Trade Issues on the Backburner in Final Regional Prep Meeting for Rio+20

7 December 2011

The final regional meeting in preparation for next June's Rio+20 Conference, held last week in Geneva, saw participants largely skirt around trade issues, despite previous regional meetings having seen significant debate surrounding the areas of green trade protectionism and the definition of a ‘green economy.'

The UN Economic Commission for Europe's (UNECE) Regional Preparatory Meeting was the fifth in a series of regional gatherings being held in preparation for the 20-22 June 2012 Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

The ECE region encompasses North America, Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.

The Rio+20 Conference marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The conference's objective is to secure a renewed commitment for sustainable development and to meet new and emerging challenges by focusing on the following themes: the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

Unlike previous regional meetings (see Bridges Weekly 26 October 2011), the debate surrounding the green economy did not centre on whether such an economy would lead to trade protectionism and additional conditionalities for developing nations. Delegates, during the session devoted to the ‘Green Economy', chose instead to focus on whether there should be a Rio+20 Roadmap with concrete sustainable development goals, national policy frameworks needed to promote a green economy, and the technological capacity of transitioning and developing nations.

Notwithstanding the repeated urging of the ECE co-Chairs for delegates to abandon their prepared statements and engage in meaningful dialogue, many delegates avoided going beyond repeating earlier calls for the removal of environmentally damaging subsidies and taxes.

Belarus, in one of the Roundtables of the ‘Green Economy' session, was the only country to make a strong ploy to focus on trade, but strayed little from the established script in calling for the avoidance of trade discrimination. There was also the repeated insistence by delegates that ministers of finance, economy, and energy need to become more involved with the Rio+20 preparatory process if the transition to a ‘Green Economy' is to be successful.

However, discussions surrounding the second theme of Rio+20, that of international environmental governance, were noticeably more intense. During the meeting, delegates disagreed as to the future role of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), as well as the possible structure of Multilateral Environment Agreements. Although various alternatives were offered in the course of the meeting, no consensus was reached.

The apparent reluctance to engage with some of the most contentious issues challenging the ‘Green Economy' concept comes in the wake of a number of meetings dedicated to trade within a green economy. These include the Second Ad Hoc Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on the Green Economy and Trade, which met in Geneva on 8-11 November 2011.

Meanwhile, a number of recent country submissions to the Rio+20 Zero Draft outcome document for the June conference have also dealt extensively with trade; these submissions were made in advance of a 1 November deadline. For example, the EU, in its submission, urged that a transformation to a green economy should not be used to introduce new trade barriers.

The EU document goes on to outline the importance of coherence within the international trading system in any transition to a green economy by including the WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank, as well as regional development banks. By far the most vocal submission calling for caution against the potential for trade protectionism was that of the G77 and China; however few in the ECE region belong to that grouping.

Next steps

The penultimate Intersessional Meeting of the UNCSD will take place on 15-16 December in New York, followed in March 2012 by the third and final meeting. The last Preparatory Committee meeting is scheduled for 13-15 June next year, only days before Rio+20 itself.

The first five months of 2012 will see a number of monthly informal discussions and negotiations regarding the Zero Draft of the outcome document, which is set to be presented by the conference in Rio de Janeiro.

ICTSD reporting.

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