WTO in Bali: Anyone Would Think 440ppm Had Never Happened

10/12/2013 13:02 GMT | Updated 08/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Six years ago, global leaders met to discuss climate change in Bali. In May of this year, we passed 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, not seen for millions of years. Last week, leaders were again in Bali, this time for a meeting of the WTO. Given the history of the place and the urgency of climate change, you might have expected that shaping a more climate-friendly trade system would have been high on the agenda. It will come as no surprise to those following either the IPCC meetings or the WTO processes, that this was not the case.

The trade consensus of recent decades has been a primary driver of the expansion of industrialised agriculture and of the globalised food system. In order to qualify for IMF and World Bank structural adjustment loans, countries were told that they had to reduce support for their own agricultural sectors, seek to produce and export ever increasing amounts and open up to exports and investment from other countries. Since 1995, the WTO has sought to lock in these policies.

When recent extreme and unpredictable weather patterns hit food production, particularly in grain producing countries like Russia and Australia, it became all too apparent that this system leaves countries incredibly vulnerable to the global impacts of climate change. Countries stopped exporting in order to ensure their own populations had enough to eat; the resulting sudden spikes in global food prices were devastating for people around the world, and one of the catalysts of the Arab Spring.

The declaration from this year's Ministerial shows some acknowledgement that countries need to be able to manage their own agriculture in order to respond to climate change: 'General Services' such as soil conservation and resource management, drought management and flood control, are now explicitly exempt from agricultural subsidies reduction requirements.

What is worrying is that, prior to the declaration, countries might have been challenged through the WTO if they had used such measures. Furthermore, the huge resistance to and weakness of the final text on an 'interim mechanism' to allow public stockholding of staple crops for food security purposes, demonstrates the extent to which the world's most powerful countries are still not taking climate change or the demands of developing countries seriously. More than that, it demonstrates the outrageous hypocrisy of rich countries: India wants to make sure it wont be challenged for its food security programme which costs $20 billion per year, the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme costs $78 billion and reaches far fewer people. India's programme is not allowed, whilst that of the US is, because of commitments based on historical levels of subsidies and out-of-date market prices.

Meanwhile, the US continues to subsidise its own agricultural sector for crops like corn, wheat and soy, all of which are exported, all of which are associated with climate change: monocropping and the depletion of soil nutrition, reduction of soil capacity as a carbon sink and use for feed for Greenhouse Gas intensive meat production.

The trade facilitation agreement is being touted as resounding success. Yet it fails on two counts. The first is that it further entrenches the resource-intensive international trading system by focussing on increasing export trade. Second, there is nothing in the text to support regional trade, to enhance infrastructure (let alone green infrastructure) or to build productive or trade capacity in-country, all things that developing countries wanted. The deal makes significant demands of countries in terms administrative arrangements; there is a commitment to donor assistance to comply but recent experience tells us that this is unlikely to be forthcoming, and if it is, will be diverted from aid that would be better used elsewhere (like, say, dealing with climate change). The agreement also puts more power in the hands of multinational companies by giving them the right to intervene in customs procedures and country legislation and will doubtless lead to pressure to reduce border tariffs still further, a source of much-needed government revenue.

Meanwhile the TRIPs agreement leaves new technologies that can reduce CO2 emissions and help deal with the effects of climate change in the hands of large multinational corporations. Semi-monopolies are created covering environmental technologies (as well as medicines and other things), pushing prices up significantly. Just five countries account for over 80% of royalty and fee recipients and in some cases inventions are copyrighted for up to seventy years. Developing countries have benefited from a waiver but are under constant threat of having it removed.

To be clear: the WTO is not the place for climate negotiations to take place, that must be left to the IPCC and global leaders must be made to take urgent and meaningful action at their 2015 meeting in Paris. But the fact that no efforts are being made to adapt the international trade system to tackle climate change and in particular to deal with the global food crisis, clearly illustrates that this is a system in need of fundamental reform.