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Triangulating Sustainable Development: International Trade, Environmental Protection, and Development

March 2002

Citation: ELR 10318

Author: Sanford E. Gaines

The Agenda: "To Make International Trade and Environment Policies Mutually Supportive in Favour of Sustainable Development."1


At the time of the United Nations (U.N.) Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the persistent effort by governments during the previous half century to remove barriers to the free movement of goods among nations had contributed to a rise in living standards unparalleled in world history.2 Liberalized trade had also wrought an ever richer network of economic and social interactions among nations that helped reduce political tension and international armed conflict.3 With this affirmative history in mind, the Rio Declaration ordains: "States should cooperate to promote a supportive and open international economic system that would lead to economic growth and sustainable development in all countries, to better address the problems of environmental degradation."4

The second half of the 20th century also saw deepening economic disparities between the wealthiest and least wealthy individuals and nations, intensification and proliferation of violent civil strife and regional conflict, and perceptible deterioration of the environment locally and globally in most parts of the world brought about in considerable measure by the prodigious activities of people and businesses engaged in the production and consumption of the ever-increasing quantity of goods flowing in international trade.5 Cognizant of this darker side of the late 20th century, the world's leaders at Rio also undertook to "cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world."6 They further committed themselves to "reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption" in order to "achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people."7

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In September 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, which is scheduled to be published by the Environmental Law Institute in June 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article will appear as a chapter in that book. Further information on the book will be available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

The author is a Professor, University of Houston Law Center. Professor Gaines was Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Environment and Natural Resources from 1992-1994.

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