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This summer, with only a rushed coffee for breakfast, I found myself in the glass guard station in front of the World Trade Organization. Housed in a 1920s rendition of a classical Florentine villa, the main WTO building looks out over a sloping garden to the ultra blue Lake Geneva, resting between the French and Swiss Alps. I had a twinge of anxiety. This was, after all, one of the most powerful and opaque economic institutions in the world and I had the chance to enter its guarded doors. While many natural scientists in ESPM find themselves doing research in marshes, forests and grasslands, here I was doing “fieldwork” within a powerful social and legal institution.

In fact, many social scientists in ESPM do on-site fieldwork. This is one way that we attempt to understand better the interconnections among environment, norms, culture, and power. In my own work, I tend to conduct interviews, observe meetings, and read a lot of laws.

A stream of my research focuses on the question of how international trade law facilitates or inhibits global environmental goals like mitigating climate change, promoting the sustainable use of natural resources, and helping ensure environmental justice. National environmental regulations can be at odds with the free trade agenda because they potentially place burdens on importers to establish products that conform with domestic environmental rules. In fact, social regulations of all kinds, whether environmental, labor related, or health related, are called “non-tariff barriers to trade.” Trade law makes certain exceptions for environmental regulations, but the boundaries of legality are not clear and often depend on science and technical arguments. Drawing on the fields of science and technology studies (STS), bioethics, and the law, I am particularly interested in the role of science and experts as they are used and misused in working out the tensions between the goals of free trade law and sustainable development.

My specific focus that day was biofuels: how would science be used to arbitrate an emerging trade war between Europe and a number of developing countries about ethanol biofuels? I have a National Science Foundation grant to help me find out. The European Union passed a law in 2009 that produced a set of sustainbility criteria for the use of biofuels in its member states. Only countries using “sustainable” biofuels would get credit towards a new requirement that 10% of each country’s transport sector be converted to renewable sources. Europe’s biofuel sustainability standards take into account greenhouse gas savings and the protection of biodiversity, seemingly noble goals for an environmentalist agenda. But a number of importing countries think that Europe is using these criteria to protect its own domestic biofuels industry and that these criteria don’t accomplish their stated objective. At issue is the legitimacy of technical calculations like life cycle assessment, which seeks to estimate the total carbon footprint of producing a biofuel. Argentina feels that its biodiesel has been unfairly labeled as unsustainable, and thus is bringing a case against the European Union.