By John Audley and Scott VaughanCarnegie Endowment for International Peace
June 24, 2003
Ten years ago, the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada created a small NAFTA watchdog group with a historic charge: find a way that open trade can mean a better environment.
Today, the group has developed a strong track record of research and even some tangible action, especially in supporting networks of environmental groups in Mexico, or improving how chemicals are managed. But its ability to impact policy remains weak and ineffectual. This week, during the annual meeting of the group, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), there is an opportunity to put the watchdog group on a more effective path to meet its mandate.
Working in near obscurity, the CEC has skillfully moved beyond its initial focus of exposing breaches in environmental enforcement arising from free trade- remember the giant sucking sound of NAFTA?- to crafting an innovative agenda to safeguard the environment the United States shares with Mexico and Canada. Their environmental assessments give us a better understanding as to whether conditions have become cleaner or dirtier with free trade. They have tracked pathways of toxic pollutants and hazardous wastes crossing borders, alerting governments of the need to beef up regulations. This week, a continental strategy intended to conserve our rich heritage of biodiversity will be launched. The CEC includes the world's best model for allowing citizens to check whether trade is prompting the lax enforcement of environmental regulations.
Despite these good works, its impact on policy is weak. While we now know that apocalyptic predictions about how NAFTA will destroy environmental quality were largely unfounded, trade has exerted a chilling effect on environmental policies and regulations. Ten years into NAFTA, urban air quality in Mexico remains a leading cause of respiratory illness. Ignoring commitments to liberalize farming, U.S. agricultural subsidies- to the tune of $21,000 per farmer per year- damage the environment through millions of tons of chemical runoff fouling lakes and rivers, while putting developing country farmers at a gross disadvantage. Not one single environmental problem that existed a decade ago has been solved, while pressures hardly on the radar screen during the NAFTA debates- from climate change to the effects of pesticides on children's- pose new threats.
It's time to correct the CEC mandate. First, sanctions and punitive measures- acting as a stick to ensure environmental compliance- were a mistake from the start. Not one single international environmental agreement contains such punitive measures. Sanctions in the CEC package should be repealed. Trading partners should agree on common approaches that stimulate both trade liberalization and environmental protection. One example to expand their work in building links with the financial community to increase investments in environmental goods and services.
A second example is to strengthen cooperative efforts in key economic sectors. For example, increased transport from trade in manufactured goods means increased environmental damages through spikes in air pollution. CEC should support work with business and governments to improve environmentally friendly transport corridors. The CEC's ability to garner consensus around thorny issues can help Mexico and Canada meet their Kyoto Protocol obligations in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while building informal alliances with U.S. actors at the state, municipal and private sector levels to address climate change. Other pressing challenges include addressing the growing threat to water quantity and quality caused by water-intensive manufacturing processes and urban sprawl, halting the spread of alien invasive species like the West Nile virus, and anticipating environmental pressures resulting from expanding North American trade in energy - all legitimate issues for the CEC.
These efforts will not only help protect the environment for Americans, Mexicans and Canadians. If done right, lessons can be spread globally through the World Trade Organization, the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and other bilateral trade deals around the practical benefits of cooperative action where it matters.
After ten years, it's time to act on the lessons of NAFTA and put some meat behind the lip service about ensuring environmental protection moves in tandem with market liberalization.
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