Trade, technology and air pollution: a conversation with Anja von Moltke

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30 November 2017

Trade is usually associated with economic growth and organizations such as the World Trade Organization. Why is this topic relevant to the work of UN Environment?

We live in an integrated world. Over the last few decades, it has become obvious that we cannot create a prosperous and healthy future for everyone if we think in boxes and fail to connect the dots. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledges that the social, economic and environmental dimensions of development are indivisible. With this in mind, we need to find ways to help trade and the environment better support each other. Trade can be a driver of sustainable development: for example, trade in environmentally sound technologies can make economies greener and more inclusive. We can #BeatPollution, and particularly air pollution, for instance, by making it easier for governments, companies and individuals to access and use technologies that rely on renewable resources instead of fossil fuels. The European Union conducted a “Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment on the Environmental Goods Agreement” and found that a more rapid spread of environmentally sound technologies could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 million tons by 2030 when compared with the baseline scenario.

This sounds like a win-win situation. So why is it so difficult to spread these clean technologies?

There are a number of reasons. First, clean technologies are often still too expensive. While they are on the rise, they still have a way to go to be competitive and financially attractive compared with brown technologies. Unfortunately, many governments still subsidize technologies and activities that pollute the environment. Second, many countries lack the knowledge and productive capacity to engage in the supply chain of clean technologies. Third, barriers that hamper development, innovation and diffusion of new technology inhibit the free flow of these goods to the areas where they are most needed. Such barriers include tariffs, or taxes, imposed on imported goods and services or on intermediary products. These tariffs raise the price of imported goods relative to domestic goods and generate revenue for the government. There are also non-tariff barriers, for example when a country has cumbersome border procedures, imposes restrictive trade regulations, or chooses to limit its exports. Some countries still impose such barriers on climate-friendly goods and services, such as solar panels, which is a serious impediment to accessing innovative technologies. According to a World Bank study on international trade and climate change, eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers can lead to a 14 per cent increase in the trade volume of clean technologies, including those for controlling air pollution.  

What do you see as next steps? How can we move towards the economy of the future as you described it?

We need three things: (1) national and international regulatory frameworks and trade rules that are conducive to a greener economy; (2) political will to reform trade policies and trade rules; and (3) multi-stakeholder coalitions of green champions. With these three elements, we need to promote the pioneers and champions who are already showing the business case of an economy of the future. We have to support partners from the public and private sectors and civil society who share the same vision of a green future and who can showcase the multiple benefits of greening trade in order to convince those that do not yet believe in it.

One step towards this goal is our side event at this year’s UN Environment AssemblyThe eventaims to highlight the role of trade in scaling up clean technologies to abate air pollution, drawing on successful business models. It intends to build momentum, inspire new voluntary commitments and bring together actors who are championing trade in clean technologies. The outcomes of the event will feed into the global agenda on trade and sustainable development.

What about individuals? How can the rest of us support this work?

Nowadays, trade still has many adverse effects on our environment and is therefore seen as being in conflict with the environmental agenda. We need to spread the message that, if we all work together, we have the power to change our trading system. With 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda – which clearly identifies trade as a driver for sustainable development – we have a unique opportunity to make trade work for the environment, for people and for inclusiveness.  

While we need strong partnerships and coalitions to do this, we also have a lot of influence at an individual level. By making choices about what we do, buy and eat, we as consumers can influence what will be sold and therefore what will be produced, how it is processed, transported and disposed of. We can therefore influence trade, incentivise cleaner production of energy and goods and make global value chains greener and more sustainable.

To learn more, explore UN Environment’s work on trade or contact Anja von Moltke at anja.moltke[at]un.org. Then sign the #BeatPollution pledge and find out how you can reduce your pollution footprint.


The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.

HeadTrade, Policy and Planning Unit, United Nations Environment Programme