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School of Law

Professor Rafael Leal-Arcas publishes research on the frontiers of international economic law

New research from Professor Rafael Leal-Arcas explains new horizons and perspectives in international economic law in the context of sustainable development.


Professor Dr Rafael Leal-Arcas, Jean Monnet Chaired Professor of EU International Economic Law at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), publishes new research titled New Frontiers of International Economic Law: The quest for sustainable development,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Vol. 40, 2018.


The purpose of this article is to explain new horizons and perspectives in international economic law in the context of sustainable development. Part I of this article explores the potential of the trading system in helping mitigate climate change and enhancing sustainable energy. The argument is that trade agreements have tremendous potential to help mitigate climate change, which is currently under-explored. The article first explains how trade agreements may be a legal instrument to mitigate climate change and enhance sustainable energy. It then provides an analysis of the challenges of mitigating climate change and enhancing sustainable energy. It then examines the synergistic links between the trading and climate regimes and offers forum options that best deal with them with the aim to help mitigate climate change and enhance sustainable energy. Part I of the article ends with a section on what the future may hold on the links between international trade and renewable energy.

Part II offers a research agenda in international economic law with proposals on how to reach sustainable development. By doing so, it makes two claims: 1) the unconventional view that the trading system can make a great contribution to decarbonization; and 2) the novel approach that the role of citizens in international trade, climate change mitigation, and sustainable energy is crucial to reach sustainability.

Trade liberalization can have positive effects. Yet other investigations conclude that trade agreements undermine climate change mitigation efforts and so they have negative effects. Trade law can be a tool to help mitigate climate change and enhance sustainable energy. And we all know that, thanks to trade, countries grow economically. Hence, the triple benefit of trade. This hypothesis might potentially be replicated in other fields of governance.

This article offers a paradigm shift in thinking about international trade. Traditionally, trade has been understood as a stumbling block to sustainable energy. I argue that trade is a building block and that the international community should capitalize on the proliferation of regional trade agreements (RTAs)/bilateral trade agreements to enhance energy security via renewable energy and achieve clean energy. Both can be achieved with the inclusion of strong chapters on trade in goods and services related to sustainable development and renewable energy in RTAs. Traditionally, the thinking has been that more trade meant more energy consumption and therefore higher levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But it does not have to be that way. Trade can be part of the solution to reducing GHG emissions.

The novelty of this article is that it aims to explain the paradigm shift in the governance of sustainable development: the 20th century was characterized by a top-down approach to the governance of climate action (eg., the Kyoto Protocol), energy (eg., inter-governmental energy agreements), and international trade (eg., inter-governmental trade agreements). The 21st century, however, offers a bottom-up approach, marking one of the mega-trends of the 21st century: in climate action, the implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is done from the bottom up via citizens, NGOs, mayors, governors, businesses, or smart cities; in energy governance, we are observing energy democratization by decentralizing the governance of energy security and creating new energy actors, namely prosumers and renewable energy cooperatives.

How about the governance of international trade? How can it be governed from the bottom up so that there is an open trading system in political, legal, and economic terms? How can we have greater involvement of civil society? How can we empower citizens in trade diplomacy? Traditionally, trade policy has been conducted by trade diplomats. Should we not listen to citizens’ concerns and those of small and medium enterprises?

The paper can be accessed on SSRN.



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