Trade and sustainable development : using the World Trade Organization to more effectively protect the environment

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The Brundtland Report also defines sustainable development as “a process of change in which the use of resources, the directions of investments, the orientation of technological developments, and institutional change all enhance the potential to meet human needs both today and tomorrow.” This vague and broad definition relies on the notion that the world’s environment is a system where actions in one country can affect life on other continents. Examples of this include the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption that affected air quality and travel in Europe, and the recent radiation detected in the United States after the earthquake and subsequent radiation leaks in Japan. The definition also implies that practically every aspect of our lives can have some effect, or can be relevant to, achieving a sustainable development goal. Most forms of production and consumption, key aspects of international trade, affect and can harm the environment. Thus, the issue is less about stopping these actions and more about making them less harmful to the environment and humankind. There will always be tension between forms of economic activity and environmental protection. However, trade is only one of many economic activities, and the WTO cannot be solely responsible for all aspects of the promotion of sustainable development and environmental protection. At its most general definition, international trade is the “economic interaction among different nations involving the exchange of goods and services.” It can lead to both economic growth and development. At its core, international trade involves the basic concept of supply and demand. Human needs and desires drive what will be in demand. This demand drives the need for a supply of that resource. Thus, the real question is what aspects of the current trading system, including the WTO, can be enhanced or changed to promote sustainable development. This paper aims to examine the relationship between the WTO and sustainable development. It further seeks to evaluate the ways in which the relationship has been successful and the ways in which it has been hindered. Finally, this paper looks to the future and suggests ways to enhance and change this relationship and more effectively protect the environment through the WTO.

Includes bibliographical references.