04 Dec 2017 Story Air

The role of trade in tackling air pollution

By Steven Stone, Head of UN Environment’s Resources and Markets Branch

Each year millions of people around the world die prematurely from air pollution. Many more are affected by rising health costs and a decline in quality of life. Air pollution knows no boundaries, and is not limited to rich or poor countries, or to men or women. It is unifying in the threat it poses to people, planet and prosperity – the trinity on which the bold ambition of Agenda 2030 rests.

Nevertheless, a pollution-free world is within reach. It is possible to imagine clean and affordable energy to heat our homes, cook our food, and power our economies. Many cities are transforming the way citizens travel and people are finding ways to consume smarter, and more sustainably. And the private sector has long demonstrated that green economics can be good economics, with renewable and energy efficient technologies creating more jobs and improving profit margins. In 2015, 8.1 million people around the globe were employed in the renewable energy sector.

The private sector has long demonstrated that green economics can be good economics, with renewable and energy efficient technologies creating more jobs and improving profit margins.

Technology and innovation are the backbone of much of this change and will be critical to its success. Already, the global clean technology market is growing at an annual rate of 4.5 per cent in developed countries and over 10 per cent in a number of emerging economies. Yet it is up to us to level the playing field – making sure every country, every industry and every household has access to these technologies and innovations. When policies are properly designed and implemented, trade can serve as a powerful instrument in enabling this vision. Specifically, trade can help push a pollution-free agenda in five key ways.

One, by ensuring clean technologies are available to everyone, everywhere in the world. While not all countries have the infrastructure and the know-how to develop clean technologies, trade can facilitate access to them.  Removing trade barriers, e.g. cutting tariffs on environmental goods, such as renewable energy technologies or environmental monitoring equipment, can help to disseminate these technologies, providing a means for all countries to address air pollution. Studies estimate that the elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers to clean technologies could result in a 14 per cent increase in their volume of trade, holding the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 million tons by 2030.

Secondly, trade can accelerate innovation, research and development. Since 1997, patents on clean energy technologies have risen by 20 per cent each year. This is a sign of extraordinary innovation in this area. Trade can provide incentives for research and development in clean technologies and help spread innovative ideas around the world. This can spur greater learning and collaboration on technologies that are even more resource-efficient and less polluting.

While not all countries have the infrastructure and the know-how to develop clean technologies, trade can facilitate access to them.

Thirdly, the global policy framework provides a clear impetus for trade and its role in tackling air pollution. As the 2030 Agenda rightly notes, trade is an important tool to deliver its objectives to “leave no one behind.” Air pollution itself is identified in SDG targets relating to health and cities. In addition, sustainable development and environment protection are fundamental goals of the World Trade Organization.

Furthermore, trade can provide incentives that reveal the true cost of air pollution to society. When we think about costs and benefits of production, we don’t always look at the full costs of our decisions. Instead society bears the costs of environmental degradation and the health impacts of air pollution. By applying the rules of the trading system, taxes on trade in so-called “dirty” products could result in a bigger price tag, thereby providing incentives for trade in cleaner products.

Side event
Leaders from government and business called for action to unlock trade in clean tech at a side event during the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi.

And finally, at its core, trade is a connector – of products, of people and of the planet. Comprehensively and effectively addressing air pollution requires all of us to come together for a common vision. A diverse coalition of actors championing trade in clean technologies has the potential to set a precedent to transform the quality of air we breathe. We need leaders in environmental science, technology, business, and trade to join hands and shape the future of environmentally sound technologies, together.

A diverse coalition of actors championing trade in clean technologies has the potential to set a precedent to transform the quality of air we breathe.

But what can we do? We know that air pollution is wreaking havoc on the health of the planet and its people, and we possess the resources and the technological know-how to tackle this problem of global scale. We must first challenge ourselves and our habits. The cars we drive, the goods we purchase and the politicians we elect shape both the degree of pollution itself, and the extent to which it is taken seriously and addressed. We must engage our neighbors, our communities, our policy makers and our business leaders and encourage them to play a role in ensuring cleaner air for the next generation, and in supporting a trading system that enables this change. Despite the case for clean technologies, trade can still be perceived to be in conflict with the environment. We must move beyond this dated paradigm to allow trade rules to work for sustainable development and to tackle air pollution.

So what’s missing? You. We need you, to engage and to spread the message, as far and wide as possible, and to pledge to #BeatPollution. Join us!

 

The UN Environment Assembly is gathering in Nairobi from 4-6 December 2017 under the overarching theme of pollution.