some trades are much more environmentally difficult than others, and the WTO should consider upholding sanctions that are justified by the MEAs that have already been put into place (Singh, 2009).
If the WTO refuses to work with governments to ensure that MEAs are also taken seriously, it would be difficult to determine whether the MEAs have any place or any relevance at all. If there is no strength behind them and they are not taken seriously, what value do they have? What purpose do they serve? Originally, they were designed to protect the environment. However, if they are being overruled by the WTO at nearly every turn, they are no longer able to do what they were designed to do when it comes to making sure the environment is not sustaining lasting damage because of the way goods are being produced or the ways in which they are being shipped to and traded with other countries (O'Neill, 2002; Scott, 2004; Singh, 2009).
The conflict is not entirely surprising, but it is troubling. Many MEAs are not developed with trade needs in mind, and the majority of the decisions made by the WTO are not designed to let MEAs handle environmental problems properly, if at all (Eckersley, 2004). The two sets of rules are working at cross purposes, when much more could be accomplished by the WTO and through the MEAs if they would focus on working together to make sure trade moved smoothly and in such a way that stopped that trade from having deliberate, uncaring, and adverse impacts on the environment (Eckersley, 2004; Scott, 2004; Singh, 2009). Often, small changes can make a big difference.
For the most part, the WTO and the MEAs do not have anything to do with one another. That is good news on those points, but where there is overlap there is trouble (Eckersley, 2004). The MEAs are specifically designed to protect the environment, but when they are enforced and they interfere with trade, they are often overruled by the WTO (Krist, 2002; Singh, 2009). When that happens, it is natural that there is a problem and some animosity. The WTO has no place in environmental matters, but the MEAs do not have a place in global trade matters. The only way to resolve the issue is for the WTO and the MEAs to work together to focus on what the globe needs from a trade perspective and also from an environmental perspective (Scott, 2004; Singh, 2009).
The Heart of the Issues
There are two issues that have to be addressed by the WTO and the MEAs. First, the WTO needs to have proper deference to the MEAs, and right now that is not taking place (Krist, 2002). Second, the MEAs have to end their "ad hoc" dispute and compliance procedures and create something that has more detail and better clarification (Krist, 2002). In turn, that will help the WTO understand the sometimes conflicting regulations with which it will be dealing, and avoid confusion. The problems between the two areas are more about confusion and misunderstanding than they are about actual animosity from one group to another, although that is also a concern.
Global trade rules are in need of clarification, and that job must fall to both the WTO and the MEA, as opposed to only one organization or the other. Both are part of international law, and both are equally as valid. However, the WTO has taken it upon itself to override and overrule the MEAs in many cases, which has helped keep trade moving forward but has done nothing to protect the environment (Singh, 2009). Both issues are very important, and there is no reason why they should continue to be kept so separate. They can certainly be brought more closely together and focused on in such a way as to ensure that trade takes place as easily as possible while still making certain that the environment is protected.
The issue is not one that cannot be overcome, and it is not even one that is that complicated at the most basic of levels. However, it is complicated by the international laws that are already created and by the seeming lack of interest in the MEAs and the WTO working together. As international talks come up from time to time, it is important that those talks be used to build bridges between the MEAs and the WTO so that the environment can be protected as much as possible and trade can continue at a level that does not disrupt the global economy (Scott, 2004; Singh, 2009).
That has been at the root of the problem for some time: saving the environment will cost money. Right now, there are specific things that the WTO simply will not tolerate. When its rules are broken, sanctions will appear against the offending countries until those countries make changes (Singh, 2009). Environmental issues are generally not part of the WTO sanctions, however, so damaging the environment will not be something the WTO would sanction against (Singh, 2009). That is the responsibility and job of the MEAs, but when the MEAs are overruled by the WTO there is a twofold problem.
First, the obvious issue is that the environment is not actually protected when the MEAs are not enforced. Second, the message is sent that the MEAs are not important, and that the WTO is the only organization that matters. That leads countries and companies to believe that pleasing the WTO is all that is necessary, and that if they do that they do not have to worry about what they are doing to the environment (Mushkat, 2003; Scott, 2004). This can be a very difficult issue to correct, especially when many people and companies do not take the idea of damage to the environment very seriously, despite evidence that would indicate that the environment is being damaged by issues such as pollution.
In order to address the problem, both the MEAs and the WTO must agree and acknowledge that they have equal importance and that neither one takes precedence over the other (Eckersley, 2004; Krist, 2002). From that point, they will have to carefully examine where their differences lie, so those differences can be addressed and adjusted. There will be compromise needed, of course, but that is something that can be handled relatively easily with an open mind and a willingness to solve problems. If there is no willingness to make concessions, the WTO and the MEAs will have more difficulty coming together and agreeing on issues that have long-standing importance and value to both global trade and the environment.
MEAs affect global trade and the cost of that trade, which ultimately affects the end cost of the goods that are traded (Eckersley, 2004). This is important to realize, but many people have no knowledge of MEAs. They have, however, heard of the WTO and have a basic understanding of how that organization operates. Instead of focusing only on the WTO, it is time to bring the MEAs into the light, as well. By showcasing what they are offering to the world in the way of protecting and caring for the environment, the true value of MEAs can be seen. That will help them to be taken more seriously, and will work to show that they are on equal footing with the WTO and the regulations it requires countries to follow and abide by.
Understanding international trade can take time, and each time the rules or regulations are changed it can get more complicated. Additionally, the MEAs further add confusion because they add a new element of requirements to what has to be addressed in order to trade successfully on a global level. Despite that, the MEAs are very important to the protection of the planet and they can be made to work in harmony with the mission of the WTO, thus fostering valuable and safe global trade that is sustainable.
Eckersley, R. (2004). The big chill: The WTO and multilateral environmental agreements. Global Environmental Politics, 4: 2
Krist, W. (2002). The WTO and MEAs -- Time for a good neighbor policy. A Policy Brief from the Trade and Environment Forum. Woodrow Wilson International for Scholars
Mushkat, R. (2003). Potential impacts of China's WTO accession on its approach to the trade-environment balancing act. Chinese JIL