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06/09/2015
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Environmental Goods Agreement – how green are the EGA negotiations?

I recently attended a conference in Brussels on the negotiations of the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA). The negotiations, which were mandated by the 2001 Doha Declaration, were launched on a plurilateral basis in July last year by a group of WTO countries (accounting for around 86% of the world trade in green goods) including the European Union. It aims to remove tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade for “green goods and services”.

What are we talking about when referring to environmental goods? There is no clear definition yet. In effect, everything that helps us ‘green’ our economies, from wind turbines, water treatment filters to recycling equipment and air quality monitors could be considered an environmental good. It is estimated that global trade in environmental goods amounts to nearly $1 trillion annually.

So far, already six rounds of negotiations have taken place, with the next round scheduled for next week, from 15-19 June. Quite disappointingly, ethanol is not part of the list of green products falling under the scope of the agreement. The biggest challenge of the negotiations is indeed about deciding on the list of products and, by now, already 650 tariff lines and more than 2,000 products are under consideration. Every country promoted a list of products, but ethanol was not part of any of the lists suggested, despite its proven environmental benefits.

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 90% on average compared to gasoline and it achieves among the highest GHG emission savings compared to fossil fuels even when land use change factors are accounted for.

My doubts of course are on the credibility that such project will have if products like ethanol are not included in the list and if new countries do not joint. Countries in EGA are in fact already part of lower tariff schemes. So further reducing tariffs may not have a huge impact on GHG emissions reduction, I’m afraid! In the case of ethanol, tariffs are generally very high (0.19€/liter) in the EU. Tariff reductions, then, would have the potential to yield extraordinary environmental benefits.

During the conference, both Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and Climate & Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete emphasized the positive impact that EGA could and should have in the fight against climate change and made reference to Europe’s role “as major exporter of clean technologies”.

However, contrary to the Commissioners’ words, it seems to me that, as it stands, the EGA will lead to a list of products selected in a somewhat arbitrary manner, rather than on the basis of their environmental benefits. The EGA looks more, for the time being, like a platform for the negotiating parties to advance their exporting interests when it comes to green technologies than a tool to fight climate change.

Trade is not a zero-sum game. If the EGA negotiating parties are serious about making legitimate progress towards addressing global warming, then they would have to widen the list of liberalized products to include all goods that deliver environmental advantages, such as ethanol.

We’ll certainly monitor with great interest the next two rounds of negotiations next week and in July, when the negotiation parties should narrow down the list of products.

Géraldine Kutas