Considered by many as the enemy of environmental action, international trade is often vilified as the polar opposite of buying local and reducing one’s carbon footprint. Yet, although the movement of goods and services around the globe can be a significant contributor to environmental degradation, it also holds the key to its protection.
As the Cop26 environmental summit continues in an attempt to agree on action to tackle climate change, the sustainability of international trade will be a key topic of debate, as will the role of technology in achieving this goal.
There are two key elements that make trade so important to the climate discussion. Firstly, as the medium through which green energies and technology can be transported and employed globally. Secondly, as a vital part of our livelihoods that needs to be made more sustainable, and is also being put at risk by the impacts of climate change via disruptions to infrastructure and trade routes.
In the days prior to the summit, the UK held an inquiry to consider how international trade should feature within the Cop26 agenda. The government is already working with the World Trade Organization to promote “green trade”. Efforts include liberalising the trade in environmental goods and services, cutting carbon emissions, and supporting efforts towards a more circular economy.
Investing in green technologies and energy will continue to be of the utmost importance. Britain is attracting such investment with the £6bn East Anglia Hub, one of the largest offshore wind complexes in the world, being built by Spanish electricity company Iberdrola. Such projects achieve the joint goals of reducing the UK’s emissions, as well as creating jobs and encouraging the development of expertise in these technologies.
International trade deals are increasingly incorporating green technology as well. Trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan has said that recent deals with Japan, Australia and New Zealand have put the reduction in carbon emissions at the forefront of future action. However, this is an area that has seen tension as Australian PM Scott Morisson is reported to have said that the UK-Australia trade deal was a trade agreement, definitely not a climate one.
The role of environmental provisions in free trade agreements is likely to continue to be a contentious topic, as different countries grapple with differing regulations and standards. With the Cop26 summit, however, there is perhaps an opportunity to establish more concrete collaboration.
Finally, the UK must continue to make every effort to minimize the environmental impact of its trading practices whilst prioritizing efficiency. Recent supply chain disruption caused by a lack of personnel has exposed some of the frailties inherent in current systems. Innovations such as automation and digitising outdated systems are able to not only speed up trade and make it more resilient but also to reduce its environmental impact. By investing in these technologies, trade can become more robust, efficient, and green.
Trade in clean technologies promotes economic development, job creation and innovation while simultaneously fostering economic and climate resilience. By using technology to improve the sustainability of trade itself we can ensure even greater global prosperity. Rather than being the enemy of sustainability, trade will play a vital role in moving towards a greener future.