30 January 2020

From Exception to Promotion: Re-Thinking the Relationship between International Trade and Environmental Law

Using broad historical narratives and focusing on the individuals driving the international trade and environmental regimes, Elena Cima’s PhD thesis in International Law describes the broad evolution over time of the trade/environment interaction. By doing so, it unveils the driving forces behind this evolution, while developing a new conceptual framework which would allow to capture more recent phenomena that were not visible through the old and still largely prevailing neoliberal lenses. Interview.

What triggered your interest in the trade/environment interaction?

The complex interface between trade and the environment and, at a deeper level, between international trade and environmental law has always fascinated me ever since I decided to embark in an international law career. The topic is indeed one of extreme interest and, not surprisingly, I was not the only one drawn to it. Many scholars and commentators have observed, studied, and presented the trade/environment nexus over the years, dissecting and analysing its many facets in every possible way. 

What has triggered my research and led to this project was noticing some recent developments, which seem to paint a somehow different picture and show a radical change in the relationship between the trade and environmental regimes. A relationship which can no longer be described using the traditional trade-centric approach, based entirely on the prevailing neoliberal narrative. A new approach, and possibly a new narrative, were needed to better capture these new developments, and to explain a new phase where, rather than assessing environmental measures based on their compatibility with the international trade law framework, trade rules and institutions seem to be designed to forward and promote environmental goals. 

How do you formulate your research questions and how do you proceed, methodologically speaking?

This thesis investigates the relationship between international trade and environmental law by addressing three interconnected research questions: What kind of evolution has the trade/environment nexus undergone? What are its driving forces? Is the prevailing narrative used to read and describe the nexus still capable of explaining its more recent developments?

Each of these questions is addressed in parallel throughout the thesis. The first question also explains the structure of the research and, at least in part, the methodology, as the thesis itself reads as a historical account of the nexus, starting from the very beginning up until today. And it is precisely by tracing the historical development of the two regimes and of their interactions that a certain evolution emerges. 

Studying the evolution of the nexus simultaneously allows to detect a discrepancy between its new developments and the prevailing narrative of the trading system, thus setting the stage for the creation of a new conceptual framework, a new cartography – what in the thesis is called the promotion-based model as opposed to the prevailing exception-based model

Finally, the inquiry into the driving forces of this evolution has unveiled the important role that the development and dissemination of certain ideas have played in this context. This final component of the research has influenced not only the structure but also the style in which the thesis is written, which, in an attempt to combine the different components of the thesis – the relevance of historical inquiry, the importance of ideas, and the role of individuals and communities in their development and dissemination – employs a narrative form of explanation, which links diverse events along a temporal dimension creating a storyline, a plot.

Can you tell us more about this new, promotion-based model?

One of the main goals of this research has been to develop of a new cartography (promotion-based model) which would allow to better describe a system where trade and trade rules are increasingly treated as “means” to protect the environment and promote sustainable development goals. A model that would allow to capture nuances in reality that would otherwise remain unseen due to the use of an “outdated” cartography (exception-based model). 

The latter was initially adopted as a result of the historical development of the two regimes, which forced the environment issue, as a late comer, to be simply “added” to the already existing legal framework and to be regulated within the limits and constraints it provided. What is more, while the historical development of the two regimes explains the emergence of such a model, the centrality of neoliberalism in providing the shared normative narrative supporting the trading system explains its growth and crystallisation. 

Despite the persistence of the exception-based model as the prevailing conceptual framework used to explain and describe the trade/environment nexus, several of the underlying rules and procedures have indeed started to change (thus calling for a new framework). These changes are explained in the thesis as the result of a combination of several factors, including the greater openness of the trade community towards external constituencies and values, the subsequent increasing interaction between the trade and environmental communities, as well as the convergence, in certain instances, of the environment and development agendas. 

What are you doing now?

Since February 2019, I have been appointed Lecturer (Maître Assistante) at the University of Geneva (Institute for Environmental Sciences and Faculty of Law), teaching Energy in International Law and International Environmental Law.

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Elena Cima defended her PhD thesis in International Law in October 2019. Professor Jorge Enrique Viñuales presided the committee, which included Professor Joost Pauwelyn, thesis director, and Professor James Salzman, UCLA School of Law, USA.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Cima, Elena. “From Exception to Promotion: Re-Thinking the Relationship between International Trade and Environmental Law.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Artit Wongpradu/