by Shaun Sellers
‘The food that you buy will all be grown locally,’ says policy director at New Consensus, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, in a Vox video. This is stated simply, as an aspect of what it will be like to live in the time of a Green New Deal (GND). Yet it represents a fundamental challenge to international trade governance in ways that must be addressed if the GND is to be successful.
Green New Deals are currently being developed across Europe and North America, with policy initiatives ranging from regional to state to national levels. These Green New Deals vary in their details, but are generally an attempt to rally governments to address climate change, as opposed to letting the deregulated ‘free market’ decide if or which humans will survive the Anthropocene. GNDs are a forceful recognition that governments have a mandate to respond to the existential needs of the populace. In February of 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a resolution to recognize the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. It asserts that by 2030, the US needs to become a net-zero emissions economy, and to do this, a combination of green tech, ecological restoration, targeted growth in localizing economies and targeted degrowth in particular sectors of the economy need to all be undertaken together.
The language in the resolution is intentionally non-specific to leave room for interpretation and flexibility, yet that has not stopped conservative and centrist voices from calling it economically impractical. Others caution that the GND may be mere greenwashing of the current status quo. What is notable is that the Resolution chooses to emphasize economic security as opposed to economic growth. These are not the same thing at all. While the resolution could be read to be growth focused, it can also be read as a degrowth transition document—allowing for certain sectors to be targeted for growth but reducing the emissions of other sectors dramatically. The one place where economic development is promoted is in directing investment towards ‘deepening and diversifying industry and business in local regional economies’. And this is where trade governance comes in. To develop local economies with the goal of lessening emissions in trade is to effectively dismantle the international web of supply chains, and by extension, the current international trade regime.
To develop local economies with the goal of lessening emissions in trade is to effectively dismantle the international web of supply chains, and by extension, the current international trade regime.
Investing in local and regional economies would require a change from the ways in which our local economies function today. Nearly half of all global production today is destined for international trade. The food, goods, and services we use every day overwhelmingly come from farms and factories and call centres around the world, and government attempts to change this won’t go unanswered by the corporations that feel the effects of a changing economic climate. National and regional attempts to change the way that economic activity happens in local contexts have been regularly shut down through a process of investor state dispute resolution provisions, because these initiatives violate current international trade rules. In countries all over the world, if local or national policies appear to prevent a corporation from accessing a market—that is, selling their product ‘competitively’—that corporation can sue the government in question in the court at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The way that international trade happens today is both intentional by policy design and also particularly emissions intensive. The emissions from export-oriented production in the world economy are rising faster than global GDP, contributing to absolute increases of emissions over time. Yes, per capita GDP has risen around the world with the increases in international trade, but so too has social inequality and environmental degradation, correlations that major trade organizations admit are concerning.
The GND Resolution calls for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas; and to grow domestic manufacturing in the United States”. Internet commentators have pointed out the problems this would create with trade agreements and global trade governance, but they’ve missed the explicit framing of climate change as a national security threat: ‘by impacting the economic, environmental, and social stability of countries and communities around the world.’ This framing may offer insight into the policy pathway to enact such a challenging task as relocalizing economies through policy as suggested by the GND. Article XX and XXI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the core international trade governance document, allows for nations to be exempt from the free trade mandate if they are protecting the environment within their borders (though this is often hit or miss) or for reasons of national security. By declaring in the Green New Deal resolution that climate change is a national security issue, not just for the USA, but for many countries, we can envision a policy pathway to defend iterations of the GND at the WTO court of appeals.
A climate policy must change the way that the global economy works if it is to be successful, but if a policy is effective enough to disrupt global trade, it will violate global trade rules.
However, if we now enter into a world of global climate change discourse framed primarily as a national security issue, this threatens to entrench the military and security sectors at the very moment that people are calling for their drawing down. This also potentially has the power to challenge the fundamental mandate of the WTO, because economic growth through free flow of trade across borders is their goal, and emissions are intimately tied to GDP in today’s trade regime. The broad goal of indiscriminate growth in the world economy is incompatible with the goals of the GND, and with climate policy in general. It is an important climate policy paradox: a climate policy must change the way that the global economy works if it is to be successful (because decoupling of GDP and emissions is a mere myth), but if a policy is effective enough to disrupt global trade, it will violate global trade rules. If the relocalization of economies as proposed in the GND can be defended at the WTO appellate court on climate change as national security grounds, this argument is theoretically available to any country or state or municipality, which would render the WTO useless in managing trade in climate policy contexts. And because we have waited so long to act on climate change, almost everything will be within a climate change context from now on.
The trade and relocalization goals of the GND cannot be achieved without fundamentally challenging the mandate of the WTO, and today’s international trade regime oriented toward free trade and economic growth. This scenario is not a complete victory for those who protest free trade agreements, nor is it a universe-ender for those working in the WTO offices in Geneva (or elsewhere). It must be seen as an opportunity to ask what an international trade regime would look like if it were oriented towards ecological futurity. If the GND is successful in changing the way that international trade works without being clear about how, why, and who should be part of future international trade governance, we risk instability and power accumulation. We must not allow the inevitable clash between the GND and the international trade regime to be an unanticipated crisis. Planning for a GND at any scale must include larger visions for an international trade regime in which protectionism is actively redefined. Right now, protectionism means protecting domestic industry and interests, and language in the GND Resolution echoes this. But protectionism could and should reflect the goals of the GND itself, envisioning international trade governance in which protection of ecological integrity, well-being, and justice are the focus.
We must not allow the inevitable clash between the GND and the international trade regime to be an unanticipated crisis.
The Green New Deals around the world have the seeds of change within them; they are ambitious and important. But we must acknowledge that a new international trade governance approach is integral to any national or international Green New Deals. For the food we eat to be grown locally, we are going to have to do nothing less than restructure the global economy. Best to know this going in.
Shaun Sellers is a PhD Student at McGill University, studying ecological economics and trade theory.