One of the aims of the World Trade Organization (WTO) when it comes to facilitating global commerce is streamlining non-tariff barriers to ensure goods can move as freely as possible.
These technical barriers to trade (TBTs) cover a range of regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures implemented by WTO members. These can diverge widely between nations, which can create difficulties when transporting items across borders, as importers will need to ensure their items meet local requirements.
While there will always be variations around the world, the key to facilitating trade is to ensure these differences are reasonable and non-discriminatory, while balancing WTO members' right to implement their own policies to meet their countries' unique objectives.
As part of this, the WTO recently published a new booklet highlighting some of the efforts it has been making over the last 12 months, with a focus on outlining how members are implementing the TBT Agreement set out by the organization.
What has the latest review revealed about TBTs?
In 2020, WTO members submitted more than 3,000 notifications to the TBT Committee about product requirements for traded goods. These function as a first notice of a potential regulation and allow WTO members to comment on any draft measures before they
enter into force. Most of these relate to new health and safety requirements for environmental protection measures being taken by WTO members.
2020 marked the third year in a row the number of notifications exceeded the 3,000 mark, while overall, the number of notices filed has been increasing by 11 percent a year since the system was established in 1995.
The WTO noted this is largely down to greater participation from developing and least-developed countries, with the last five years in particular seeing a significant increase from these members. For example, in 2020, more than a quarter of notifications (26 percent) came from just four countries - Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda - and most related to food and drink.
However, more developed countries also participated strongly, with the US and Brazil the most active members, each submitting over 200 notifications. Overall, around half of the WTO's 164 members regularly notify the organisation about new regulations or changes to old ones.
The document noted that over the last year, a record number of specific trade concerns related to TBTs were also raised by WTO members. It revealed there were 57 new issues discussed by the TBT Committee. This was up from 35 in 2019 and marked the largest number on record.
How improved transparency in TBTs is facilitating trade
The increased use of the TBT Committee to notify fellow WTO members about upcoming rule changes that may impact trade was welcomed by the organization, which noted this improved commitment to transparency will help create a more stable global trading environment.
"An even higher level [of notifications] would help to shed more light on members' upcoming changes in product requirements," the WTO stated. "This would also increase the predictability of the trading environment and help avoid unexpected costs and delays - especially important for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises."
Members generally have around 56 days to comment on these notifications, which allows them time to raise any concerns they may have. These can range from requests
for clarification to wider concerns about potential inconsistencies with the TBT Agreement.
Some commentators have also noted that the efforts being made to resolve TBTs have been one of the standout successes of the WTO, and should be looked at as a basis when drafting wider reforms of the organization - something which is a top priority for new director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
For instance, Inu Manak, research fellow at the Cato Institute, praised the way the TBT Committee has been able to continue functioning despite the lack of in-person interactions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He wrote in a piece for East Asia Forum: "Its success should be studied and, if possible, replicated in other committee work throughout the organization."
One reason for this is greater use of technology to facilitate the notification process, which improves visibility and better enables other WTO members to offer their input. The main tool used by the TBT Committee to highlight notifications and boost transparency is an online alert called ePing. By the end of 2020, more than 12,000 users had adopted this system, including both public and private sector users.
Meanwhile, the Committee's eAgenda online tool for raising and responding to trade concerns has helped ensure that the discussion of trade concerns could continue despite the restrictions imposed in 2020. This has proved to be especially important at a time when the pandemic has increased the number of concerns related to health and safety issues, with over 100 TBT notifications in 2020 dealing with measures related to COVID-19.