Towards post-2020 regime for biodiversity: making EU trade deliver for conservation

In its recently published reflection paper “Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030”  (see IEEP analysis here) the European Commission highlights the key role of trade in delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), pointing out that the EU’s importance in the global market gives it an opportunity to influence worldwide sustainability standards. As the world’s most productive trade negotiating authority, with 80 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in place and 40 currently pending or under negotiation [1], the EU has a significant influence over global trade and can use FTAs as a vehicle to promote the adoption of (higher) environmental standards for the production of goods and services. We look here at how trade policy could provide stronger support for biodiversity outcomes, and for protected areas in particular.

Rapid biodiversity decline is one of the main environmental challenges currently faced at the global scale [2]. International efforts to tackle this issue rely significantly on protected areas [3]. According to the latest Protected Planet Report, protected areas currently cover 14.9% of the earth’s land surface and 7.47% of the world’s oceans. If effectively managed, this global network of protected areas plays a key role in safeguarding world’s biodiversity [4]. In addition to biodiversity conservation, numerous studies [5] have demonstrated that protected areas play an important role in underpinning human wellbeing, including supporting the achievement of multiple SDGs. They are, for example, crucial to tackling climate change (SDG 13), and support additional SDGs as various as health or economic growth.

However, the growing global demand for products linked to increasing international trade is augmenting pressure on natural resources. This can lead to over- or even illegal exploitation; a recent study found that unsustainable resource extraction is the most commonly reported threat to protected areas in developing countries. Trade-related interests can also hinder further development of protected area networks, as was recently the case in Brazil where 11 newly-created protected areas were abolished by a subsequent bill pushed for by the agribusiness lobby.

There is a need for more effective international environmental trade standards for biodiversity conservation, with protected areas in particular lacking sufficient safeguards against the effects of international trade. More strategic integration of protected areas in EU trade policies would allow the EU to spearhead global conservation efforts, support multiple SDGs simultaneously, and create win/win opportunities for trading partners in enhancing their biodiversity protection, thereby enforcing the EU’s position as a leader on global sustainability issues.


Sustainability as part of EU trade

Sustainability is already to some extent present in EU trade policies and practice; for example, since 1999 Sustainability Impact Assessments (SIAs) are systematically conducted, and form the basis for negotiations on all trade agreements. Provisions on Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) were introduced in 2010 and now form a core element of all EU FTAs[6]. The EU’s “Trade for All” strategy released in October 2015 also reinforced the EU’s commitment to sustainable development as part of its trade with developing countries. In 2018, the EU Commission took a step further by introducing an explicit mention of the Paris Agreement in the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, committing parties to effectively implement the Agreement and to take actions to address climate change.

The TSD provisions commit parties to cooperate on trade-related environmental policies, advocate trade of sustainably produced resources, and encourage partner countries to tackle climate change. They also stress the importance of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), and the role of trade in supporting the implementation of those agreements.

Specific content of the TSD chapters differ between FTAs. Out of recently ratified agreements, only Japan’s (JEEPA) contains explicit provisions on biodiversity, committing parties to recognise the importance and role of trade in ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity (e.g. explicitly mentioning the CBD).  Of the upcoming agreements, the pending FTA with Vietnam has a rare direct reference to protected areas, encouraging cooperation between parties with the aim of ‘promoting the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in natural or agricultural ecosystems, including […] specially protected natural areas’.


Opportunities for integrating protected areas into FTAs

According to the Commission, the implementation of Trade and Sustainable Development provisions should be ‘stepped-up and improved’ in order to provide effective safeguards for sustainable development in practice [7]. To this end, in February 2018 the Commission put forward a fifteen-point plan to ensure proper implementation and enforcement of TSD provisions. Solutions put forward tackle three key issues: addressing climate change, increasing scope for civil society contribution, and availability of resources to support TSD chapters’ implementation.

Although the Commission’s plan is a step in the right direction, further action should be taken by reinforcing the scope of future TSD chapters on biological diversity. In particular, the integration of specific references to protected areas could benefit the contribution of EU trade policies to both global biodiversity conservation and broader aspects of sustainable development.

The Commission’s plan does provide some openings for further reinforcing future TSD chapters’ scope on biodiversity, for example:

  • The Commission considers early identification of pending international agreements, followed by explicit in-text mention in FTAs, as key to ensuring the enforcement of fundamental international principles in the context of trade. Therefore, partner countries that have not yet ratified relevant conventions, such as the CBD or the Ramsar Convention, should be encouraged to do so at early stage of trade negotiations. The European Parliament passed in July 2018 a resolution asking the Commission to make ‘ratification of the Paris Agreement a condition for future trade agreements’; such a requirement could also be considered regarding the key biodiversity-related conventions.
  • The Commission also recommends identifying priorities relevant to each FTA partner country to facilitate tailored EU actions; this could be used to identify trade related actions for countries hosting protected area networks of global significance (e.g. global biodiversity hotspots).
  • At the negotiation phase, the Commission suggests starting to work closely with international organisations to ensure coordination of TSD provisions with existing multilateral governance mechanism. International bodies responsible for global biodiversity conservation could be specifically involved in this process.
  • The Commission’s paper also envisages that, following entry into force of agreements, further support should be given to civil society bodies such as Domestic Advisory Groups (DAGs) in order to improve monitoring of the FTA’s implementation and exchange of best practices. Regarding protected areas, reinforcing local stakeholders’ involvement in the implementation process would be an essential step towards effective conservation policies.
  • Finally, the Commission considers that funding should be improved to support TSD chapters’ implementation, notably through the 2015 ‘Aid for Trade’ mechanism. Recognising the role that protected areas play in supporting human wellbeing and sustainability, this funding could also be directed towards funding for improved protected area management as a part of wider development strategies linked to, for example, sustainable tourism. 

Policy windows for change

Recent controversies around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) have shown significant public concern about FTAs in general, and the risks of downward pressure on environmental and social standards in particular [8, 9]. Demonstrably ensuring better protection of public goods such as biodiversity, water and climate in partner countries through new trade agreements could increase their acceptance by the EU public. This could include, for example, measures to encourage the involvement of local communities in protected area management which has been shown to lead to increased compliance with protected area policies [10], and could empower those communities as well as boost local acceptance of FTAs.

The EU market’s role as a driver for global deforestation is increasingly under the spotlight, notably through its status as one of the world’s top importers of commodities linked to deforestation, such as palm oil, soy, rubber, and beef [11]. Several Member States have recently asked the EU to step up its efforts to address global deforestation issue, and to show a leadership role by mobilizing its market leverage. Explicit integration of protected areas in to EU’s trade agreements could be a key element to deliver its upcoming Deforestation Strategy, which responds to ‘increasing awareness of the link between deforestation and agricultural expansion’ and aims at contributing to responsible supply chains.

The most pressing window of opportunity, though, might be the ongoing negotiations for the EU-Mercosur agreement, with Brazil in particular. The draft currently under negotiation contains the mandatory TSD provisions. Twenty-one Green MEPs recently sent an open letter to the EU Commission President Juncker asking for a halt in trade talks with the Brazil government, judging that such provisions are not enough of a safeguard against Bolsonaro’s stated ambitions to toll back environmental policies. In particular, the MEPs consider his plans regarding Amazonian forest management as being in contradiction with the EU’s commitments to sustainable development as well as with the Paris Agreement. Abandonment of the Mercosur negotiations would be a major step, after 20 years of negotiations; but the current situation clearly requires the EU to make a decisive step further in its commitment to integrating sustainable development in its trade policy. Given that the newly-elected president has expressed a wish to promote the country’s exports, the EU, as Brazil’s second-biggest trading partner, arguably has real leverage to influence Brazil’s sustainability policies. Brazil is the single biggest exporter of agricultural products to the EU [12]. Clear commitments to improved compliance with protected area policies, particularly in the Amazon, could be asked for by the EU, as well as a possible extension of the Brazilian protected area network, as a key condition of the agreement. The EU also needs to have the courage to walk away from an agreement if Mercosur partners, and Brazil specifically, are not prepared to address the biodiversity challenge, and demonstrate that increased trade will lead to environmental degradation. For now, a continuation of negotiations appears uncertain, due to what DG Trade has described as an ‘inappropriate’ political climate. Other opportunities might hence have to be seized.

As the EU defines its strategy for the post-2020 biodiversity era and towards the 2030 benchmark of sustainable development, it should make use of all tools at its disposal and greatly improve the contribution of its trade policies to both these agendas. Integrating protected areas into an enhanced Trade and Sustainable Development framework would make FTAs a more effective mechanism to support global biodiversity conservation goals as well as multiple SDGs, and would help to position the EU as the frontrunner on global SD issues.





[1] EU Commission – Negotiations and Agreements

[2] United Nations Environment Programme (2012) Global Environment Outlook- Summary for Policy Makers

[3] Convention for Biological Diversity (1992)

[4] Katharina Schulze, Kathryn Knights, Lauren Coad, et al. (2017) An assessment of threats to terrestrial protected areas, Conservation Letters

[5] See (edited by) Marianne Kettunen, Patrick ten Brink (2013) Social and Economic Benefits of Protected Areas, Routledge, Oxon

[6] EU Commission (2018) Report on Implementation of EU Free Trade Agreements, 1 January 2017 – 31 December 2017, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

[7] Non paper of the Commission services (2018)

[8] Susanne Dröge and Felix Schenuit (2018) “Mobilising EU trade policy for raising environmental standards: the example of climate action”, Think 2030 discussion paper, Brussels.

[9] Martin Nesbit et al. (2017) “Initiating a public dialogue on environment protection in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations: Final report for the European Commission”, IEEP

[10] Gustavo S. M. Andrade and Jonathan R. Rhodes (2012) “Protected areas and local communities: an inevitable partnership toward successful conservation strategies?”, Ecology and Society

[11] Marianne Kettunen, Catherine Bowyer, Lucia Vaculova and Celine Charveriat (2018) “Sustainable Development Goals and the EU: uncovering the nexus between external and internal policies”, Think2030 discussion paper, IEEP Brussels

[12] EU Trade with Brazil