NAFTA on Steroids: What It Could Mean for the Environment

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, also known as "NAFTA on steroids," contains at least 26 chapters that would have a fundamental impact on the environment, the economy, jobs, access to affordable medicines, and much more. While some of the chapters of the TPP are already finalized or near finalization, there are still a number of chapters, including the chapters on investment and environment, which remain deeply contentious and hidden from the public.

The Pacific Rim countries -- all of which could eventually be involved in the deal -- represent some of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth. Those countries already involved include Peru, the third most biologically diverse country in the world, and Australia, home to the Great Barrier Reef with its more than 1,500 species of fish, 134 species of sharks and rays, and six of the world's seven species of threatened marine turtles.

I've just returned from the 13th round of TPP negotiations in San Diego, where Sierra Club members and I took to the streets with union allies, consumer rights advocates, environmentalists and others to call for a more transparent TPP process. We shared with government negotiators our deep concerns with the investment chapter that favors corporate rights over environmental protection, and we spoke out for the need to have a strong and enforceable environment chapter.

As international trade and investment expand, so does the potential for negative impacts on the environment. As just one example, a study by the United Nations Environment Programme on the environmental impact of trade liberalization on the African country of Mauritania found that "overall, trade liberalization since the 1990s has led to a diminution of marine biodiversity as a result of increased pressures on many fish species." Because of the direct link between trade and the environment, it's essential that our trade agreements enhance our standards for environmental protection.

Environmental chapters in our trade deals have a history of lacking meaningful enforcement. But they've been strengthened over the years, largely thanks to citizen-led advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and our allies. We demanded that environmental and labor issues become central to any trade agreement and not be relegated to second- or even third-tier status as was the case in the past. We wanted our trade pacts to protect the health of our planet and our families, instead of protecting corporate interests. This pressure led to the forging of a bipartisan consensus in May 2007 that set the minimum standards for environment, labor and other provisions in our trade agreements.

Since the consensus, all U.S. trade agreements have included binding obligations for countries to uphold their environmental laws and to refrain from waiving or weakening those laws in order to attract trade or investment. The environment chapters in agreements after May 2007 have also been enforceable, meaning that if countries are unable to resolve conflicts in the chapter through diplomatic measures, each country has access to a formal dispute settlement process. This put the environment on more equal footing with some of the commercial chapters of the agreements that protect businesses. Furthermore, U.S. trade agreements since the consensus have included a set of multilateral environmental agreements for all parties to uphold.

Fast forward to today's TPP talks, and the negotiators haven't yet come to this type of consensus over the environment chapter. They haven't yet been able to agree on whether to make the chapter legally binding and enforceable. They also haven't been able to decide whether to ensure that countries uphold commitments in multilateral environmental agreements.

To its credit, the U.S. has been leading the push for a binding and enforceable environment chapter that covers core conservation challenges in the region, including protection of forests, endangered wildlife and diminishing fisheries. It's critically important that the environment chapters of our trade agreements build on the progress made in 2007 and don't revert back to the deeply flawed model where commercial interests come before environmental protection.

A strong, binding and enforceable environment chapter is essential, but not sufficient, to protect the environment in the context of our trade agreements. As I've said before, any push for strong and enforceable environmental provisions are severely undermined by the investment chapter draft that allows foreign corporations to sue governments -- in foreign and unaccountable tribunals -- over virtually any law that the corporation argues is hurting its expected profits.

The Sierra Club is also deeply concerned that other parts of the TPP could open the door to increased natural gas exports and more attacks on voluntary and non-discriminatory environmental labeling, such as "dolphin safe" tuna labels.

Of course, all of these concerns rest on one fundamental point: We still don't know what's actually in the proposed agreement. The TPP negotiations are clouded in extreme secrecy. In order to protect the vibrant environment and biodiversity of the Pacific Rim, the public needs to be meaningfully engaged on the content of the TPP. But before it can be engaged, it needs to be informed. The TPP must be brought out of the shadows and into the light of day.