Beyond free trade in raw materials: Reconciling international trade rules with planetary boundaries

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International trade rules enshrined in agreements like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) promote free trade, with exceptions for environmental protection. This paper explores the tension between these rules and Earth Systems Science's concept of planetary boundaries, which define environmental tipping points beyond which humanity faces irreversible harm. We analyse GATT's provisions, particularly Article XI's prohibition on trade restrictions and Article XX's exceptions, through the lens of planetary boundaries. Our analysis argues that current interpretations of these articles are inadequate to address the environmental impact of raw material trade. We further examine the concept of permanent sovereignty over natural resources, which grants states autonomy over resource exploitation and trade. We posit that planetary boundaries are not a restriction on sovereignty but a call for modifying state trading behaviour and consequently how international trade rules is structured and interpreted. This analysis demonstrates the complexity of transforming the legal landscape necessary for a global just energy transition, a response to climate change that requires aligning international trade with environmental sustainability.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101481
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalThe Extractive Industries and Society
Early online date13 Jun 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Jun 2024


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