USMCA Is a Huge Missed Opportunity to Act on Climate

The House of Representatives passed the new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which unfortunately fails to address climate change and meet baseline environmental criteria to protect the environment. With it, we have missed a critical opportunity to address the global climate crisis and to stop the outsourcing of corporate pollution that threatens the health and environment of our communities.

NRDC and other environmental groups have repeatedly called on the administration and the House to ensure that certain fundamental criteria, including addressing climate change, are part of the new NAFTA—now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). We have consistently said that the greatest environmental challenge of the 21st Century—climate change—must be addressed in modern trade agreements (here, here, here, here and here). 

And we are not the only ones who think this is important. A recent poll by Data for Progress found that a majority of voters believe that trade agreements should address climate change, including 83 percent of Democrats, and independent voters by a margin of 12 points. As the New York Times noted in its editorial tepidly endorsing the USMCA, this pact is “yet another missed opportunity to forge the international cooperation necessary to limit climate change.”

Congressional Democrats have also reinforced the importance of connecting climate and trade over the past year:

  • 110 House Democrats, in a September letter to the administration: “the renegotiated NAFTA deal should include binding climate standards and be paired with a decision for the United States to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement.”
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “Any changes to NAFTA must put America’s working families first, and recognize the fundamental connection between commerce and climate.”
  • Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer: “The deal must also raise wages and should recognize that climate change is a grave threat to our countries’ economies and the health and safety of our citizens.”
  • Rep. Earl Blumenauer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade: “Sadly but predictably, it does not address the effects of climate change, the most glaring flaw for the future of trade and the future of the planet.”
  • Every Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, in an April letter to President Trump: “We are also disappointed that the environment chapter lacks any apparent provisions directed at mitigating the effects of climate change.”

What is the connection between trade and climate change? Trade agreements seek to increase trade among countries, and so far, have been designed to increase the production of goods and services as well as the transportation of those goods and services. Left unchecked, these activities reinforce dependency on fossil fuels which emit the greenhouse gases that warm our planet, causing more severe and frequent hurricanes, droughts and other catastrophes—which in turn affect our health, safety, food and water. 

But it does not have to be so. In fact, trade agreements can be written to help reduce climate-changing emissions. By requiring trading partners to adhere to their commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement or to adopt some other form of binding climate standards, trade agreements can strengthen and enhance international cooperation on climate. The urgency and scale of the global climate crisis necessitates creative thinking and collaboration between countries, and trade agreements provide a place for that to happen.

The same is also true of other environmental concerns, like pollution, enforcement of environmental regulations, and corporate accountability. 

Since its inception, NAFTA has encouraged companies to send their polluting facilities to countries with less stringent environmental controlsnamely, to Mexico. As a result, communities there have suffered increased air, land, and water contamination, and the health impacts that accompany that pollution. 

Proponents of the USMCA have touted its environmental accomplishments. Although there are some modest improvements on environmental concerns over the original NAFTA, they are far from strong enough to rise to the level of urgency and scale required to address the global climate crisis and other international environmental problems. Sadly, the USMCA still provides pathways for corporations to continue to pollute the air, water and land in communities among the three countries without being held accountable. 

Environmentalists are not the only ones who care. The same Data for Progress poll we referenced above found that the majority of voters across the political spectrum support binding limits on pollution and the creation of an independent agency to enforce environmental conditions

NAFTA has had impacts that extend far beyond the U.S., Mexico, and Canada; it became the template for a score of other trade agreements that the U.S. signed with other countries in the past 25 years. The USMCA is likely going to be the new basis for future agreements, such as the one the administration is looking to sign with the U.K. post-Brexit. That is why it is so important to get the details right, now.

The original NAFTA certainly needed to be updated. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s rushed process curtailed negotiations and meaningful environmental improvements. Given its failure to address climate change and the most critical environmental issues of our time, the result of the USMCA is, tragically, an agreement that will not protect our communities, our water, our air, or our planet.

Future trade agreements must be stronger.

About the Authors

Amanda Maxwell

Director, Latin America Project

Dan West

Senior Advocate, Government Affairs

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