WTO Panel rules in US’ Favour in Solar Dispute against India

Alicia Nicholls

A World Trade Organisation (WTO) Dispute Settlement Body panel has issued its report in the dispute  India — Certain Measures Relating to Solar Cells and Solar Modules in which the United States challenged the domestic content requirements imposed by India relating to solar cells and solar modules under the latter’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission. The Panel found in favour of the US’ view, holding that India’s domestic content requirements were discriminatory and inconsistent with India’s obligations under Article III:4 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) 1994 and Article 2:1 of the Agreement on Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMs).

The dispute is  one in a growing body of WTO disputes in which one member’s government support programmes for the renewable energy sector (whether local or national) have been challenged by another member as being inconsistent with the former’s obligations under WTO rules. It is therefore not surprising that a long list of countries notified their interests as third parties to this dispute, namely: Brazil, Canada, China, Ecuador, the European Union, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia,Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Chinese Taipei and Turkey.

Background

The Indian Government launched the National Solar Mission (NSM) in January 11, 2010 as one of the eight national missions under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). The NSM has the aim to promote the use of solar energy in India, foster energy security and make India a global leader in solar energy. According to the Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s website, the NSM’s ambition is “to deploy 20,000 MW of grid connected solar power by 2022” and to reduce the cost of solar power generation in India through four key aspects, including domestic production of critical raw materials, components and products.

At the heart of the dispute, the Indian Government required solar developers (or their successors to the contract) to purchase or use solar cells or solar modules of domestic origin in order to be eligible to enter into and maintain certain power purchase agreements under the NSM.

The US argued that these domestic content requirements mandated by the Indian Government under Phases I and II of the NSM were discriminatory and inconsistent with India’s WTO obligations. Specifically, the US challenged the measures’ consistency with Article III:4 of the GATT 1994 (National Treatment), arguing that they accord less favorable treatment to imported products than to like domestically produced goods.Additionally, the US argued that these domestic content requirements were trade-related investment measures which fell within paragraph 1(a) of the Illustrative List of the TRIMs Agreement’s annex and were therefore inconsistent with Article 2.1 of the TRIMs Agreement.

In its defense, India argued that its domestic content requirements at issue were not inconsistent with Article III:4 of the GATT 1994 or Article 2.1 of the TRIMS Agreement. India also sought to rely on the exceptions in  Article III:8(a), Articles XX(j) and/or XX(d) of GATT 1994 (General Exceptions).

The US requested consultations with India initially in February 2013 and then in relation to Phase II of the NSM in February 2014. A panel was established in May 2014 and the parties agreed to the panel’s composition in September of that same year.

Ruling

In its report circulated today, the Panel found in favour of the US’ view. It held that:

  • India’s domestic content requirements in question were trade-related investment measures for the purposes of the Illustrative List in the TRIMs Agreement’s Annex and were therefore inconsistent with Article 2.1 of the TRIMs Agreement.
  • The Panel also found that the domestic content requirements in question do accord “less favourable treatment” within the meaning of Article III:4 of the GATT 1994

In regards to India’s argument about the government procurement derogation under Article III:8(a) of the GATT 1994, the Panel referred to the Appellate Body’s interpretation of that article in the Canada — Renewable Energy / Feed-In Tariff Program dispute in which the EU had successfully challenged domestic content requirements imposed by the Ontario provincial government in relation to its Feed-In Tariff (FIT) programme. Relying on its interpretation in that dispute, the Panel held that discrimination relating to solar cells and modules under the domestic content measures is not covered by Article III:8(a) of the GATT 1994.

The Panel also argued that India failed to show that the domestic content requirements were justified under the general exceptions, Article XX(j) or Article XX(d) of the GATT 1994.

The big picture

What this dispute and others like it concerning domestic support for renewable energy programmes show is the increasing intersection and conflict between  trade and environmental policy, in particular, trade and climate change policy.It is an issue which is more than moot for small island developing States  like Barbados  (a Caribbean leader in solar energy which aims to become a “green economy”) in regards to how much policy space is available to policy makers to provide support for the advancement of the renewable energy sector in the country without running afoul of the country’s WTO obligations.

The relationship between trade and climate policy is one of the issues which was discussed at length in the E15 Initiative Report entitled “Analysis and Options for Strengthening the Global Trade and Investment System for Sustainable Development”, particularly in this think piece  considering “the costs and benefits  for adjusting WTO rules to provide additional policy space to mitigate climate change and promote renewable energy”.

As countries take more aggressive measures in order to meet their national emissions reduction targets in the spirit of the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit the global temperature increase to no more than 2 percent above pre-industrial levels (with the best endeavour goal of 1.5 percent), there is likely to be more conflict between WTO rules and climate change policies in years to come. WTO members will be forced to address ways in which the WTO rules can be flexed to more adequately accommodate members’ climate change mitigation policies, while at the same time ensuring that they are not used as a guise for protectionism.

For further information on the US-India Solar dispute, please see the  WTO’s case summary and the full Panel Report.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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