THE GUARDIAN

 

  LEADER

 

Business as usual


Saturday January 27, 2007
The Guardian

Davos should be a good place to focus minds on climate change. For the business of this small Swiss town is winter sports, an industry whose future looks less secure as Alpine snow becomes less reliable. Among the ski slopes, the rich and powerful have assembled for their annual get-together - the World Economic Forum - with Tony Blair, Bill Gates and Bono among their number. Appropriately, climate change has been the dominant theme of the set-piece debates. Yet the real work, as so often, is done behind closed doors. And the signs are that this is focusing not on climate, but on trade.
 

Thirty ministers will today come together to try to break the deadlock of the Doha trade round. Initiated during the brief phase of international cooperation after 9/11, the negotiations were billed as a "development agenda", in which the west would focus on what it could give, not just what it could get. The idea was overdue, when previous rounds had liberalised only those industries in which the rich world was strong. They had left untouched the protective walls shielding sectors, such as farming, in which the developing world would otherwise have had a chance to compete. The rules are so rigged that Washington collects as much in tariffs on Cambodian imports as it does from France, despite the goods and services it buys from France being worth 15 times more. But as the shock of 9/11 faded, enlightened self-interest gave way to self-interest plain and simple. Five years into the round, progress continues to be frustrated by a spat between the US and the EU, with each using the intransigence of the other as an excuse to avoid concessions on farm programmes. Deadlines have come and gone, but now there is real pressure to clinch a deal, because the waning power of the US administration means that if it is not done now then the round is dead - for the rest of the Bush presidency, if not longer.

A breakthrough would give the world economy a welcome boost. And even if the rich stubbornly insisted on foisting some liberalisation on the poor, developing countries would see doors open to rich world markets, from which they have been shut out for too long. A deal would represent cooperation, proving that nations can give and take to meet shared challenges - and that should give grounds for hope on tackling climate change.

Yet in the gulf between the private talks on trade and the public chatter on climate change, a more direct connection has been lost. For the most immediate effects of Doha success would be bad, not good, news for the climate. Trade liberalisation will mean that more trade happens, which means more goods being trekked round the world, stamping a heavy carbon footprint. It could encourage deforestation: by opening markets to farmers in places like Brazil, it would raise their prices and so also their reward for clearing the jungle. And by opening up supplies from parts of the world in which the green agenda is not an issue, freer trade could even help the market evade the bite of environmental regulation. Yet the many gains from liberalisation need not be wholly sacrificed. Rather, they should be pursued alongside - not ahead of - further international agreement on climate change. But a trade agenda that dismisses green concerns as "hidden protection" shows how far political leaders remain from putting the climate at the heart not just of their rhetoric, but of their deeds.

On Friday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will present its sternest warning yet about the threat faced. Yet, as the Guardian reveals today, instead of sitting up and listening, the US is lobbying the panel to concentrate on science-fiction solutions, such as putting giant mirrors into space. Some politicians and corporations are waking up to the challenge, but too many are still in their slumber. That has been all too evident in Davos, where the business as usual looks unusually worrying.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006