Global Trade

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a chapter titled “Global Trade” from The Encyclopedia of Sustainability, Vol. 10: The Future of Sustainability.

In 2011, total world exports amounted to almost $US18 trillion dollars, representing over a quarter of global GDP and an increase of almost 500 percent since 1991 (author’s calculations). This exponential increase in trade has been at the forefront of globalization, which has created economic growth, raised standards of living, and exposed people to new goods, services, ideas, and lifestyles. At the same time, global trade has presented a range of challenges, especially through its impact on the environment. How countries reap the benefits from trade while managing it in ways that are environmentally sustainable is a key goal of sustainable development. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the primary multilateral agency responsible for regulating world trade. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, and comprising 155 members, the WTO plays an important role in balancing the development and growth opportunities from trade while allowing members the scope needed to regulate access to their markets in order to achieve environmental goals.

International Trade and Sustainable Development

The linkages between international trade and the environment are key elements of the broader question about how international trade contributes to sustainable development. The rising global environmental consciousness can be traced back at least as far as the 1972 United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment, which agreed to a set of principles that made protection of the environment central to human development and recognized the need for international cooperation to address transboundary and global environmental challenges. Recognition of the need for economic growth to address development issues while also protecting the environment was the beginning of the economic and environmental strands of what is referred to as sustainable development. Yet the implication of international trade on the environment was little explored at this time and was not mentioned in the report on the UN Conference on the Human Environment.