Brecker Ferguson is a third-year student in Business Administration and Environment & Sustainability Sciences at Northeastern University. He was sponsored by the Center for Emerging Markets to attend the World Trade Organization Public Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, from September 12-15, 2023.

The Role of Emerging Economies in the Transition to Sustainable Trade

With the backdrop of a devastating flood occurring in Libya, this year's Public Forum at the World Trade Organization in Geneva served as a somber reminder that underserved peoples are on the front lines of climate change. Representatives from Pacific Island nations referenced the threat of extinction their peoples face, from pummeling cyclones in Vanuatu to the threat of complete submersion of Tuvalu. The Indigenous, impoverished, and coastal peoples of the world need urgent action to combat climate change, and, for them, goals of net-zero by 2050 ring hollow.

This Public Forum represents a paradigm shift in the discussions surrounding climate and trade. Yet, as Indigenous peoples and representatives at the forum willingly expressed, discussion is not enough. Despite this year's tagline, “It's Time for Action,” speakers from emerging markets viewed this meeting in Geneva as a preliminary discussion for the decisions that will take place in Dubai this December at COP28.

Indigenous voices are increasingly gaining attention in this discussion of sustainable trade. The WTO itself represents the Western free market economic system which seeks to commodify all tangible assets – including natural ones. The ideas presented throughout the Public Forum suggested a more appropriate incorporation of natural assets into this system. But this is that same system that has disenfranchised Indigenous communities around the world for generations – as I've seen personally in the remote islands of Fiji, the South African bush, the Ecuadorian Amazon, and in the neglected Navajo Nation.

During the forum, I attended a panel focused on trade and development in the Amazon, asking how to equitably reconcile the commodified Western free market system with Indigenous perspectives and values. The panelists debated, and although there was no clear consensus, they agreed that an effort to internalize the value of natural assets and ecosystem service will safeguard environments – and the communities reliant on them – from the exploitative practices of the free market. Still, there is wide recognition of the need for Indigenous economies to work within the free market system, lest they themselves be consumed by it.

Trade Dynamics Between Mature and Emerging Economies

Emerging economies have the motive and the ability to be the leaders in the green trade transition. The most striking example of this displayed at the public forum was at a panel discussing a young policy agenda called the Bridgetown Initiative, which seeks to move away foreign direct investment reactively focused on loss and damage grants and toward investments for proactive, cash-generating green businesses. This is uniquely inspiring in its pragmatism and its early buy-in from major political forces, including adamant support from U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron.

In hearing from and speaking with the initiative's chief architect, Avinash Persaud, I was impressed by the ambitious goals of his policy: create climate resilience for emerging economies, unlock the flow of capital in cash-poor regions, empower local leaders to lead sustainable development and green entrepreneurship in their own communities, and do so by offering the prospect of a return on investment. This Barbadian-led approach represents an overdue movement toward an interest-driven form of development, sustainable in its recognition of human self-interests and non-reliance on handouts or charity. Bridgetown will be a key policy topic at COP28 and has the potential to radically reform the governance of global foreign direct investment.

Tools for Creating Sustainable Global Economies

Some of my favorite sessions were those with a more technical focus on how to achieve trade sustainability. One panel focused on the use of blockchain for carbon accounting, land usage, and other externality metrics which would be democratically accessible for decision makers at the corporate, national, and international levels. Another panel discussed how to apply GAAP accounting frameworks to reporting standards on ecosystem services and natural resources; this action would create a ledger that could then assign an economic value to environmental performance, thus integrating ESG externalities into company valuation metrics and corporate taxation. Speakers at the event agreed that a coherent convergence in climate trade policies and practices is essential for creating equity and transparency in global trade.

Personal Takeaways

The Public Forum was the highlight of my academic career at Northeastern thus far. I shook hands with leaders across political, economic, and social spheres and was sitting amongst the leading figures in trade policy from six continents. I was able to leverage the full breadth and depth of my professional and academic experiences to discuss key trade issues with these high-profile individuals. I also made full use of my Spanish and French, and I saw the immense value in multilingualism for opening doors and making connections. I returned to Dublin, where I am currently studying abroad, with a renewed energy to pursue my ambitions in sustainable business, continue my involvement and exploration into the international community and share future opportunities like this one with my peers back home.