Sixth dialogue on Environmental Data


The sixth dialogue of the Road to Bern via Geneva initiative, titled “Using data and digital technologies to advance sustainable trade and environmental transparency”, was held on 19 May 2021. It was organized by the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in Geneva and the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), and was co-hosted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Geneva Environmental Network. This dialogue is part of the “Road to Bern via Geneva” series of cross-sectoral dialogues on digital cooperation in preparation of the UN World Data Forum, which is scheduled for October in Bern in hybrid format. The event comprised two complementary sessions. The first panel discussion provided an overview of various issues on trade and environment transparency from a broader perspective, while the second panel covered the concept of digital product passports, which has implications not only for the environment but also for trade.

Opening remarks

Amb. Jean-Pierre Reymond (Head, Innovation Partnerships, Permanent Mission of Switzerland in Geneva) opened the sixth dialogue on using data and digital technologies to advance sustainable trade and environmental transparency. Reymond highlighted the role of this dialogue as it will help explore the ways to make available “precise, transparent, accurate, and easy-to-understand data that will greatly enhance collective efforts and foster sustainable trade.”

Mr Bruno Pozzi (Director of the Europe Office of UNEP) stated that data and digital technologies can play a transformative role and accelerate action. It will be necessary to move to sustainable products through their full life cycle to transition to a circular economy that is built on the management of the limited planetary resources. The digital product passport is an initiative that can utilize existing and emerging technologies to improve transparency and sustainable consumption. Within the vision of the European Green Deal, digital product passports will be developed providing information on products’ origin, durability, composition, environmental and carbon footprint, and their end-of-life handling. This is fundamental information to green the supply chains, to communicate to consumers, but also to investors and governments who are moving towards a greener and transformed economy. “With a combination of governance principles, international standards and robust safeguards in place, data can be effectively harnessed and will be the green oil that will underpin the global movement towards digitalizing environmental sustainability,” Pozzi said.

Mr Aik Hoe Lim (Director of the Trade and Environment Division of the WTO) expressed hope that these cross-sectoral dialogues on digital cooperation have provided an important forum for the international community in Geneva to address and discuss issues related to data. Economies are still recovering in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this context, leveraging data and digital technologies is crucial to inform policies and to increase transparency. Advances in digital technologies and tools truly have the potential to unlock and harness environmental data to shape markets, consumer behavior, investments and to help inform policy making.

SESSION 1. Accelerating sustainable trade through transparency and digitalization of data

The panel discussions were moderated by Carolyn Deere-Birkbeck (Director at the Forum on Trade, Environment, and the SDGs). The first session addressed a range of different ways in which digital technologies, tools and data can support transparency and advance more sustainable trade. The panel looked at the following questions: the costs, benefits, opportunities as well as challenges of digitalization of data and the ways it can help advance sustainable trade; the recent trends in transparency tools and initiatives that can support the digitalization of trade and the harnessing of environmental data; the role of new technologies such as blockchain in helping achieve progress towards more sustainable consumption and production and advance more circular economy.

Amb. Manuel Teehankee (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the WTO, Chair of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment) stated that policy making relies on accuracy and timely availability of data and information, and that a robust follow-up and review mechanism for the implementation of the 2030 agenda requires a solid framework of indicators and statistical data to monitor progress, inform policy and build accountability. At the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment, WTO members have a 10-point work program to cover and promote mutually supportive trade and environment policies. It gives WTO members ample scope to discuss and share their experience or best practices of trade measures and policies that address pressing global challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and environmental degradation. Amb. Tehankee noted that the initiatives on building sustainable trade and addressing plastics pollution need support from multisectoral communities. “Only by an inclusive dialogue and continuing support from governments, private sector, civil society, academic institutions, progress can truly be achieved towards achieving SDGs and goals for digital transparency,” he stated.

Ms Elisabeth Tuerk (Director of the Economic Cooperation and Trade Division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)), presented the opportunities arising from UNECE’s toolkit for enhancing transparency and traceability of sustainable value chains in the garment and footwear sector. Data about environmental and social dimensions of production processes is increasingly available along the global value chain, but such data is sometimes segregated inside isolated silos, and data is coded in ways that prevent their flow along the value chain. New technologies like blockchain can help overcome these data silos along the value chain. Tuerk shared several recommendations for the Road to Bern, including on the need to ensure global standards to make data systems comparable and interoperable allowing their data flow along the value chain; the need to address concerns raised by digitalization broadly, such as rebound effect, digital divide, competition and ethics, and to ensure cooperation among development partners and agencies to pursue the ultimate objective of using digital data for sustainable development, allowing developing countries to reap benefits from sustainable trade.

Mr Christian Schiller (Co-Founder and CEO of Cirplus) brought a private sector perspective in the discussion presenting Cirplus’ practice of using digitalization for circular plastics. Cirplus aims to bring transparency and traceability to trading plastic waste and recyclates on a global trading platform, allowing buyers and sellers of plastic waste and recyclates to understand the quantities, qualities, geography, and prices. He advised to focus on ground-work digitalization which ensures that digital infrastructure is ready to plug all the players into it.

Mr Simon Evenett (Professor of International Trade and Economic Development, Global Trade Alert, University of St. Gallen) shared lessons learnt from the experience of the Global Trade Alert. He noted that transparency in government policy is so important that efforts are needed beyond the current international architecture, current information collection methods and the notification approach used in international organizations.

Ms Christine Choirat (Head of Data Science Section of the Swiss Federal Statistical Office) stated that data science should have strong foundations and be free of buzzwords. There are a lot of redundancies in the way infrastructures are built, difficulties arise in terms of interoperability, time and efforts are spent for ad-hoc solutions that create more silos, and in order for data science to support sustainable aspects there should be an infrastructure that will bring together the data providers, data consumers, as well as public stakeholders.

Ms Emmanuelle Ganne (Senior Analyst at the Economic Research and Statistics Division of the WTO) highlighted the aspect of trade finance, which is critical for small and medium enterprises, noting the potential for projects using blockchain to enable buyers and investors to automatically incentivize and reward sustainable production practices. However, technology is not a panacea, but a tool, therefore caution should be exercised in choosing tools that are more efficient, useful, and environmentally friendly. Further, it is important to develop enabling regulatory frameworks, develop data models for trade documents.

Mr Sajal Mathur (Counsellor at the Trade and Environment Division at the WTO) highlighted some gaps related to the fragmented nature of environmental data and notifications which are scattered within the WTO system.

Discussion among panelists

Teehankee stressed the importance of using digital tools in bringing real-life results, impact on economy, prosperity, achieving SDGs, and climate change. Tuerke reinstated the need for bridging the digital divide, avoiding the environmental rebound effect. Evenett highlighted the importance of accelerating the information collection process. Schiller noted the need for schemes and incentives for users in the field to adapt to using digital technologies and to reap benefits of digitalization for sustainable trade. Choirat reiterated the importance of connecting the dots and working together instead of creating endless silos. Ganne added that the role of the public-private dialogue is essential for connecting the dots.

Session 2. What is a digital passport and why will it transform sustainable trade and environmental transparency?

Mr Ilias Iakovidis (Advisor on Green Digital Transformation at DG Communications Network, Content and Technology (CONNECT), European Commission) presented the efforts of the European Commission in greening the digital sector, using the digital for environment and for enabling the circular economy. Digital product passports (DPPs) or the digitalization in the economy in general is not only for efficiency gains and reducing the administrative burden, but also for changing quantity-and-material-intensive business models into sustainable and circular business models. DPPs are a structured collection of product-related data with predefined scope and agreed data ownership and access rights conveyed through a unique identifier. Its scope extends to information related to sustainability, circularity, value retention for reuse, remanufacturing, recycling. Iakovidis pointed to the need for international efforts towards creating rights to access data and obligations as well as business incentives to provide data.

Mr David Jensen (Head of Digital Transformation, UNEP) presented several key points to consider in terms of shaping the transformative idea of digital passports: (1) being clear about outcomes, using digital passports to fundamentally change economic incentives, behaviors and driving business models with this approach; (2) the digital public goods, the high value datasets needed to be made available globally and creating business models to pay for those digital public goods; (3) digital standards, global cloud standards, and making sure that cloud providers are interoperable; (4) digital infrastructure and literacy to underpin the digital passport and avoiding to make the passport a trade barrier itself; (5) energy efficiency and the need to avoid creating massive environmental footprint.

Ms Anna Stanley (Manager of the Value Chain Carbon Transparency Pathfinder at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development) stated that digital passports offer an opportunity to drive transparency, pointing to two challenges. Namely, the data that will be put in such a product passport should be reliable, so that decisions can be made based on it, as well as inclusiveness and interoperability should be ensured.

Ms Eliane Ubalijoro (Global Hub Director of Canada, Future Earth; Executive Director of Sustainability in the Digital Age) offered insights on the investment environment that can enable moving forward in the direction of digital product passports and regulatory framework that leaves no one behind. She highlighted the need to bring small enterprises in the Global South into this equation, to make it feasible for all players to work collectively in ways that are fair, interoperable, reliable, safe, and secure.

Ms Cristina Bueti (Counsellor at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)), stated that DPPs provide remarkable opportunities for achieving a verifiable circular economy. Regarding the global standards on DPPs, she highlighted the potential challenges of their applications in various parts of the world mainly due to lack of appropriate digital infrastructures.

Amb. Chad Blackman (Permanent Representative of Barbados to the WTO, former Chair of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment) noted that the reliance on data collection by different value chain actors means that the standardization will be a core feature ensuring integrity of data, effectiveness of enhancing product value, reducing pollution, and waste. The development of DPP and similar policy tools require a multilateral dialogue on the governance of data, free flow of data, and the creation of an enabling environment at the national level.

Discussion among panelists

Iakovidis suggested creating a framework for sustainability to be a profitable business, cheaper or more competitive than the alternatives. Jensen highlighted the need to achieve balance between inclusivity and rapidness in effecting change, pointing to the constraints that consensus of countries poses for the speed of the process. Bueti stated that governments and businesses should work together. Ubalijoro stressed the need to ensure agility and rapid progress.

Birbeck summarized both panel discussions highlighting the issues of transparency and traceability in the context of various trade policy discussions, the need to avoid creating unnecessary burden for enterprises and barriers to trade, the need to ensure inclusiveness of developing countries, address the digital divide, boost investment using new green technologies, and ensure credibility of data. Lastly, she stated that there is the need for more dialogue among relevant stakeholders on how environmental data can boost sustainable trade.

Closing Remarks

Mr Jovan Kurbalija (Founding Director, DiploFoundation; Head, Geneva Internet Platform (GIP)) concluded the sixth cross-sectoral dialogue and put the discussion in a broader context by introducing several metaphors. First, he pointed to the need to reduce “lost in translation” or the phenomenon of having too many terms to describe essentially the same thing. Further, he referred to Gartner Hype Cycle methodology to make the case that inflated expectations should be checked against reality before solutions will die in the trough of disillusionment. Lastly, referring to the discussions on connecting the dots between different professional communities and institutions, he used the “zoom in, zoom out” metaphor, stating that the major challenge is to zoom-in to identify the required solutions and to zoom out to consider their political and economic implications. The “zoom out” method and the need to connect the dots between various professional communities is all the more relevant in the context of international organizations in Geneva, especially in relation to standardization.

Amb. Reymond closed the session stressing the need to take immediate action and to achieve more substantial progress in the area of digital product passports.

Prepared by the GIP team

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