Insights from the UNCTAD Conference on Trade and Biodiversity

How are biodiversity and the environment considered in global trade and commerce? One would think this question has been sufficiently answered, but the core of its debate has only started.

On March 25th and 26th, 2024, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) held a timely conference on the intersection between trade and biodiversity. The event brought together esteemed panellists and stakeholders from around the globe to deliberate on strategies to mainstream biodiversity into global trade processes and explore how nature-positive trade can support sustainable development and existing international agreements. As the triple planetary crisis (climate change, air pollution, and biodiversity loss) calls for urgent action and the search for solutions has revealed a need for change in our economy and development model, consumption and trade are naturally at the center of the discussions. Sustainable trade practices have been coined as a strategy to combat the economic drivers of biodiversity loss, and this topic has been raised by other international conventions, such as in COP28, where the “Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action” was signed.

I participated in two panels, “Mainstreaming Biodiversity into WTO Processes” and “Nature Positive Trade for Sustainable Development”, gathering insights that shed light on the importance of our work at CLEVER. Despite being set in a high-level discussion format, international organizations were willing to share how their work has tried to bring trade and biodiversity together, highlighting challenges and opportunities.  Organizations such as the WTO, UNCTAD, FAO, UNEP, international NGOs, and others shared initiatives and projects around the bioeconomy, biotrade, blue economy, payment for ecosystem services (PES), true cost accounting, ecotourism, and others. The Global Biodiversity Framework seems to be the foundation for aligning their own strategic plans, while the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement are also in sight.

The WTO stressed that their Trade and Environmental Sustainability Structured Discussions (TESSD) are intended to complement the work of the Committee on Trade and Environment and other relevant WTO bodies, showing that this topic is becoming more relevant in the organization since their 2021 Ministerial Statement on Trade and Environmental Sustainability. UNEP, as part of their Economics and Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, emphasized the importance of assessing the true cost of food in order to transform food systems, and that as nature’s value becomes visible, smallholder farmers should not carry the burden of the transition alone.

The general challenge also remains that including environmental aspects in trade is not ‘natural’, as it can create barriers beyond price, market, and national trade interest. Thus, to understand the best way to do so, a systematic approach and a larger change of economy per se are needed. For this, strong political will is required. Nonetheless, although all agree this is essential, there was a call to include certain concepts from prior agreed conventions (e.g., UNFCCC), such as the “common but differentiated responsibilities”, since working with trade systems also means dealing with global and historical modes of development. This point also incited discussions on the risk of misusing environmental aspects in trade for protectionism and, thus, distorting the market (giving the EUDR and CBAM as examples).

There was also a demand for more integration among international organizations, such as the WTO cooperating with environmental agreements (CITES and CBD). Certain topics were held as essential leverage points to focus on, such as addressing the misuse of hazardous pesticides, subsidies, and promoting sustainable agriculture. The significant role of regional trade agreements was also highlighted. Among the initiatives presented were the WWF’s “Codex Planetarius” to establish minimum standards for globally traded food, the WTO’s environmental database, the FAO’s biodiversity knowledge hub, and the G20’s Bioeconomy Initiative

In conclusion, the UNCTAD conference served as a critical platform for stakeholders to exchange ideas, share best practices, and chart a course towards a more sustainable and equitable future for trade, as biodiversity and environmental aspects are considered. These insights closely relate to our work in CLEVER, as it adds to our research and discussions on how international trade in agricultural and forest products affect biodiversity. Studying these links through qualitative (policy and governance aspects) and quantitative (biodiversity metrics) methods, the CLEVER team has been investigating and developing solutions for a more sustainable production and consumption. Through a science-policy interface strategy, CLEVER research intends to present knowledge and tools to influence decision-making, in collaboration with stakeholders from politics, the private sector and civil society. Informing ourselves and being part of current international discussions on the topic is a crucial part of our work.

Written by Rafaella Ferraz Ziegert from the University of Freiburg.

Feature image by Rosa Castañeda and tawatchai07 from Freepik.