Remember the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? That top-secret trade agreement between the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore — aka 40 percent of the world’s economy? It was top-secret for years (though due to be released any day now). New Zealand just jumped the gun and put the entire thing online.
The TPP seems to have one overarching purpose — to stop China from becoming an unstoppable economic superpower, now that it’s gone and surpassed the United States to become the biggest trading nation. China could join the TPP, except that it doesn’t seem to want to or, particularly, need to. President Obama has made passing it one of his top priorities before leaving office. He managed to get fast-track approval, which means that Congress — whose approval is needed for the TPP — can only vote yes or no on the whole deal, rather than keep some parts and jettison the others. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) joked that the president had offered to let him do “everything except let me fly Air Force One” in exchange for a yes vote on fast track. The secrecy around the TPP also made people nervous. People who are against it say that it’s going to put a lot of rules on technology and trade that don’t need to be there.
When the final version of the TPP was signed and agreed to, the White House went on a charm offensive. The TPP was not just a trade agreement! If signed, it would save the endangered rhino and end overfishing! By getting every member country to agree to common environmental standards, and then by punishing every country that fails to live up to them! But the text was still a secret. Hillary Clinton, formerly a booster of the TPP, came out against it.
So what’s it like now that it’s not top secret? Well, let’s start with the environmental chapter, which lays out this declaration near the start:
- The Parties recognize the importance of mutually supportive trade and environmental policies and practices to improve environmental protection in the furtherance of sustainable development.
- The Parties recognize the sovereign right of each Party to establish its own levels of domestic environmental protection and its own environmental priorities, and to establish, adopt or modify its environmental laws and policies accordingly.
- Each Party shall strive to ensure that its environmental laws and policies provide for, and encourage, high levels of environmental protection and to continue to improve its respective levels of environmental protection.
- No Party shall fail to effectively enforce its environmental laws through a sustained or recurring course of action or inaction in a manner affecting trade or investment between the Parties, after the date of entry into force of this Agreement for that Party.
Particularly, let’s look at No. 3. Each party “shall strive to ensure that its environmental laws and policies provide for, and encourage, high levels of environmental protection.” This is similar language to what was in an earlier, leaked draft, and it’s hard to tell exactly what the legal standard is for not “striving” enough. Not to say that this would happen, but if I were a diplomat from a TPP member nation I could march into the meeting wearing a tutu made of rhino horns. I could be wearing elephant feet over my own feet like rain boots, and epaulettes made of shark fins, and still claim that I was really striving to improve my levels of environmental protection.
It goes on. Rather than clearly forbidding the trade in illegally logged lumber, the TPP only asks its member nations “to combat” such trade. Illegal fishing? It would be great if member nations would “deter” it, “strive to act consistently with relevant conservation and management measures,” and “endeavor not to undermine catch or trade documentation schemes.”
By definition, a trade agreement is about, well … trade. It’s hard to say exactly how the TPP would back up these environmental measures even if they had the kind of strong language that would justify enforcement. As the Sierra Club points out in a briefing on the TPP, “The United States has never once brought a trade case against another country for failing to live up to its environmental commitments in trade agreements — even amid documented evidence of countries violating those commitments.” Peru, for example, signed a trade agreement with the United States that included requirements that Peru combat illegal logging — but the U.S. has never brought charges against Peru for violating the agreement, despite fairly public evidence that the Peruvian forestry service is enabling the logging rather than combatting it.
The more trade-oriented aspects of the agreement have their own problems. The TPP would automatically expand the liquid natural gas market to all of its member countries. The natural gas industry itself describes this as “a long-term bonanza for natural gas” — which, for the climate, means whatever the opposite of bonanza is.
Overall, the release of the TPP text broadly confirms the worries that people had about it — and there was a lot of armchair quarterbacking over the TPP, especially whenever a chapter got leaked. What we’ve got now that we have the official version isn’t likely to change minds on either side of the argument. People who are for the TPP say that it’s going to make the world $220 billion a year richer. People who are against it will say that it will do bupkus for the environment. Both of these look like fairly accurate assessments.
But TPP could make the environment even worse. As with NAFTA, companies in member countries will be able to force other member countries into arbitration if they believe that local regulations — environmental or otherwise — are damaging their ability to do business.
For example: Under NAFTA, an American energy company named Lone Pine Resources with rights to mine under the St. Lawrence Seaway sued Canada after the province of Quebec passed a moratorium on mining for oil and gas. In general, the U.S. seems to have won every environment-related case that has come up against it. But the TPP members contain some heavy hitters, industry-wise — like BHP Bilton, an Australian mining company that owns the rights to a fair amount of oil and gas in Texas.
Loopholes and contradictions like this in a trade agreement aren’t surprising. The people who negotiate trade are, well, trade people. Their preoccupations are with pressing issues like why there doesn’t seem to be a single non-bootlegged copy of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters on the entire continent of Asia. These are people who want to open a Mardi Gras bead factory in another country without worrying about getting shaken down by that country’s regional government. They want to sell pharmaceuticals and televisions and thingamabobs without worrying that someone is going to come up with a slightly different version of what they’re making and undersell them.
That’s fine. It’s not so much that the world needs a trade agreement to protect the environment or stop climate change. That’s not what trade agreements are for. But surely we can ask for a trade agreement that won’t undercut the people trying to make those things happen.
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