By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Turn left beyond the barricades protecting expensively-suited delegates at previous World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial summits, and you would likely find yourself passing through the shadow of a giant inflatable maize cob, or a banana fit for King Kong's snack time.
The Nama issue is "gambling with our future", campaigners say
In Cancun, Seattle, Montreal and down through the geographical history of the WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the dominant area of environmental protest has been farming.
Trade liberalisation, the well-worn argument goes, will transform subsistence farming into arid export monocultures, remove power from the people and put poor countries at the mercy of rich western trade blocs.
For their part, the US and EU repeatedly promise to take down their barrier fences - their domestic subsidies and export assistance programmes - but fail to deliver, denying the poorest countries access to lucrative western markets.
These views will doubtless be expressed in Hong Kong; the inflatable fruit and veg might even put in an appearance too.
But this time, environmental groups have another agenda, and it goes by the apparently inoffensive name of Nama.
'Gambling with our future'
According to a recent booklet from Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), the WTO, through Nama, is "gambling with our future".
Nama is the pleasantly wieldy acronym for negotiations which to the outsider are terminally unwieldy; the negotiations on Non-Agricultural Market Access.
In this forum, WTO member countries can lodge challenges - "notifications", in WTO jargon - to laws in any other country or bloc which they consider anti-free trade.
For example: "The EU has a whole host of labelling schemes relating to health, safety, the environment and so on," says Ronnie Hall, international co-ordinator for FOEI's environment and sustainability programme.
"China and South Korea, for example, are challenging labels relating to energy efficiency."
A trawl through the WTO website reveals this challenge - TN/MA/W/25/Add.2, in case you are interested - and many more.
TN/MA/W/25/Add.2 alone suggests that European energy efficiency standards for boilers, air conditioners, and refrigerators are barriers to free trade.
It also challenges laws mandating the purchase of timber from sustainably-managed forests, some US safety standards for toys, and procedures for approving food additives.
Other notifications challenge:
- environmental testing procedures for cars
- labelling of hazardous chemicals
- placing of "eco-friendly labels" on computers
- the need for licenses to import ozone-depleting chemicals
- restrictions on the level of radiation in imported goods
- regulations which protect marine mammals from fishing nets
- the promotion of "socially responsible production"
...The list goes on and on.
Pointing the finger
It would be tempting to conclude that the developing nations which have filed the bulk of these objections (with Asian governments in a clear lead) are trying to run a coach and horses through the carefully constructed environmental protection of western countries.
Joshua Bishop, senior advisor on economics and environment with IUCN, the World Conservation Union, sees another side of the same coin.
"There is a tension between rising environmental standards expected by consumers in Europe and other developed countries, and techniques and standards of production in China and other developing countries," he says.
Could pollution controls on cars be ruled a restraint of trade?
"The question to me is to what extent are richer countries prepared to help exporting countries raise their standards to meet importing requirements, because it's not reasonable to expect Western countries to lower standards.
"Having said that, there are sometimes legitimate grounds for saying that environmental regulations are simply a barrier to trade. We need to discriminate between what is genuine and what is artificial, and that's very hard."
The European Commission, for its part, is sure that its existing standards are all WTO compatible.
"We do have one pending case in which the US is accusing us of a de facto moratorium on genetically-modified foods," comments EC environment spokeswoman Barbara Helfferich, "and we will have an informal decision on that on 5 January.
"On Reach [the proposed EU-wide regulations on chemicals], I know the Americans have complained; but our legal experts told us again and again that the legislation as it stands is WTO-compatible.
"This [the ministerial meeting] is a great opportunity to point the finger and draw attention from other issues."
On the table
It is unclear precisely which environmental notifications will be brought into active discussions in Hong Kong.
Some may be put on the table, others debated bilaterally in corridors, still more put to one side for the moment.
The mainstream environmental lobby is particularly keen that notifications on forestry be consigned to mulch on the conference room floor.
A large number of notifications aim to remove financial or non-financial barriers to free trade in wood; and groups like the Global Forest Coalition (GFC) believe that could be disastrous for regions such as the Amazon and Congo rainforests.
"They are basically trying to liberalise trade on timber of all sorts," says GFC co-ordinator Miguel Lovera.
"The experience we have at regional level is that increased liberalisation leads to an increase in exploitation."
WTO considers not just the free movement of goods but of services.
Just as the last decade has seen a general trend towards privatisation in health care, creating opportunities for international companies to take charge, there is evidence of similar moves in conservation, ecosystem management and wildlife protection.
Liberalisation could mean, FOEI believes, that it becomes illegal for governments to hand control of forests to indigenous groups when there are commercial companies interested.
"This whole issue of privatising the management of biodiversity is mushrooming," says FOEI's Ronnie Hall.
"It's seen as a new market, in the same way that carbon credits are seen as a new market."
However, there are opposing views within the conservation family, with some believing that putting a monetary value on ecosystems can protect effectively when the traditional approach of simply urging conservation for conservation's sake has not.
It was a view which emerged at the UN climate change negotiations in Montreal, for example, when a group of developing countries sought financial reward from the west for protecting their forests and so helping reduce the scale of human-induced climate change.
Rules of conflict
How negotiations will proceed in Hong Kong, which environmental issues will climb onto the table and which will then fall off, is an impossible area to define before the talking starts.
Will the EU's Peter Mandelson lean towards trade or the environment?
But clearly there is an impasse over how to reconcile global trade agreements with global environmental agreements.
"We have something like 700 multilateral environmental agreements," says IUCN's Joshua Bishop.
"There's a long-standing argument about whether the WTO takes precedence over agreements like the UN climate change convention, the biodiversity convention and the law of the sea, or vice versa; and about how we manage the relationships.
"I don't think there's any question that trade policy has a higher profile and greater weight within almost every government than environmental policy."
There are some who believe that the only way to resolve this situation is to create a new, powerful, global environmental body which could act as a counterweight to the WTO.
Proponents argue such a body needs real teeth; to be equipped with powers to judge, fine and sanction environmental law-breaking nations, just as the WTO can judge, fine and sanction those who stray into the forbidden area of economic protection.
Ultimately, though, such a body could only be set up at the instigation of a substantial number of governments.
That in turn would need their agreement to be punished when they violate an environmental code.
If the political will existed for that, perhaps we would already have a WTO which would not even contemplate sacrificing forests, fisheries and the ozone layer on the altar of free trade.