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7 December 2007updated 24 Sep 2015 11:16am

A depression of trade ministers

How climate change is being used as an opportunity to seek competitive advantage...

By Peter Hardstaff

Trade ministers are flying in for a two-day meeting starting tomorrow. Woohoo! Can’t wait. There’s nothing quite like a depression (collective noun) of trade ministers in town to truly put a downer on your day.

Anyway, why, might you ask, are trade ministers coming to Bali for a meeting at the same time as a UN climate conference? What is it they want? Very good questions, I would respond. Let me explain…

You may already be aware that the “urgent need to tackle climate change” is being used to promote a stunning range of crap ideas and dodgy technologies. Well, I think the trade folks were perhaps feeling a bit behind the curve and wanted to do some catching up, so here’s the back story…

A few weeks ago the Indonesian government sends a letter to trade ministers inviting them to Bali to discuss the interaction between trade rules and climate change. It is far from clear why the Indonesian government took this initiative (possibly a prestige thing, possibly related to its desire for biofuel market access) but the trade ministers have duly responded and are on their way here.

Some (i.e. the EU & US) are keen to open the markets of others (i.e. big developing countries) for their high tech products and their service multinationals (e.g. water companies). Others (eg Brazil, maybe Indonesia) are keen to open the markets of some (i.e. the US & EU) for their biofuels. Nobody likes each other’s proposals but everyone is using the ‘urgent need to tackle climate change’ as their justification.

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So, what to conclude from this? Everyone is using climate change to seek competitive advantage. What a surprise.

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Clearly the trade ministers are not going to agree on all this stuff in a couple of days in Bali, so what’s the likely outcome? Well, there is one thing that all trade ministers can agree to, at least rhetorically. It’s this: pursuing open markets and ‘free trade’, they like to claim, is consistent with pretty much any other policy objective you care to mention (except warmongering) and other policy objectives should not be used as an ‘excuse’ to create ‘unjustified’ barriers to trade and that WTO rules rule supreme. Actually, that’s three things.

Anyway, I predict, that the outcome will be what on the face of it seems like a bland statement. Something along the lines of how climate change and free trade/open markets are ‘mutually supportive’ and that countries should seek all ways possible (perhaps even using the word ‘expeditiously’ – which trade negotiators are very fond of) to enhance the clearly complementary objectives of open markets and tackling climate change by considering, as appropriate, opening some markets, and possibly that negotiations on climate change should not be used to create barriers to trade.

In fact, I would put money on something like this coming out as an agreed statement. Not a lot of money you understand, due to past experience with betting leading me to be cautious, but I reckon the odds are pretty good.

The subtext of all this is, of course, about sending a strong signal to the assembled environment negotiators – not a trustworthy lot, prone to agreeing far reaching progressive policies that encroach on other people’s patch. And, make no mistake, nobody screws with the WTO.

Like I said, nothing quite like the trade people to put a downer on things.

All I can say (in reference to a previous post) is that this is definitely one case where the costs of the carbon emitted from the flying (business-class, rather than cattle-class, of course), and the hot air emitted after they arrive, definitely outweighs the benefits.