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US Trade Representative Katherine Tai says the Biden administration will use trade policy as part of a “whole-of-government” approach to address the challenge of protecting the environment and tackling climate change.

In her first speech as USTR, delivered at a Center for American Progress event, Tai said her job is to push for trade reforms that translate into “meaningful change” in the lives of factory workers, farmers, parents and children globally.

“For too long, we believed that trade liberalisation would lead to a gradual improvement in environmental protection as countries grew wealthier from increased trade flows,” she told the summit entitled ‘Greening US Trade Policy’. “But the reality is that the system itself creates an incentive to compete by maintaining lower standards. Or worse yet, by lowering those standards even further.

Going forward, Tai said trade has a role to play in discouraging the race to the bottom and incentivising a race to the top. “We must conserve the resources we do have – and work with our trading partners to do the same – to both mitigate and adapt to climate pressures.

“As we consider strategically devised supply chains and trade in environmental goods, we must also be mindful that using clean energy throughout the supply chain is an essential, and perhaps underappreciated, element of delivering on our commitment to address the full range of practices that compromise the climate.

“For too long, the traditional trade community has resisted the view that trade policy is a legitimate tool in helping to solve the climate crisis. As we have so often seen with labour issues, there is a certain refuge in arguing that this is all a question of domestic policy, and that we need not tackle the daunting task of building international consensus around new rules,” she continued.

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Tai says that by engaging “new – and all too frequently silenced – voices” and encouraging fresh, collaborative thinking, “we can forge consensus and find solutions that we never knew existed. Together, we can foster US innovation and the production of new technology, while promoting resilient renewable energy supply chains.

“The intersection of environment, climate change, labour, and trade are key to our collective ability to compete, innovate, and create liveable wage jobs that will provide hope and opportunity for future generations and underserved communities. This is why I believe that trade policy is an essential and strategic part of the solution to these huge challenges.”