WTO Public Forum: Trade, Tech, and Sustainability Take Centre Stage at Annual Outreach Event

4 October 2018

The WTO’s Public Forum is wrapping up today in Geneva, Switzerland, after bringing together representatives from government, civil society, international organisations, academia, and the private sector for three days of meetings under the overarching theme of “Trade 2030.” 

Among the various sessions held during the forum included the release of the WTO’s flagship World Trade Report, focusing this year on digital trade, as well as a high-level WTO-UN Environment event and report launch on trade and environment linkages. Other sessions covered topics ranging from fossil fuel subsidy reform and investment facilitation for development to various facets of the gender-trade nexus and the digital economy.

The three-day outreach event had approximately 2500 registered attendees and well over 100 scheduled sessions, according to statistics cited by WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo during the opening plenary.

The Public Forum is being held from 2-4 October, and comes at a time of heightened international debate and activity on trade. The past year has seen different country governments debate in multiple forums ways to update the global trading system to keep pace with current realities, along with how to mitigate rising trade tensions among key economies that experts and international organisations warn could translate into losses in economic and trade growth.

Meanwhile, the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change are also top-line agenda items for policymakers’ discussions, particularly given targets and deadlines associated with both processes. Technological evolution has, for its part, put in stark relief the need to implement the necessary policies and programmes to prepare workers, companies, governments, and the international community for an increasingly digitised production and trade landscape.

Opening plenary: interventions highlight trade, technology, and sustainability

The WTO Public Forum traditionally kicks off with a high-level opening plenary, featuring a mix of speakers from the public and private sectors on the event’s overarching theme.

Speakers included Azevêdo as moderator, as well as UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim, Executive Chairman of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma, Lidya Co-founder Tunde Kehinde, Shippo CEO and co-founder Laura Behrens Wu, and Coalition of Services Industries (CSI) President Christine Bliss.

Describing the various challenges and opportunities for the global trading system between now and 2030, the WTO chief indicated that while there are risks for job losses from technological change, there are also studies documenting the vast opportunities for job creation and increased international trade. He also called for policies focusing on supporting displaced workers with retraining for new types of occupation.

“If the proper synergies are in place… by 2030, the technological revolution could help to fuel additional trade, on top of whatever we are expecting today,” Azevêdo said on Tuesday morning to a packed conference hall, noting the value of discussing and preparing now for the technological changes of the future.

The world cannot wait “until we understand all the elements of technological change and how we’re going to evolve, because this is never going to happen,” he added. “We have to start talking now, we have to get involved.”

He also noted that currently, courts are often having to step in to fill gaps between rules and practice, even though the jurisprudence that emerges may “not always reflect the wishes and the priorities” of those it affects. He thus asked the audience whether the policy community would rather leave such issues to courts or unilateral action, “or do we want to sit down and fill the gaps together.”

The environmental challenges that the world is facing, and what it means for trade, were also raised by both the WTO chief and the head of UN Environment during the plenary session, particularly given the current geopolitical climate as well as the ambitions set out for creating a more inclusive, sustainable world by 2030 in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

“The environment community and the trade community are under challenge. We have to fight back,” said Solheim, in a nod to the current tensions being seen in many quarters over how to approach the future of international trade policy and environmental action.

Meanwhile, Jack Ma of Alibaba indicated that bringing in the perspective of young people could help in crafting innovative solutions for future challenges, including on trade. The Alibaba chief was one of several speakers who highlighted the importance not just of bringing in the perspective of young people, but also of those individuals and small and medium-sized businesses that are having to navigate trade rules and regulations on the ground, including through online platforms.

“Let’s stop worrying about the future,” Ma said. “You may not have the solutions. But young people have solutions. You may not have the solution today, but you may have the solution tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Laura Behrens Wu, who founded a startup known as Shippo that aims to facilitate shipping for e-commerce platforms, said that “shipping is a pain point across the board” for business owners in e-commerce. “It’s easier than ever to start an online store,” she said, given that doing so is very “asset-low.”

“People can really focus on what they’re best at,” she added, such as creating products, connecting with customers, and staying in touch with trends.

Meanwhile, Lidya co-founder Tunde Kehinde described how his start-up financing platform helps small businesses get the necessary capital and credit scores to succeed, including online. Lidya is based in Lagos, Nigeria. “The power of technology and data is being able to bridge these gaps,” he said, making it easier for businesses in Africa, Latin America, and other regions to operate internationally and show that they are not necessarily high-risk. This opens up possibilities for sourcing from more businesses, he added.

Christine Bliss of the  Coalition of Services Industries (CSI), similarly noted that digital trade is having a transformative effect on services, an effect which is amplified further given how services support various other sectors that produce goods.

“With the advent of digital trade, the invention of the internet, the explosion of data flows… that element, and the transformation of services to digitally-enabled services have even compounded the impact of services on manufacturing, on agriculture,” she said.

WTO, UN Environment launch joint report at high-level dialogue

On Tuesday 2 October, the heads of the WTO and UN Environment released a joint report at a high-level dialogue held during the Public Forum. The report, entitled “Making trade work for the environment, prosperity, and resilience,” is a 107-page document detailing various possible areas where trade action could support environmental objectives while having beneficial economic effects.

“To ensure that trade works for sustainability and prosperity, an enabling environment allowing for coherent and fit-for-purpose policies and coordinated action that puts human wellbeing front and centre is critical,” the report says.

For example, the report suggests considering cooperative efforts to tackle emissions from transport and other sectors that have implications across national borders; using trade facilitation and Aid for Trade to help support disaster recovery; and creating greater opportunities for collaboration between different policy communities whose work touches on these issues.

The report also refers to the value of liberalising trade in environmental goods and services, as well as in developing public-private partnerships that build synergies between trade and environmental objectives. Additionally, it notes that low-income economies will need further support in adopting trade measures that are environmentally beneficial, while highlighting that building greater public awareness and engagement on trade and environment links is another essential objective to fulfil.

The two international organisations had announced earlier this year their plans to examine new ways of working together, along with fostering greater engagement with other stakeholders on the synergies between trade policy and environmental action. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 February 2018)

Investment, fossil fuel subsidy initiatives examine possible ways forward

Among the myriad events during this week’s Public Forum, some sessions touched specifically on the joint statements launched by groups of WTO members on the sidelines of last year’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform (FFFSR) organised a session on Tuesday afternoon regarding a statement backed by 12 countries on the sidelines of the December WTO ministerial conference. That statement pledged to “advance discussion in the World Trade Organization aimed at achieving ambitious and effective disciplines on inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption, including through enhanced World Trade Organization transparency and reporting.” (See Bridges Daily Update, 12 December 2017)

Panellists included Álvaro Cedeño Molinari, Ambassador of Costa Rica to the WTO, Valérie Ducrot, Executive Director, World Energy Council – Global Gas Centre, Ronald Steenblik, Senior Trade Policy Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Steven Stone, Chief of the Resources and Markets Branch, UN Environment, Kimmo Tiilikainen, Finnish Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Housing, and Swiss Ambassador to the WTO Didier Chambovey.

Discussions focused on the possibility of eventually updating existing WTO subsidy rules; the use of the WTO’s Trade Policy Review (TPR) mechanism on reporting fossil fuel subsidies; and the interest of the Friends group in bringing on board additional countries in support of their efforts. Another issue raised by participants included the potential use of lessons learned from the ongoing WTO negotiations on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies. Ambassadors involved in the Friends initiative highlighted both their interest in recruiting more participants and in using the lessons of the fish talks once completed.

The Friends of Investment Facilitation for Development (FIFD) also held a session on Tuesday early evening, featuring ambassadors involved in the current “structured discussions” on a possible multilateral framework for investment facilitation.

The 17-member FIFD group had been among those backing a joint statement on the sidelines of the Buenos Aires ministerial conference on looking to negotiate a multilateral framework for investment facilitation, with the supporters of the statement numbering 70 WTO members in total. (See Bridges Daily Update, 14 December 2017)

Panellists at the FIFD session on Tuesday included Chinese Ambassador Xiangchen Zhang, Kazakh Ambassador to the WTO Zhanar Aitzhanova, Colombian Ambassador to the WTO Juan Carlos González, Lisa Schroeter, Global Director of Trade and Investment Policy, Dow Chemical Company, and Chiedu Osakwe, Ambassador, Chief Trading Negotiator, Government of Nigeria.

Colombian Ambassador to the WTO Juan Carlos González, the current coordinator for these structured discussions, updated the audience on the current state of this work, along with next steps for the talks, which are open to participation from any interested WTO member.

He noted that the group met in April and June on how to improve transparency and predictability of investment measures; then in July on streamlining and speeding up administrative procedures, and again in late September on international cooperation  information sharing, and dispute prevention. The next meeting with be on facilitating greater participation of developing and least developed countries in global investment flows.

Participants have been looking to outline specific issues of interest for each element. The coordinator has also been tasked to prepare, under his own responsibility, a document which puts together all the issues of interest that have been raised during these discussions, with over 70 topic-specific or cross-cutting issues raised to date.

Flagship WTO report highlights digital technology’s role in trade

The WTO released its flagship World Trade Report on the morning of Wednesday 3 October, devoting this year’s edition of the high-profile publication to the theme of “The Future of World Trade: How Digital Technologies Are Transforming Global Commerce.”

“The focus here is on internet-enabled technologies, such as the internet of things, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and blockchain,” said Azevêdo on Wednesday morning in presenting the report, which suggests that new technologies could add 34 percent to trade growth by 2030, specifically by added a couple of percentage points to growth each year.

“The report predicts that the share of services trade could go from 21 percent to 25 percent by 2030,” he noted, explaining that blockchain could “give way to a new generation of services,” becoming, for services, “what robots are for manufacturing.”

He also noted that policy would need to keep pace with growing concerns that these technologies have prompted on issues such as the digital divide, loss of privacy, and market concentration. Furthermore, he said there is “a responsibility of the whole international community” to respond to the trade tensions currently being seen, along with persistent concerns of what trade and automation could mean for jobs, which could in turn have strong implications for the future.

“We need an informed debate on trade in technology, and this is what we have tried to achieve with the World Trade Report,” he added.

The report also highlights other predictions, though experts involved in the report made clear that these were not necessarily formal forecasts, but rather an effort to test out different possible scenarios. For example, the report examines what these new technologies could mean for micro, small, and medium-sized companies, as well as for developing and least developed countries.

“In the best scenario, developing and least developed economies' share in global trade is predicted to grow to 57 percent by 2030, from 46 percent in 2015, whereas if they cannot keep up, this share is predicted to rise to 51 percent,” the report says.

ICTSD reporting.

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