International curbs mooted on trade in polluting technologies

A possible first step towards international rules on trade in environmentally damaging technologies was taken at a conference on cleaner production in Paris on 27-29 October. Convened by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the meeting also saw the launch of two initiatives to assist developing nations in adopting cleaner production techniques.

Organised by the Cleaner Production Programme led by UNEP's office in Paris, the conference was designed to review the Programme's progress since its inception at a meeting in the UK in 1990 (ENDS Report 188, pp 21-23). Cleaner production involves switching attention away from "end-of-pipe" pollution abatement measures to waste reduction at source.

In one session of the conference, Environment Ministers from eight countries, including the UK's Lord Strathclyde, met in open session under the chairmanship of UNEP's Executive Director, Dr Mostafa Tolba. Three recommendations to UNEP's Governing Council, which next meets in May 1993, were pushed through by Dr Tolba.

One of these will prove controversial. It asks UNEP's Governing Council to develop international rules on trade in environmentally dangerous technologies. At this stage the form which these may take is uncertain. The recommendation calls for guidelines "obliging" technology exporters to provide environmental impact information to importing countries, and for importing countries to "establish a specific environmental review step" in their import licensing procedures.

Behind the recommendation lies a concern among developing nations that they are dumping grounds for technologies which are no longer environmentally acceptable in the industrialised world. Powerful economic forces push Third World nations to accept lower environmental standards and polluting industries. And they have limited resources to screen what is imported. The recommendation aims to tilt this balance a little more in their favour.

Two precedents for international environment-based curbs on free trade already exist. These are the Basel Convention on transfrontier shipments of hazardous waste and the London Guidelines on trade in dangerous chemicals. Both contain a "prior informed consent" procedure under which the consent of importing countries is needed before a shipment can go ahead. Both are in the process of being implemented in the EC (see pp 31-34  and p 29 ).

But it will be more difficult to frame rules on trade in technologies. At the Paris meeting, Dutch Environment Minister Hans Alders was emphatic. "Can you ban export of old-fashioned technology? No!", he said.

An alternative would be to draw up a limited list of the "dirtiest" technologies and ban or discourage their export. But severe practical problems in defining what makes a technology unacceptable, and in disentangling its inherent environmental effects from those dependent on how it is managed, would have to be confronted.

The recommendation quickly drew a hostile response from industry. Representatives of both the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) opposed binding rules. "They would not be in line with voluntary action and self-regulation," said ICC Director Jean-Charles Rouher. But Dr Tolba rebutted their criticisms. "If an industry is banned in industrialised countries for environmental reasons, are you going to allow that industry to go overseas?", he asked them.

In the other two recommendations, Ministers asked UNEP's Governing Council to ensure that all countries designate a focal point to promote and exchange information on cleaner production. It was asked to consider establishing a $1 million trust fund to identify and assess cleaner processes and products and to sponsor demonstration projects, with special reference to the needs of smaller businesses in developing countries.

The conference also saw the official launch of a joint UNEP/UN Industrial Development Organisation project to set up National Cleaner Production Centres in developing countries. Six will receive support in a first two-year phase. A second phase will begin in 1995 with the launch of another 14 centres. Their role will be to provide technical information and advice, and to demonstrate and provide training in cleaner production techniques.

Another new initiative emerged from discussion sessions at the conference. UNEP, ICC and BCSD agreed to co-operate in a project with the governments of Zimbabwe, Senegal and Egypt to explore cleaner production options in two polluting industries, pulp and paper and cement manufacturing.

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