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February 21, 2014

A Clean Environment Is Not For Trade

This week, more than 120 Members of Congress sent a clear message to the United States Trade Representative: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact must have a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter that addresses the core conservation challenges of the region.

The letter comes just days before officials from the 12 governments involved in the TPP will meet in Singapore to try to make progress on an agreement that is facing increasingly steep opposition from the American public and Members of Congress.

In the letter, Members of Congress recognized that while they don’t all agree on the trade pact in general, they do all agree on the need for a strong environment chapter that builds on the so-called “May 10th Agreement,” a political agreement struck on May 10, 2007 between then-President George Bush and Congress.

The May 10th Agreement set minimum standards for all environment chapters of U.S. trade pacts. It said that environment chapters must be legally enforceable and subject to “dispute settlement,” meaning a country violating an environmental trade rule could be penalized with trade sanctions.  It also required that countries uphold their domestic environmental laws in addition to commitments made in international environmental treaties.

Members of Congress have good reason to be concerned about the environment chapter of the TPP. On January 15, Wikileaks published a leaked version of the environment chapter, which environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the World Wildlife Fund deemed “unacceptable.” The leaked text actually rolled back  the May 10th standards. It wasn’t enforceable, and it didn’t obligate the TPP countries to uphold commitments in environmental treaties.


Members of Congress said it well: “To build on the May 10th Agreement, TPP must include new and robust commitments for member countries to protect and conserve forests, oceans, and wildlife and obligate member countries to comply with both domestic environmental laws, not derogating from those laws, and meet their commitments under multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).”

The letter also said that “these commitments must be strong, binding and enforceable, and subject to the same dispute settlement procedures as the commercial chapters, including recourse to trade sanctions.”

In order to help ensure that increased trade doesn’t destroy our environment, the chapter should include, to name a few, a ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish; the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies; and a ban on shark finning and commercial whaling.

Members of Congress also wrote that a strong environment chapter would help the U.S. tackle climate disruption. But a recent leak revealed the opposite. It showed that the United States Trade Representative is actually trying to weaken language in the pact that deals with climate disruption and biodiversity. The U.S. seems to want to eliminate even a reference to climate change and the international forum designed to address the climate crisis—the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—and refer instead to the “transition to a low emissions economy.”

This letter’s signers won’t accept a weak or unenforceable environment chapter, and they won’t succumb to pressure to strike a deal that’s not in the interest of communities, workers, and the environment.

And if Congress wants a deal that protects people and the planet, they must also look beyond the environment chapter. The pact’s chapter on investment, which was also leaked, allows foreign corporations to sue governments over policies designed to protect our environment. Corporations such as Chevron and ExxonMobil have launched hundreds of these cases against 95 governments using similar rules, and many cases directly attack policies on the environment, climate, and clean energy.

The pact would also require the U.S. to approve all exports of fracked gas to other TPP countries without any review or protections in place for communities and the environment. More natural gas exports would mean more fracking next to schools and hospitals throughout the U.S. and more climate-disrupting pollution.

As trade negotiators go to Singapore, they should take heed from these Members of Congress. And Members of Congress should note that a strong environment chapter is critical, but not sufficient to protect the environment and our climate from the risks of the TPP.

What we know isn’t good. What they’re hiding could be far worse.

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

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