Trade deals and the environment

In my last post, full of non-expert musings on migration, I briefly mentioned incentives for countries to clean up their governance.

This piece from the New York Times yesterday looks at the Trans Pacific Partnership and its troubled progress.

And, unusually for trade news when it comes to the environment, there may even be some good news. It’s too early to say whether this might start setting precedents for trade deals with enforceable – and enforced – elements which help preserve natural capital, but the piece is worth a read. Here are some excerpts below:

“The bright spot might have been the environmental negotiations. The completed environmental chapter would cover illegal wildlife trafficking, forestry management, overfishing and marine protection, and it could prove to be a landmark, setting a new floor for all future multilateral accords.”

“As centers of biodiversity, T.P.P. countries cover environmentally sensitive regions from tundra to island ecosystems, and from the world’s largest coral reefs to its largest rain forest,” reads a summary of the environment chapter, obtained by The New York Times. “T.P.P.’s Environment chapter addresses these challenges in detail.”Rhino_Horn

Under the agreement, the 12 countries — from Peru and its rain forest to Vietnam and the diverse Mekong Delta — must commit to obeying existing wildlife trafficking treaties and their own environmental laws. Environmentally destructive subsidies, such as cheap fuel to power illegal fishing vessels and governmental assistance for boat making in overfished waters, are banned.

The chapter singles out the “long-term conservation of species at risk,” such as sea turtles, sea birds and marine mammals and “iconic marine species such as whales and sharks.”

Failure to comply would subject a signatory to the same government-to-government compliance procedures as any other issue covered by the trade agreement, potentially culminating in trade sanctions. United States negotiators hope that just the threat of economic sanctions will bolster relatively weak environmental ministries in countries like Peru, Malaysia and Vietnam.”

So that all sounds good. But wording matters, as of course does enforcement of the rules. This is where these things usually fall down, and TPP may be no exception. The NY Times piece notes that:

“Some environmental groups, and many Democrats in Congress, are very likely to be dissatisfied. They complain that agreeing to a series of “obligations” falls short of “requirements.” The Sierra Club has complained that the United States has not pursued trade remedies against countries obliged to environmental enforcement under existing accords, such as the United States-Peru free trade deal.

But most major environmental groups remained circumspect, or cautiously optimistic, until they could read the details.

“Negotiators have accomplished much, but the hard work is far from over,” said David McCauley, senior vice president for policy at the World Wildlife Fund. “Individual nations now must live up to their T.P.P. conservation obligations, including putting in place effective measures to ensure that they are responsible traders in wildlife and products provided by our forests and oceans.”

imagen.aspxThe Times piece (I don’t usually quote quite as much, but this is all highly relevant and I couldn’t have rewritten it better) sounds a positive note in places:

“The impact of the Pacific accord’s environmental chapter could be broad, both for the nations in the deal and those outside. The 12 participating countries account for more than a quarter of the global seafood trade and about a quarter of the world’s timber and pulp production. Five of the countries rank among the world’s most biologically diverse countries.

Some, like Vietnam and Malaysia, have long been on the watch list for illegal wildlife trafficking, such as the illicit trade in rhino horns. Japan has long been scrutinized for its treatment of whales and dolphins. The World Bank has estimated that as much as 80 percent of Peru’s logging exports are harvested illegally.

Under the terms of the new accord, member countries would be required to strengthen port inspections and document checks, a provision that could expand the scope of the deal beyond the 12 countries. Illegal wildlife and timber harvests bound for countries like China go through ports of the 12 countries. And countries in the deal are required to take action if they discover contraband that has been harvested illegally, even if the product is not illegal in their country.”

We’ll see over time if any of this makes a substantive difference, but at least these issues are higher up the trade agenda than they used to be. Governments always lag progressive business practices by up to a decade, or more. This may help, eventually, to level the playing field.