Q&A: TPP and Climate Change

By Luke Pretz
What is the Trans Pacific Partnership?

The Trans Pacific Partnership, often referred to as TPP, is a multilateral free trade agreement in the style of the the multilateral trade agreements that emerged in the 90’s like NAFTA and CAFTA. TPP was not always the trade agreement it is now. It started in 2005 as a regional trade agreement between Singapore, Brunei, Chile, and New Zealand, but quickly ballooned into a large-scale 12 plus country agreement that now includes the original four plus Australia, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada, Peru, Vietnam, Japan and possibly South Korea and Taiwan.

TPP ProtestWhat do we know about the TPP?

At this moment the trade agreement is a mystery to the public. Only two groups get to read it: first, members of congress can read one section at a time, with limited aides and staffers, and no materials for taking notes; and second, representatives of corporations can read the bill via one of the 28 US government appointed trade advisory committees. The secrecy of the trade agreement was reaffirmed recently in a vote to “fast-track” the trade agreement, meaning the administration is granted the right to negotiate the treaty behind closed doors and present it to congress for an up or down vote when negotiations are closed.

Fortunately, Wikileaks sleuths have made public some of the official documents from negotiations. The documents include: chapters on intellectual property and the environment, the environmental working group chair’s report, notes on negotiations, and the positions of the negotiators.  The substance of the documents is no surprise: much like NAFTA and other recent trade agreements, TPP represents a serious power grab by multi-national firms allowing corporations to act like nations and sue countries which violate provisions of TPP. In effect the Trans Pacific Partnership expands US style “corporate personhood”.

The leaked documents also include a draft of the Environmental Protections section. The document recognizes the threat of climate change and the need to protect sensitive ecosystems. However, the trade agreement remains largely toothless in terms of enforcement mechanisms.

What does this mean for the climate?

The combination of limited environmental regulations with the expansion of corporate power is a deadly mix for the environment. The lack of any substantial regulation in the trade agreement is a signal to workers and corporate elite that the TPP is just another free trade agreement like NAFTA, creating a race to the bottom not just in terms of labor rights, protection and wages, but also in the environmental conditions that we all live in. But modern trade agreements don’t just race to the bottom, they include “regulatory harmonization” procedures that reduce regulations down to a common denominator for all countries; they effectively start at the bottom. Regulatory harmonization is not necessarily a bad thing, as international agreements could be used to improve environmental regulation across countries.  Typically, though, such regulatory harmonization spells out the worsening of environmental regulation across the board.

The most damaging aspect of the agreement is the capacity of a corporation to sue the state over violations of the agreement. That means there would be another roadblock to creating genuine, progressive, and enforceable environmental protections. It is reasonable to expect corporate elites to test the limits of their powers by filing lawsuits against anything that obstructs free trade. That would make states liable for attempts to regulate carbon emissions, gmos, pesticides, etc. for import because those could be understood as obstructions to free trade.

The environmental impacts go beyond the the roll back of environmental regulations. Massive free trade agreements like NAFTA have huge distributional effects not just in terms of wealth and income, but also in terms of pollution. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that wealthy countries like the United States experienced a decrease in the concentrations of greenhouse gasses, while poorer countries experience an increase in pollutants. That is to say, when the free trade agreements come into effect not only is there outsourcing of jobs to countries where labor is less protected, but pollution is also outsourced to countries with fewer regulations, effectively placing the cost of the increased profits on already exploited and vulnerable workers.

A more recent report by the Sierra Club points out some of the more specific effects of NAFTA.  The expansion of large scale export-focused farming drastically expanded the consumption of fossil fuels and the use of toxic pesticides and genetically modified organisms. NAFTA also prompted rapid expansion of mining, prevented Canada’s capacity to regulate the tar sands, and weakened already existing safeguards. All of this is the result of political institutions and regulatory agencies being captured and co-opted by corporate interests.

What is to be done?

As CPE Staff Economist An Li pointed out in an earlier blog post, while we can implement green technologies to stem the effects of climate change, there is a systemic problem that prevents real solutions. With much of the political control ceeded to corporations, we need to work to build mass movements where workers, indigenous people, and community members can demand the systemic change we need. Countless activists and activist organizations like System Change Not Climate Change, La Via Campesina, and Grassroots Global Justice have been working tirelessly to organize and build a base of power and demand the transformation and system change society needs.