Expert View

24 February 2024

Strong Ministerial Engagement is Needed to Strengthen International Cooperation on Sustainability and Trade

At a time when addressing the triple environmental crises of climate change, nature loss, and pollution is more urgent than ever, the Thirteenth Ministerial Conference (MC13) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Abu Dhabi from 26–29 February is a critical opportunity to bolster cooperation on trade, environment, and sustainable development. This article suggests priority areas for action at MC13 and beyond. It calls for a strong ministerial-level engagement and commitment to strengthen international cooperation at the WTO on sustainability and trade to consolidate the progress of the past few years and provide vital political impetus for further work.

This article is part of a Synergies series on reviving multilateralism curated by TESS titled From Vision to Action on Trade and Sustainability at the WTO. Any views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of TESS or any of its partner organizations or funders.


With a heavy agenda, high expectations and geopolitical tensions, MC13 will take place at a moment of heightened global security tensions, fragility, and uncertainty. Faced with multiple environmental crisis, governments increasingly implement or consider trade-related environmental measures, ranging from green industrial policies through initiatives to support decarbonization of supply chains to bans on environmentally harmful products or materials.

While there is growing recognition of the need to ensure that trade and trade policies support efforts to address mounting environmental challenges, there are concerns that an evolving patchwork of national measures may fragment trade and ultimately undermine collective action to tackle global environmental problems. Questions also arise about the implications of such measures for development, competitiveness, and transparency, and the risk that they could further marginalize developing countries in the transition to a low-carbon green economy. These concerns are especially high in vulnerable economies that face challenges in meeting new environmental requirements in export markets, lack affordable access to relevant technologies and finance, or the fiscal space and resources to support large-scale economic transformation.

In a world economy characterized by highly integrated supply chains and economic interdependencies, collaborative approaches to trade will be essential to respond to global sustainability challenges.

These tensions make international cooperation more urgent than ever. In a world economy characterized by highly integrated supply chains and economic interdependencies, collaborative approaches to trade will be essential to respond to global sustainability challenges while fostering a fair and inclusive transition, and respond to equally urgent sustainable development imperatives. Enhanced international cooperation will also be essential to reduce frictions, re-build trust, and avoid politically-charged disputes at the WTO which could undermine both trade and ambitious action to tackle the triple environmental crises.

In more practical terms, governments will need to find ways to cooperate to reduce or eliminate certain types of production and trade, but also to promote a shift towards sustainably produced goods and services as the norm. This will require facilitating environmentally sustainable, low-carbon, and nature-positive supply chains and products while fostering the development, diffusion, accessibility, and uptake of goods and services critical to address environmental challenges. This may also involve concerted collective action to take off the market or phase-out environmentally harmful products and address carbon leakage. Many have also highlighted the role of a fair and rules-based trading system in supporting climate-vulnerable countries to adapt to climate change, build resilience to natural disasters, and ensure food security in the face of increased extreme weather events such as floods or droughts. Others have insisted on the role of cooperation around financing, technology transfer, and capacity building, in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities

Growing Engagement at the WTO

In good news, over the past 2–3 years, the engagement and interest of WTO members in the interface of trade and sustainability has been building in the WTO. Over the past year, sustainability issues have been raised in the councils responsible for goods, services, and intellectual property; the committees responsible for agriculture, development, and technical barriers to trade; the Working Group on Trade and Transfer of Technology and the Working Group on Trade, Debt and Finance; and in the context of the Aid for Trade Global Reviews.

Sustainability concerns have also been at the heart of ongoing negotiations on fisheries subsidies, efforts to revitalize the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), and new member-led initiatives focused on environmental sustainability, plastics pollution, and fossil fuel subsidy reform, which together involve more than half of the WTO's membership covering more than 85% of global trade. These initiatives show a shift in approach from ensuring that WTO rules do not prevent members from implementing good faith environmental policies, to seeking ways for trade and trade policies to support and promote transformations in production, consumption, supply chains, and trade to protect the environment and health, and support sustainable development.

Across these processes, a growing and diverse set of members have tabled proposals on a variety of topics ranging from border carbon adjustments and deforestation free supply chains, through food security and transfer of technology, to principles of international trade and environmental law that should inform the design and implementation of trade-related environment measures. Developing countries are increasingly identifying priority issues for them and approaches that reflect their development and trade circumstances as illustrated by recent submissions from India, several Latin American countries, the African Group, and the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group.

There is also a growing range of venues at the WTO to share perspectives on challenges and opportunities, identify pathways for cooperation, and forge concrete outcomes. Facilitated by Ecuador, the current Chair of the CTE, there are ongoing efforts to revitalize multilateral deliberations in the CTE, spurring a range of proposals to enhance participation of developing and least developed countries, build synergies with other WTO bodies, engage in thematic discussions on areas of specific interests, including with opportunities for interaction with international organizations and stakeholders. In a sign of the potential for "reform by doing." The first such CTE thematic session was held in late 2023, focusing on trade contributions to energy transition efforts concerning climate adaptation and mitigation.

Alongside, ongoing discussions in the three member-led initiatives, namely the Dialogue on Plastics Pollution (DPP), the Trade and Environmental Sustainability Structured Discussions (TESSD), and the Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform (FFSR) initiative have helped to spur engagement from a diverse range of countries on specific environment and trade issues.

There is an urgent need for ministers to capitalize on this growing engagement and provide political guidance on the way forward.

This work is incremental and not highly visible, but it has vital importance in building shared understanding among WTO members. In the days leading up to the MC13, there is an urgent need for ministers to capitalize on this growing engagement and provide political guidance on the way forward. A strong ministerial-level commitment to strengthen international cooperation on issues of environment, the climate crisis, and wider sustainability development challenges in the multilateral setting would consolidate the progress of the past few years and provide vital renewed political impetus for further work. Alongside, at MC13, there is important work that can be completed and moved forward on the sustainability front. MC13 also provides an opportunity to review longer term considerations and orientation for future work.

Priorities at MC13

A first priority at MC13 is to finalize outstanding negotiations on fisheries subsidies. The Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies concluded at MC12 is the first instance of a WTO agreement dedicated to environmental concerns. It highlights the potential of multilateralism to address global commons in a constructive way. Despite its historical significance, the agreement reached is only a partial one. To address unfinished business, ministers tasked the Rules Negotiating Group with continuing to work on outstanding issues and to make recommendations to MC13. Discussions under the second wave of negotiations have intensified in recent months focusing on subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity. At MC13, ministers have a unique opportunity to agree on a comprehensive agreement to curb harmful fishing subsidies, and bring this long-running negotiation to a close.

A second priority at MC13 is to ensure that the Abu Dhabi Ministerial Declaration reasserts the importance of sustainable development as an overarching objective of the WTO and, alongside, that ministers recognize the importance of enhanced, inclusive cooperation on trade and environment at the WTO. In this regard, the declaration must build and expand on the recognition at MC12 of the relevance of crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution to recognize explicitly that trade and the multilateral trade system have a role to play in contributing to global efforts to address these challenges. Here, a core priority for members is to commit to reinvigorating the ongoing work in the CTE, including through thematic sessions, to deepen discussions, explore new topics with inclusivity and transparency, enhance engagement other intergovernmental organizations and benefit from exchanges with external stakeholders, and take up core topics of importance to members, from technology transfer to climate action.

Ministers should also seize the opportunity provided by the inclusion in the agenda—for the first time—of two ministerial roundtables: one on “Sustainable Development, including Trade and Industrial Policy and Policy Space for Industrial Development” and another on “Trade and Inclusion.” The decision to include a ministerial conversation on the theme of sustainable development as a central concern of the trading system is a useful innovation and precedent, providing a critical opportunity for top-level leadership to exchange views and hear perspectives on challenges and opportunities, and, ideally, for ministers to provide guidance on avenues for cooperation and potential areas for convergence.

A third priority at MC13 is to sustain and build political support and momentum for the three member-led initiatives on the environment at the WTO. With 78 members, the DPP is now co-sponsored by almost half of the WTO membership, more than half of them developing countries, and co-coordinated by a diverse group of countries—Australia, Barbados, China, Ecuador, Fiji, and Morocco. At MC13, the dialogue’s coordinators have issued a ministerial statement that reflects on DPP’s work to date, identifies areas for voluntary individual and collective actions on trade dimensions of plastic pollution. The particular significance of this statement lies in the diversity of countries engaged, the focus on a balanced approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastics, the recognition of the relevance of trade-related cooperation to tackling plastic pollution, the effort to support complementary work underway to negotiate a new multilateral environmental agreement on plastics pollution, and the commitment to work towards further concrete, pragmatic, and effective outcomes at the WTO by MC14.

TESSD, which now brings together 76 members accounting for over 80% of world trade has provided a much-needed space to exchange views, build shared understanding, and raise the profile of urgent sustainability challenges in the WTO. It also indirectly contributed to reviving discussions in the broader multilateral discussion. At MC13, co-sponsors have issued a statement by the co-convenors, an updated work plan, and a series of outcome documents summarizing the work of its four working groups on environmental goods and services, trade‑related climate measures, circular economy – circularity, and subsidies. Importantly, the co-convenor statements emphasize the goal of delivering concrete results by MC14.

Finally, the Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform (FFSR) initiative has provided a critical space to share information and experiences vital to spurring national reforms and enhanced international cooperation taking into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries. At MC13, co-sponsors have issued an updated ministerial statement and a set of options to advance reform focusing on enhancing transparency by making fuller use of the Trade Policy Review Mechanism; developing practical guidelines to ensure that subsidies introduced to address the energy crises remain targeted, transparent, and temporary; and examining current forms of support to identify the characteristics of the most harmful ones to the environment and trade and considering possible pathways to reform them.

Member-led initiatives can serve a vital, complementary function as inclusive incubators of options for collaborative action, while providing a non-negotiating venue to explore emerging issues.

Alongside efforts to revitalize the CTE’s work through focused thematic discussions, TESSD serves a vital, complementary function as an inclusive incubator of options for collaborative action and specific outcomes, while providing a non-negotiating venue to explore emerging issues and connect the dots between discussions currently occurring in silos in different parts of the WTO system. Looking ahead, to give renewed impetus to the initiatives, co-sponsors could also consider a stocktaking exercise, possibly at the end of 2024, to focus on specific actions or recommendations and support preparations for concrete outcomes at MC14. A key value-added of each of the environment initiatives is that they have recognized the value and contribution of stakeholder engagement and expertise to their work.

Priorities Beyond MC13

Looking beyond MC13, a key priority—and expectation—from many stakeholders is for the WTO to respond more explicitly and proactively to the climate crisis. Achieving the Paris Agreement's climate goals requires massive, rapid economic transformation across the globe. As governments implement climate policies, trade tensions are on the rise and multilateral dialogue has a key role to play in addressing such tensions and fostering cooperation. A broad array of governments is already seeking to use the WTO as a venue for deliberation and problem solving on the climate crisis, while seeking to connect the dots and promote synergies between the climate and trade regimes. A key step would be to recognize that principles from both international law relevant to trade and to climate change should be considered in the design and implementation of trade-related climate measures.

As governments implement climate policies, trade tensions are on the rise and multilateral dialogue has a key role to play in addressing such tensions and fostering cooperation.

A further key step is to continue to break down silos between trade and climate policymaking, nationally and internationally, and to pursue trade-related partnerships and cooperation that can support the global climate agenda. A bright spot in this regard in 2023 was the launch of the Coalition of Trade Ministers on Climate, which now brings together 61 ministers from a diverse range of countries, with the goal of supporting inclusive cooperation on the nexus of trade, climate, and sustainable development. Poised to have their second ministerial meeting on the eve of MC13, the coalition members have an opportunity at MC13 to deliver on one of its core priorities, namely to “[f]oster international cooperation and collective action to promote trade and trade policies that pursue climate action across the WTO.”

Second, there is an urgent need to mainstream sustainability-related discussions across the organization as a whole through a horizontal approach cutting across all WTO committees. These committees and bodies could be instructed to regularly report to the General Council on sustainability issues arising in their work. Making sustainability issues a standing item for discussion of the General Council would be a further possibility. Similarly, joint meetings of committees could offer another pathway. Such options could also be fruitfully discussed in the context of wider WTO reform discussions.

Third, there is a need to better harness the expertise, convening power, and good offices of the WTO Secretariat to provide information and analysis on sustainability and trade that can support the work of members and to foster and support engagement with key international partners. The WTO’s Director General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has demonstrated her commitment to a trading system that works for people and the planet, and has been a powerful advocate of the WTO and trade playing a more prominent role in the global response to climate agenda. There are numerous positive examples of Secretariat engagement flowing from requests from the WTO membership, including dialogue and guidelines on carbon decarbonization standards (notably in the steel sector), the first Trade Day at COP28 of the UNFCCC, and reports on a broad array of issues in collaboration with other international organizations, such as UNCTAD, UNEP, and the WCO. A clearer work programme and mandate from members would serve to provide guidance on emerging new and pragmatic roles for the WTO Secretariat—a discussion that inevitably needs to happen.

Where to Next?

A key priority for taking sustainability efforts forward in the WTO’s multilateral context is to combine environmental ambition with approaches that engage developing countries and reflect their sustainable development priorities and interests. This engagement is vital if we are to stimulate a global green economy that does not leave the poorest behind and where green trade only occurs among the privileged.

A key priority for taking sustainability efforts forward in the WTO’s multilateral context is to combine environmental ambition with approaches that engage developing countries and reflect their sustainable development priorities and interests.

Here, a cross-cutting issue for the trade and sustainability agenda relates to long-standing calls from developing countries for financing, technology transfer, and technical assistance in support of their economic diversification and sustainable development goals. A fair transition to sustainable trade will require greater action on the technology, innovation, and financing needs of developing country governments and businesses, as well as wider systemic issues related to links between debt, trade, finance, and access to investment. Progress in this regard will require more collaboration between WTO processes relevant to trade, technology transfer, and innovation at the WTO.

While the rule-making and the negotiating functions of the organization remain essential, the emergence of member-led initiatives at the WTO signal that governments are increasingly seeking to enhance transparent, inclusive, and problem solving dialogues on sectoral issues and specific trade-related challenges. Faced with long-standing difficulties in reaching multilateral consensus, they are exploring creative ways to revitalize and make multilateralism work. Here, soft law approaches in the form of best practices, voluntary action, commitments, and guidelines are examples of outcomes that can both sustain the relevance of the multilateral trading system and support policy actions at the national and regional level.

In sum, just as the WTO should not stand apart from global efforts to tackle poverty, address food security, or promote access to vital medicines, the multilateral trading system’s relevance and credibility will be judged by its ability to respond—swiftly—to environmental crises that are among the central challenges on the global policy agenda, and to do so in ways that are effective, just, and address wider sustainable development priorities. MC13 is a vital time for trade ministers to show the world that they are ready to engage and to build cooperation on sustainability and trade at the WTO.


Carolyn Deere Birkbeck is Founder and Executive Director, Forum on Trade, Environment, & the SDGs (TESS).

Christophe Bellmann is Head of Policy Analysis and Strategy, Forum on Trade, Environment, & the SDGs (TESS).


Synergies by TESS is a blog dedicated to promoting inclusive policy dialogue at the intersection of trade, environment, and sustainable development, drawing on perspectives from a range of experts from around the globe. The editor is Fabrice Lehmann.


Any views and opinions expressed on Synergies are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of TESS or any of its partner organizations or funders.


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