You may say I'm a dreamer

Imagine no more borders ... for bicycles and bicycle parts.

Published May 4, 2006 7:47PM (EDT)

A post to the East Bay Bicycle Coalition's mailing list this morning led me to the delightfully named "Bike Europe: Trade Journal for the European Bicycle and Scooter Market." There, I learned that one of the recommendations of the World Trade Organization's Doha Development round is to reduce or eliminate tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade in environmental goods and services.

A working paper commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) undertook to define one subset of such goods and services: "environmentally preferable products." The authors of the paper explored three case studies: the sisal plant, whose leaves are used to make twine, bicycles and bicycle parts, and solid-fuel cooking stoves.

The case for encouraging more bicycling in the world hardly needs bolstering here. What interested me in the report was the intersection between promoting environmentally sustainable practices and economic growth in the developing world. The production of twine from sisal plants, for example, declined over the last 20 years as cheaper synthetic fibers displaced the natural product. So not only would lowering tariffs on sisal twine reduce dependence on fibers made from petrochemical inputs, but it would also be a boon to developing nations where sisal plants traditionally grow.

Bicycles are a little more complicated. The world's biggest producer of bicycles and bicycle parts is China, a country whose own cyclists are fast abandoning two-wheel transport in favor of automobiles. Would lowering tariffs on bicycle parts around the world encourage the Chinese to return to their bikes, or would it simply make the Chinese export machine even more formidable?

One thing is certain, however, a reduction in tariffs would only be one part of a multipronged strategy aiming at increasing the spread of environmentally sound goods and services. As pointed out by another OECD paper, "Achieving the Successful Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technologies: Trade-related Aspects," government regulation is essential for encouraging environmentally positive goods and technologies to flourish. It's not just about removing regulations, as in the case of tariffs or other trade barriers -- it's essential to have laws in place that require environmentally correct behavior.

In the absence of such regulation, markets will default to the low-cost solution, which usually does not internalize the societal costs of pollution or other unsustainable practices. Sure, I'd love a world with no tariffs on bicycle parts -- it would no doubt result in a cheaper bicycle for me. But it's unlikely to mean much in a world that doesn't require that new road construction incorporate bicycle-friendly transportation, or doesn't reward those who eschew fossil fuel consumption in their daily commute.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Globalization How The World Works