Tackling Fossil Fuel Subsidies Through International Trade Agreements: Taking Stock, Looking Forward

By Cleo Verkuijl, Harro van Asselt, Tom Moerenhout, Liesbeth Casier, and Peter Wooders

Fossil fuel subsidies undercut the international community’s Sustainable Development Goals and climate change objectives in many ways. Estimated at several hundred billion dollars per year, such subsidies also affect fossil fuel prices, and can therefore have distorting impacts on trade and investment. Given its central role in disciplining trade-distorting subsidies across sectors, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is an obvious candidate for advancing fossil fuel subsidy reform internationally. However, its engagement on this topic has been limited. While a growing body of disputes on renewable energy support measures have been brought before the WTO, Members have yet to initiate legal proceedings against subsidies for oil, coal, or gas. This Article highlights the range of explanations for this puzzling discrepancy. The Article analyses the compatibility of four selected fossil fuel support measures in the Group of 20 countries with the WTO’s 1994 Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. In doing so, it identifies some of the key legal questions and challenges faced at the WTO. Specifically, the findings highlight the difficulty of litigating fossil fuel consumption subsidies. In light of these shortcomings, the Article identifies five complementary avenues for reform of international trade policy to enable countries to better address fossil fuel subsidies: (i) promoting technical assistance and capacity building; (ii) enhancing transparency; (iii) pledging subsidy reform and ensuring credible follow-up through reporting and review; (iv) adopting a political declaration; and (v) expanding the category of prohibited subsidies. Some of these options could be pioneered by one or several WTO Members, or through regional, megaregional and plurilateral trade agreements. The adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement represent a call for more decisive action on climate change and sustainable development, providing a clear mandate for deeper engagement of the international trade community in this space.

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