Behind the Veil: The Truth About Trade in 'Environmental Goods'

The United States might be part of another disheartening trade deal veiled with a false promise of environmental protection. As I wrote about before, on Jan. 25, a group of World Trade Organization (WTO) members including the United States, the European Union, Australia, and Canada, want to eliminate tariffs on a set of supposedly “environmentally beneficial” products.

At first blush the idea makes sense. Eliminate the taxes, or tariffs, on a set of environmentally beneficial products and they’ll be traded and used more. The problem, however, comes when the so-called environmental goods that governments want to trade more of actually harm the environment.

Here’s a bit of background. The WTO negotiations will build on the work of the 21 countries that make up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In 2012, these countries agreed to reduce or eliminate tariffs by the end of 2015 on a list of 54 "environmentally beneficial" products.  Unfortunately, a number of products on APEC’s list could actually do more harm than good.  Incinerators, for example, are used to burn waste material and release toxic chemicals and byproducts into the water we drink and the air we breathe. Steam generators are found in equipment used in producing dirty fuels such as coal and nuclear power. And, centrifuges, which are used to filter and purify water for a variety of reasons, can also be used in the production of oil and tar sands — dirty fuels which should stay in the ground as more clean energy comes online in America. Yet each of these products is considered “environmentally beneficial” according to the APEC.

Sounds bad, but it might just get worse.

According to Inside U.S. TradeU.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Mike Froman sent a letter in April requesting that the International Trade Commission provide a report containing its advice as to the “probable economic effect of providing duty-free treatment for imports of environmental goods for all U.S. trading partners” on industries in the United States and on consumers.  Because there is no universally accepted definition of an “environmental good,” the USTR requested that the Commission analyze the effect of increased trade on a set of products attached to the letter.

Here’s where things get ugly.

The list attached to the letter contains hundreds of so-called environmental goods—many of which could be described as nothing other than destructive for our air, water, and environment. According to Inside U.S. Trade, a USTR spokeswoman said that the products listed comprise "all environmental goods" proposed for trade liberalization during past WTO and APEC meetings, in addition to "products we anticipate other WTO members may propose in the course of the forthcoming environmental goods negotiations.”

Here are just a few of the products listed:

  • Liquified natural gas, which is an extremely energy-intensive fossil fuel that, when exported, incentivizes more fracking;

  • Crude palm oil, which is made from the fruit of an oil palm tree and can be used to produce a variety of products from cosmetics to margarine to biofuels, and which, when exploited and exported, increases deforestation and habitat loss for endangered species;

  • Wood pellets, which the United States is increasingly exporting to Europe to be burned in power plants, and which, when cut and burned, are carbon intensive and associated with deforestation and habitat loss;

  • Nuclear reactors, which facilitate expensive and dangerous nuclear energy projects;

  • Ethylene, a flammable gas used to produce ethylene oxide, which the Department of Labor says is associated with cancer, reproductive risks, and other health hazards.

Vacuum cleaners and digital cameras also appear on the list. These items aren’t necessarily bad for the environment, but they also aren’t good – which raises the question of why any of these products are classified as “environmental goods.”

The answer to that question is increasingly apparent. This is merely a front for expanding free trade under the guise of environmental protection. In fact, these WTO members are considering tariff elimination without any analysis (that we know of) on the environmental impact. What we need for the health of the planet is not an expansion of the WTO or our current model of free trade. Instead, we need fair and responsible trade to sustainably manage natural resources and confront the climate crisis.

--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program

World Bank's Tata Mundra conflicts with climate findings

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If we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions now, we’ll soon be past the point of no return to save the planet.

That’s the conclusion of the newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But how does Tata Mundra, a massive coal-burning power plant in India, fit into that equation?

It doesn’t.

For the local people living near Tata Mundra on the Kutch coast of Gujarat, India, this information is crucial. When the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) poured $900 million into one of the world’s largest coal-burning power plants, they were dooming the local residents to years of air and water pollution.

The Tata corporation attempted to justify these risks under the pretense of increasing cheap energy access for millions of people. However, Tata Mundra’s expenses quickly ballooned, and the Tata corporation requested permission to raise rates, forcing residents to foot the bill. Even if nearby communities could afford to pay for power generated by Tata Mundra they couldn’t actually access the power without costly grid extensions. Now, the residents are suffering from the health effects of coal pollution without reaping any energy access benefits.

Clearly, the Tata Mundra coal-burning power plant is not a viable solution to meet energy demands in India, and the IPCC report also shows it is the wrong choice for curbing global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the report, the energy supply sector is the biggest climate disruption culprit. In 2010 alone, energy emissions from coal and oil accounted for 35 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions -- and we can already see the effects.

Continue reading "World Bank's Tata Mundra conflicts with climate findings" »

Kosovo Says No to World Bank's Dirty Coal

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                    Visar Azemi (center) at KOSID's fourth annual workshop.                     Photo courtesy of KOSID.

KOSIDEditor’s Note: Visar Azemi is the coordinator for the Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) and a faculty member at the University of Maryland. Before joining KOSID, Mr. Azemi, a Kosovo native, was an electrical engineer.

Leaders, journalists, and civil society organizations gathered at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. this past weekend for the World Bank’s annual spring meetings. Halfway across the world, the people of Kosovo were and still are speaking out.

The Republic of Kosovo, nestled in the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe, is home to approximately 2 million people facing an energy crisis. If the World Bank gets its way, our young country will be locked-in to a dirty energy future for decades to come.

The proposed Kosovo Power Project (KPP), a 600-megawatt lignite coal power plant, is slated to be built despite the outcry of the public. Lignite coal is widely considered one of the dirtiest forms of coal, and its use in the existing power plants is already taking it’s toll on our people.

In the World Bank’s own estimate, air pollution in Kosovo “is estimated (midpoint) annually to cause 835 premature deaths, 310 new cases of chronic bronchitis, 600 hospital admissions, and 11,600 emergency visits.”  The total economic costs for those health effects are estimated to be as much as 158 million euro annually.

If KPP is constructed, we can expect those numbers to increase.

Continue reading "Kosovo Says No to World Bank's Dirty Coal" »

Signs of Life for Key Wind Investments in Congress - Will They Continue?

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The facts are speaking for themselves: wind is winning. But is Congress listening?

Deemed the fastest-growing energy source in the world, wind has created 80,000 jobs at over 550 U.S.-based manufacturing facilities, powered over 15 million homes, and added $105 billion in domestic investments over the last 10 years. In the face of severe weather and extreme climate disruption, wind has offered the U.S. and the world the opportunity to invest in a clean solution to meet our energy demand without exacerbating climate disruption.

But without the support of our legislators, the wind industry could--to the detriment of millions of Americans and our environment--slow its progress.

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) was enacted as a temporary provision over two decades ago as a part of the Energy Policy Act. Despite expiring eight times, the PTC has led to continual progress and job-creation in the wind industry.

More than four months ago, however, the PTC expired once again, leaving the wind industry in the lurch. In a positive move last week, the Senate Finance Committee advanced a package of renewable energy tax credits--including the PTC--marking the first step toward future wind progress. The next step in the process is moving the legislation to the Senate floor where it will likely face staunch opposition from Republican climate deniers.

But the facts don’t lie. Wind energy has created thousands of jobs and invested millions in our economy, and failing to renew the PTC would be economically and environmentally irresponsible.

Continue reading "Signs of Life for Key Wind Investments in Congress - Will They Continue?" »

WWF Holds Big Coal Accountable

Wildlife is fighting back against big coal--the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), that is.

Yesterday, WWF filed a complaint against the world’s largest private coal company, Peabody Energy.  The complaint, filed with Belgium’s Jury d’Ethique Publicitaire (JEP), alleges that an advertisement Peabody ran in the European edition of the Financial Times breaks JEP’s code for honest advertising.

While Peabody makes its billions though dirty coal, its advertisement scheme attempts to put the coal titan among the ranks of “clean, modern technology.” With a clean energy revolution thriving, Peabody is desperate to keep coal on top and wind and solar just out of reach for those who need it most.

When the ad appeared, WWF was quick to act.

“As coal loses ground in developed countries to more modern sustainable alternatives, Peabody is marketing its dangerous technologies onto those poorest countries with the least development options,” Tony Long, director of WWF European Policy Office, said in a press release.

“Trying to sell coal to poor people as a path to better and healthier lives is socially irresponsible and morally wrong. We already know that poor countries are most affected by climate change, and are the least equipped to fight its negative impacts.”

Continue reading "WWF Holds Big Coal Accountable" »

How Japan replaced half its nuclear capacity through energy efficiency

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Japan was facing darkness.

Three years after the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Japan’s energy capacity was rapidly reaching its peak going in to the high-energy summer months. A tremendous amount of conventional generation capacity--including the entire nuclear fleet--was unavailable, and the country faced the risk of power cuts. But miraculously, or seemingly so, in just a few short weeks, Japan managed to avert the rolling power cuts that many believed inevitable. Even more impressive, Japan has turned these emergency measures into lasting solutions.

So how did a country on the brink of blackout suddenly meet their country’s energy needs without forcing people back to the stone age? Japan overcame this daunting task by tapping the cheapest and most widely available source of energy savings available--energy efficiency.

Much of the electricity savings were initially driven by a popular movement known as “Setsuden.” This movement emerged to encourage people and companies to save electricity and prevent rolling power cuts. Simple measures such as upping the thermostat by a few degrees in homes and offices, 'thinning' lighting by reducing the use of some lightbulbs, cutting back on the use of big screens and exterior lighting, and powering down electric toilet seats--a Japanese peculiarity--enabled Japan to dramatically reduce power demand almost overnight. Dress codes in offices were even eased to ensure employees were more comfortable in light of the changes, and both large and small companies were audited to identify savings potential.

These temporary measures have proven to have long term impact. They've dramatically increased the awareness of energy use and energy efficiency with large companies now running high-profile, long-lasting programs. Japan’s economy and gross domestic product (GDP) grew and power consumption stayed stable thanks to these newly ingrained practices.

More importantly, there is huge potential for technical measures to reduce energy usage even further--a resource Japan has only just begun to tap.

Continue reading "How Japan replaced half its nuclear capacity through energy efficiency" »

A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards

Reverend-Doug-BlandAs the father of an asthmatic child, and as a person of faith, I'm grateful for the Clean Air Act. That might seem like an odd introduction, but let me explain.

Last fall, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) complained that, in enforcing the standards of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "overreached" its authority. Overreach - that mental picture might seem scary to some: the hand of big government imposing its way into our lives to tell us what we can and cannot do.

As a Christian, though, the image that comes to my mind when I think of overreach is very different. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, against a clear blue sky, God over-reaches space and time. In the touching of two fingers, heaven and earth meet, and Adam "became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7b). According to the second creation story, God took the dust of the earth and gave it human form. But the lump just lays there, inert, lifeless, until God breathed spirit---the Hebrew word is ruach, "breath" - into Adam's lungs.  

That Biblical story takes on real flesh and blood as I'm desperately racing to the emergency room with my son, Aaron, in the seat beside me. It's another bad air quality day where I live, and Aaron is having yet another asthma attack. His face is ashen and his lips are sky blue as he tries to suck in the life giving air that he can't force into his lungs. I reach out my hand across the seat to him---to assure him, to assure myself---but he's too weak to even lift his fingers up to meet mine. There is no breath in him.

I carry him in my arms, limp as a ragdoll, into the emergency room where doctors and nurses who meet us at the door. I watch as their hands reach out to heal. Aaron's breath is restored. Standing next to his bed I can't talk without crying, so I just make an OK sign with my hand, a question in my eyes. He lifts up his hand so his OK meets my OK. Overreach.

It could have been much worse for Aaron. The reason there aren't more bad air quality days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because, in 1970, Republicans on one side of the aisle and Democrats on the other side of the isle reached their hands across the partisan divide to create the Clean Air Act.

Continue reading "A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards" »

Securing a Positive Climate Legacy

Our world faces an unprecedented environmental, social, and economic challenge-- climate disruption. As the most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change notes, the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world as seas rise, extreme weather events increase, areas suffer drought or flood, and plants and animals edge closer to extinction.  Scientists agree that fossil fuels are the main culprit behind climate disruption and as a new Sierra Club report details, it is vitally important that undeveloped dirty fuels remain that way.

Using publicly available data already gathered by federal agencies, the report, Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures (PDF), calculates the potential carbon dioxide emissions from dirty fuel development proposals. Such calculations send a clear message: Actions to effectively reducing climate disruption must include keeping dirty fuels in the ground.

Four major potential sources of carbon pollution have been identified, the Arctic Ocean, the Green River Formation, the Powder River Basin, and the Monterey, San Juan Basin and Marcellus shale plays. If just a fraction of the oil, gas and coal from these major climate disrupters was developed, the resulting carbon pollution would cancel out our country's greatest accomplishments in the fight against climate disruption--efforts like the Obama administrations new fuel economy standards.

CAFEvsClimateDisrupters_All

Thankfully, President Obama can take pragmatic actions to keep dirty fuels in the ground and speed our country down the path to clean energy future.  Over the remainder of his time in office he has an opportunity to:

  • Fully implement his Executive Order 13514 requiring all resource management agencies to fully consider climate pollution, like they do other types of pollution, prior to leasing or exporting onshore and offshore oil, gas, coal, and unconventional fuels sources such as oil shale and tar sands.  
  • Stop any new leasing of federal oil, gas, and coal until potential environmental, climate, and public health impacts are fully considered, including:
  • Withdrawing plans to allow development of oil shale and tar sands on 800,000 acres of federal public lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
  • No issuance of new federal coal leases until reforms that increase royalty rates, set sensitive lands aside, insure public transparency, and fully assess impacts from all aspects of coal production are implemented.
  • Withdrawing plans to offer any new offshore oil leases in the Arctic Ocean.
  • No issuance of any new oil and gas leases on federal lands that use fracking and well stimulation techniques until impacts on water, air, and climate are averted.
  • Close oil, gas, and coal industry exemptions from environmental and public safety laws.
  • Stop the export of coal and liquefied natural gas.

By showing leadership and taking these actions, President Obama can put the world on a path to avert climate catastrophe and create a clean-energy future that generates quality jobs, protects public health, and secures a wild lands legacy for our children’s future.  He can bolster his National Climate Action Plan and secure the progress that his administration has made in reducing domestic carbon emissions.

TAKE ACTION: Tell President Obama to keep dirty fuels in the ground!

-- Dan Chu, Director of the Sierra Club Our Wild America campaign

How Coal & Clean Energy Will Define Indian Elections

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On the coast of India’s Gulf of Kutch in Western Gujarat, near a small town called Mundra, an iconic fight against Tata Power’s Mundra coal plant is brewing. This fight has become the epicenter of a “rousing struggle” against coal expansion - and a microcosm of India’s election politics.

A small group of local fisherfolk are opposing the plant and leading a campaign that exposes the dark side of unchecked coal development and contradictions in the campaign of leading Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

In a country that recently made headlines for the largest power outage in history, Gujarat is an anomaly – it has a power surplus. That, along with industry-friendly policies including a heavy emphasis on special economic zones (SEZs), has helped propel the state's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, to become the primary challenger in the race for prime minister. Indeed, the idea Modi's campaign has touted about Gujarat energy development is something many Indians aspire to.

Even more appealing is that Modi's power surplus has been supported by a 'saffron revolution' thanks to dramatic solar expansion. A true anomaly in coal-dependent India.

But despite Modi’s fervent support for solar energy, Gujarat is also home to some of the biggest coal plants in the country. Power companies are building a series of 16 ultra mega coal power plants (UMPPs) to stem the power crisis, including Tata Power’s flagship Mundra coal plant, or “Tata Mundra.” But the projects have exposed just how poorly the industry is now performing, and just how desperate the need is to diversify India’s energy mix away from coal.

Continue reading "How Coal & Clean Energy Will Define Indian Elections" »

Hazardous Waste Next Door: The Importance of the Definition of Solid Waste

1296-hazardous-waste-caution-sign-s-0519Did you know that chemical companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the industrial waste industry are exempt from a law requiring companies handling hazardous waste to protect public health and the environment?

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted in 1976, but in 2008 the Bush Administration exempted these companies handling the most dangerous substances from complying. This new rule was called "The Definition of Solid Waste" (DSW).

Take a look at the chemicals slipping through this regulatory gap:

  • Solvents like benzene, toluene, TCE and perc (linked to cancer, low birth weight, miscarriages, major malformations, and heart defects)
  • Heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury - potent neurotoxins and carcinogens

In 2011, thanks to legal challenge from the Sierra Club, as represented by EarthJustice, and due to the advocacy of environmental justice, civil rights, public health and other organizations, the EPA completed a groundbreaking environmental justice analysis and found that DSW's lax rules for hazardous waste disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income communities:

  • Hundreds of sites where toxic releases have occurred in the past are consistently located in communities of color and low-income communities.
  • The 2008 DSW rule removes opportunities for public participation in siting and permitting decisions, disenfranchising non-white and low-income communities from critical decisions affecting their health and livelihoods.
  • The industries exempt from federal controls are often located in areas that already face exposure to multiple environmental hazards, and already have high cancer rates and neurological hazard rates as a result of exposure to pollution.

Epa superfundIn fact, in Illinois and Idaho, almost every hazardous waste recycling facility operating under the regulatory exemption is located in a community of color and low-income community.

The 2011 legal challenge required the EPA to publish a new DSW rule in 2012, but the EPA had taken no action until last month. On March 15, 2014, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) finally began its regulatory review of the EPA's DSW rule.

The Sierra Club is part of a coalition of public interest organizations and individuals from across the U.S. that supports a DSW standard that protects our health, environment and livelihood from hazardous waste released from recycling operations. Together we are urging the administration to abide by the 90-day limit for review of this rule and to publish a final DSW rule by July 1, 2014.

The delay in issuing a final rule is exacting a high toll on communities of color and low-income communities. Since 1982, hazardous waste recycling has polluted more than 200 sites, including many on the Superfund National Priority List, which identifies the worst toxic waste sites in the nation. The EPA found that the majority of the contamination at these sites occurred when recycling operations were exempted from compliance with safeguards under the RCRA.

This is why the final DSW rule must reinstate these essential safeguards. There is an urgent need to close this gap for the health of the nation and particularly for environmental justice communities. The rule impacts management of 1.8 million tons of hazardous waste, predominantly in communities of color and in low-income communities.

Any further delay is unacceptable while toxic releases to air and water poison fenceline neighborhoods at recycling operations. We call on the OMB, the EPA, and the Obama administration to ensure that this important rule receives the priority it deserves so that the safety of the nation’s most vulnerable communities can be ensured now and for future generations.

-- Leslie Fields, Director of the Sierra Club Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program


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