Conservation and Trade

The world is experiencing an unparalleled surge in both the value and volume of illegal trade of wildlife and wildlife products, from live animals to leaves, fruits, seeds and oils. Estimated to be worth up to £17bn per year, illegal wildlife has become the fourth most lucrative trans-boundary crime. This exponential growth threatens to overturn decades of hard won conservation gains.

In many developing countries, systemic weaknesses have enabled the sale of illegal wildlife products to thrive. These include low risk of detection; low levels of sanctions; poverty; corruption and a lack of resources for enforcement. It is the responsibility of developed countries, with higher environmental and enforcement standards, to work with countries who suffer from these problems.

It is my firm belief that trade policy can support this fight, both helping in the conservation efforts and in delivering sustainable development and environmental protection.

The UK starts from a strong position to create a green and sustainable international trade policy. The Government has already made clear that it intends to invest to prevent wildlife crime, pursue a ban on sales of ivory, which contributes to the slaughter of almost 20,000 elephants every year, and strengthen partnerships to tackle illegal wildlife trade beyond our borders. Our domestic policies represent the values that must feature at the heart of our trade agenda.

As members of the EU, the UK has ensured these values drive the significant steps taken in promoting environmental standards in its free trade agenda. For instance, the Trade and Sustainable Development chapters that feature in all contemporary EU Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) address these issues and contribute to environmental protection in third countries.

The UK must build on this work to promote a post-Brexit sustainable green trade agenda. This should be achieved through the creation of a sustainable legal trade framework, which will strengthen the positive contribution of trade policy to sustainable development. As the UK is a world leader in e-commerce, digital trade must also protect endangered wildlife species, and online market places must ban the sale of wildlife and wildlife products on their platforms.

The UK should update and renew the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) it will inherit after leaving the EU. This system provides lowered tariffs and easier access for developing countries. Not only can this system stimulate economic growth through increased exports, it can facilitate environmental protection and sustainable development. This can be maximised if the UK creates a system that increases the tariff preferences as beneficiary countries comply with UN conventions on climate change and Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).

Bilateral agreements are a crucial part of an independent trade policy and conservation and wildlife trade must be at the heart of this. FTAs can introduce robust provisions on wildlife protection by strengthening the implementation and enforcement of MEAs as they can help regulate legal trade and combat illegal trade. This is achieved by committing countries to domestic law compliance and to environmental obligations, and delivering capacity building to trading partners and promoting cooperation. However, we must be vigilant as trade liberalisation can lead to increases in legal, but also illegal trade. FTA environment chapters need to be properly negotiated to ensure specific protections for all wildlife, but especially threatened and highly trafficked species. Moreover, the UK should review the financial and technical assistance it provides to developing nations in order to achieve more ambitious and effective changes to manage biodiversity and tackle the illegal wildlife trade.

The UK’s international trade policy must create the structures for free trade that we have in current EU FTAs, and build on these for future trade agreements. For example, the EU-Vietnam FTA includes commitments regarding the proper implementation and enforcement of MEAs such as CITES, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. There are also provisions related to trade capacity building, information exchange on strategies, policy initiatives, programmes, action plans, consumer awareness, campaigns aiming to protect biodiversity and awareness raising campaigns, monitoring and enforcement measures.

We should learn from the trade policies of other countries to go above and beyond current precedent. The recently signed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will raise standards amongst Asia-Pacific countries. The 11 countries in the agreement comprise an ecologically and economically significant region of the world that spans four continents. The CPTPP Environmental Chapter includes binding, fully enforceable commitments on a dispute settlement procedure; a requirement to adopt and implement CITES; a commitment to combat the trade in illegally taken wildlife; the prohibition of harmful fisheries subsidies and promotion of sustainable fisheries; and a commitment to implement MEAs. The UK should look to work with these like-minded partners multilaterally and could consider applying to become members of CPTPP.

There are new innovative ways to redraw specific provisions within trade policy that are environmentally friendly. For instance, in the latest discussions on the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, Canada has proposed providing Rules of Origin credit for electric cars. Incentivising sustainable transportation is a vital part of creating a green economy and the UK should explore other provisions within trade agreements that can spur innovation and make renewable products cheaper.

To realise any tangible achievements, the UK cannot act in isolation. It must pursue international standards that protect the environment and facilitate fair practice in international trade, so that we do not improve our domestic environment at the expense of the environment globally. The UK and the EU have been working at the WTO to reduce harmful fishing subsidies. At the last ministerial conference in December 2017, members decided on a work programme to conclude the negotiations for an agreement on fisheries subsidies that delivers on the Sustainable Development Goal at the 2019 Ministerial Conference. This agreement will look to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. As independent members of the WTO, the UK should invest political capital into concluding this agreement.

The UK is already a world leader in the fight to protect both our wildlife and the environment. We have the highest food safety and environmental protection standards in the world, which means the UK has a solid foundation to promote its conservation agenda in its international trade policy. As the UK leaves the European Union, it will gain significant powers over a multitude of areas, in particular in international trade policy. It is incumbent on the UK to seize the opportunities this transfer of power presents to go further than the EU did in its wildlife policy. Working with international partners and stakeholders, the UK should put conservation at the heart of its global trade agenda and lead the world in a new green and sustainable trade policy.

© Copyright Emma McClarkin
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