A new World Trade Organization (WTO) accord could improve access to clean-energy tools in poorer countries, but any deal making it easier to ship cargo internationally would also carry a heavy carbon footprint.
Environmental economists are uncertain about the relative merits of the WTO's Doha round, whose potential impact remains murky after six years of arduous negotiations in Geneva.
On the one hand, reducing barriers to trading green goods may boost use of solar panels, wind turbines and other climate-friendly technology several-fold in emerging nations such as China and India, World Bank senior environment economist Muthukumara Mani said.
Among low- and middle-income WTO members, considerable barriers to entry still exist for these technologies, he said in a telephone interview. As countries grow they are going to be contributing a lot more to greenhouse gas emissions. It would m-ake sense to have this agreement and give them the access.
But conversely, a WTO deal slashing import taxes, duties and tariffs may also increase polluting output from the cars, trucks, boats and planes shipping goods worldwide.
The transport sector accounts for a quarter of the world's energy-related output of greenhouse gases, which scientists say are trapping sun rays in the atmosphere and causing ice caps to melt, sea levels to rise and weather patterns to shift wildly.
FLOWERS, APPLES, SHOES
Philip Bagnoli of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said increased deliveries of goods such as flowers from Africa, apples from New Zealand and shoes from Argentina could compound carbon emissions and counteract the clean-energy gains from the WTO talks.
There are two factors working against each other in the Doha round. Where it comes down is unpredictable if you don't know the specifics of the agreement itself, Bagnoli said from his office in Paris.
Access to cleaner technologies does not in and of itself automatically lead you to use them, he said. If you don't put in policies that are specifically designed to reduce emissions, you could end up increasing emissions in the end, as result of the increased trade effect.
According to forthcoming OECD research, global carbon emissions would jump 8 percent and worldwide economic output would rise 1 percent by 2025 as a result of international trade maintaining its recent fast pace of growth.
Most economists believe that the failure to conclude a global deal at the WTO would lead to more stilted commercial flows and spur a proliferation of smaller-scale free trade accords between neighboring countries.
But such bilateral and regional pacts may not be broad enough to tackle environmental goods in a way that ensures their wide distribution, especially to poorer countries.
They may also run into many of the problems that have plagued WTO negotiations meant to ensure special treatment for environmental products under the umbrella of the Doha round, which also includes talks on agriculture, industry and services.
Rich and poor countries have sparred over how to define environmental goods in those talks. Some have sought to include multi-purpose items such as pipes, or to have climate-friendly projects, rather than products, covered. Others have pressed to have biofuel products, such as ethanol, included.
The World Bank's Mani said it was important that the environmental goals folded into the Doha agenda should not be allowed to slip if the multilateral talks fail to reach a conclusion soon, as many fear could occur.
He also stressed that concerns about the environmental impacts of increased overall trade should not negate the potential gains from expanded clean-energy access, which he said could complement international efforts to curtail carbon use.
One should not look at trade as the bad guy in terms of environmental issues. Environmental issues are dealt with by environmental policies and not trade policies, Mani said.