Radhika Barot is a fourth-year student in Economics and Mathematics at Northeastern University. She was sponsored by the Center for Emerging Markets to attend the World Trade Organization Public Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, from September 12-15, 2023.

Reflections on the 2023 World Trade Organization Forum

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to learn about trade, sustainability, and developing markets from experts at The World Trade Organization's annual Public Forum in Geneva. During this four-day conference, I was able to attend 16 high-level panels with speakers ranging from industry experts, politicians, business leaders, and students. Director-General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown opened the conference by offering insights into how global trade has been affected by seismic shifts in the global economy, politics, and technology. From this lecture and the Public Forum's overall theme, it is evident that the WTO is working on answering the big question: how can international trade enable a more sustainable future? More specifically, how can trade enable emerging markets to contribute to this cause? The WTO stands firm on the notion that the global economy must embrace multilateralism to “re-globalize” trade and find a global solution to climate change.

At this year's forum, climate change was at the forefront of all conversations but in multi-faceted ways. Experts and leaders discussed how trade, litigation, transfer of technologies, investments, and governance can have an impact on climate change and the future of our earth. At large, these singular conversations highlight that there is no umbrella solution for climate change. A single commonality between these conversations highlighted the need for greater awareness of how climate change and trade are relevant to emerging markets. Historically, international trade has highlighted the competitive advantages of markets and their ability to capitalize on these strengths. Today, the global economy has faced shocks that are providing the basis for a new outlook on trade. Ralph Ossa, Chief Economist at the WTO, opened the conference with metrics from the World Trade Report 2023. He explained that trade could be the solution to climate change. Currently, two-thirds of carbon emissions are associated with upstream and downstream production and manufacturing. Ossa suggests that one-third of carbon emission reductions could be correlated with environmental gains if countries started to specialize in their “green” comparative advantage. Ossa and WTO stand firm that international trade now must address issues within diversity, fairness, labor, and sustainability. And, as the world moves forward in a new era of geopolitics, technology, and trade, it is clear that the WTO must protect those countries, communities, and markets that are being left behind.

At COP15 in 2009, developed countries collectively committed to mobilizing USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries for climate action. At this year's Forum, this promise and inability to deliver was heavily discussed. Topics such as “clean technology”, “net-zero,” and “Just Transition,” have been discussed at large in recent years, but there is not enough dialogue around how emerging markets can gain access to the resources needed for this. Keisal Peters, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, spoke passionately about the devastating consequences of climate change on her country. She highlighted that countries like hers need the WTO to foster an environment that allows for the transfer of technologies. With trade barriers such as tariffs, many emerging markets are last in line for technologies that could battle climate change. Many speakers at the Forum expanded on the role of IP regulation in access to these technologies. With IP regulations and governance, emerging markets struggle to gain access to technologies in the health and climate space the most. Within supply chains, workers and factories in developing countries are not equipped with the necessary resources to embrace new technologies. In one of the high-level panels, speakers such as Borge Brende, the President of the World Economic Forum (WEF), and Daniel Legarda, Minister of Production, Foreign Trade, and Investments of Ecuador, called on public-private collaboration to ensure that these needs are met. They proposed more bilateral work between organizations like the WTO and the WEF's Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders to expedite decisions and reform policies in a way that benefits sustainability efforts globally.

On the last day of the Forum, leaders from the IMF, OECD, UNCTAD, World Bank, and WTO presented a high-level overview of a joint report on digital trade in development. These organizations firmly believe that digital technologies increase productivity, foster economies of scale, and innovation, reduce trade costs, and promote resilience to shocks. However, developing markets cannot often access digital goods, and governments struggle to ensure that regulatory and policy frameworks promote equitable trade outcomes. As of 2023, only 66% of the global population has access to the internet and 2.7 billion people are offline. This discrepancy can be tied to a potential loss in GDP and efficiency in the digital trade realm. Agencies are calling on a set of policies that enhance cross-border transactions and promote affordable access to enable digital trade. UNCTAD recommends policy actions directed toward ICT connectivity, education, trade facilitation, and gender-based inclusion in developing countries to enhance digital trade. Currently, 76% of global exports of digitally deliverable goods are from developed countries while developing countries only share 0.02% of this. If this fragmentation is fixed by a private-public collaboration, emerging markets can unlock profits and shares in the digital trade economy. Alongside economic equity and gains, developing markets can then contribute to a decrease in carbon emissions and circular economies.

The dialogue and discussions at WTO have paved and important roadmap for discussions needed at COP28 this December. Experts and leaders are aware of technologies and frameworks that can help combat climate change while unleashing economic gains, but there is a wide disconnect between public and private sectors that is blocking these movements. The leaders at COP28 must decide how policies and implementation will allow for real change. More importantly, leaders must evaluate how emerging markets can fight alongside major players in this movement toward a sustainable future.

The undertone of most of the panels I attended was grim when considering the detrimental consequences that climate change has had on communities throughout the world. However, as a young audience member, it was clear that paths are being carved by some of the world's most experts on this topic. As someone who has been passionate about these topics throughout my undergraduate career, it was enlightening to see real experts talk about real solutions to these issues. The panels and speakers inspired me to continuously seek out opportunities like the Public Forum to learn, network, and more importantly, have a seat at the table. As I closely watch leaders gather at events such as COP28, Davos, UNGA, and future WTO events, I am looking forward to seeing the next steps in this pivotal stage of combatting climate change.