Senators Agree: Trade Must Protect the Environment

FILE - In this undated file photo released by Conservation International, a healthy coral reef is seen off the Caribbean isla
FILE - In this undated file photo released by Conservation International, a healthy coral reef is seen off the Caribbean island of Bonaire. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says the Caribbean's reefs are in sharp decline, with live coral coverage down to an average of just 8 percent, in a report released Sept. 7, 2012. That's down from 50 percent in the 1970s. (AP Photo/Andy Bruckner, NOAA Fisheries, File)

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators said that a strong and binding environment chapter of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact is critical to their support of the deal. This signals that we have firmly entered into a new era of trade in which our Congress will only accept agreements with strong and enforceable environmental chapters.

The letter was led by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chairman of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on International Trade and Olympia Snowe (R-ME), also on Senate Finance. Among others, it was co-signed by John Kerry (D-MA), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the Chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

A strong environment chapter is certainly not the only part of a trade agreement necessary to protect our land, water, and natural resources, but it is especially critical when viewed in historical context and in the current context of the TPP negotiations.

Simply put, expanded trade without binding environmental protections would put the rich biodiversity and natural resources of the Pacific Rim at significant risk. The Pacific Region includes Australia's Great Barrier Reef, home to more than 11,000 species, and Peru's Amazon Rainforest, one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth. Tragically, the biodiversity of the Pacific Rim is being threatened by, among other things, commercial exploitation linked to expanded trade.

In fact, the Asia-Pacific region includes 13 of the world's 34 identified "biodiversity hotspots," or regions with a significant biodiversity that is threatened with destruction. The region accounts for about one-third of all the threatened species in the world. The numbers of several species of oceanic sharks, including reef sharks, are declined rapidly. And illegal logging persists in a number of TPP member countries, contributing to climate change and threatening natural forests, other biodiversity, and the communities who live in and rely upon the forests.

A primary goal of the TPP is to facilitate and expand trade in the Pacific Rim. Unfortunately, history has shown that as overall trade expands, so does illegal and unsustainable trade. That's why we need an environment chapter that, as the Senate letter states, "should be binding and subject to the same dispute settlement provisions as commercial chapters; should ensure that countries uphold and strengthen their domestic environmental laws and policies and their obligations under agreed multilateral environmental agreements; and should include binding provisions to ensure the sustainability of trade in natural resources and wildlife, including through provisions to combat illegal trade."

Still, a robust environment chapter is not all that we need to protect the environment. The Senate letter also makes clear that "it is important that other provisions in the agreement, including those in the investment chapter, do not undermine efforts to protect the environment."

This point is absolutely critical, as the currently drafted investment chapter would allow foreign corporations to attack governments' environmental laws and policies in private tribunals. Similar trade deals that follow this model, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, allow corporations to attack vital environmental laws and safeguards that protect communities and the environment from things like harmful chemicals or mining practices.

As negotiators work toward the next round of TPP talks in Auckland, New Zealand, at the beginning of December, they should keep the messages of this letter in mind. Members of Congress and members of the public will not accept a trade deal that puts our environment at risk.