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Obama’s Pacific Trade Deal Has Some Environmentalists Celebrating — and Others Crying Foul

The US and 11 other countries announced a tentative agreement on Monday for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but the deal has divided the environmental community.
October 5, 2015, 9:25pm
Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA

After five years of hard-wrought negotiations, protests, and political maneuvers, the United States and 11 other countries announced a tentative deal on Monday for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a comprehensive trade pact that will repeal 18,000 tariffs on US exports and impact an estimated 40 percent of global commerce.

While free trade advocates are applauding the end of negotiations, and President Barack Obama's administration is calling it the "most progressive trade bill in history," the deal has divided the environmental community.

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Carter Roberts, the president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), issued a statement Monday saying that "no trade agreement has gone so far to address growing pressures on natural resources like overexploited fish, wildlife, and forests," while his colleague, David McCauley, initially called the signing of the agreement "a very big deal."

Related: After Years of Wrangling, Pacific Rim Negotiators Reach Landmark Free Trade Deal

Many organizations have lauded the deal for addressing environmental concerns such as wildlife trafficking and overfishing. In previous agreements, such as NAFTA, such provisions were relegated to side agreements that were virtually unenforceable. But others believe that the new agreement repeats past missteps, and that the TPP is unlikely to stop environmental degradation in member countries.

The Sierra Club, for example, which worked extensively with WWF in calling for stronger environmental protections, does not see much reason to celebrate. "Any reporting about the environmental community cheering this agreement on is wildly overblown — a very small number of people have made positive statements about a small part of the text," said Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program. "A sizeable part of the environmental community remains very concerned."

Ben Breachy, the Sierra Club's senior policy advisor, wrote in September that the Obama had a legacy of "using empty environmental promises to sell trade bills," and emphasized that words on paper are rarely translated into differences on the ground.

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Negotiators drew skepticism from environmentalists when a draft of the environmental chapter, leaked in January 2014, appeared to show the United States backtracking on its public commitments on environmental protections that the Obama administration had touted as unprecedented and robust. In the final text, which has not yet been released to the public, member countries will be required to uphold their existing environmental laws, in addition to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the largest global treaty to protect wildlife, commonly referred to as Cites.

Related: Canada's Dairy Cartel Isn't Going Anywhere Thanks to Trade Deal

The TPP's environmental chapter would also require all member nations to combat wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, and illegal fishing, while phasing out subsidies to some fisheries and promoting more sustainable management practices. It also requires states to promote conservation of marine species, and protect iconic species, such as rhinos and elephants.

"We are very encouraged by the environmental chapter," said the Nature Conservancy's Glenn Prickett, who worked with the Obama administration to develop the agreement. "It gets 12 countries to agree to a wide range of conservation and environmental measures, and it includes new provisions that we hadn't seen before."

'Unless there is a ban on shark fin trading or a prohibition on illegal wildlife trading, these words on paper are meaningless.'

While the Sierra Club's Solomon does believe that the expanded scope of the TPP's environmental provisions is positive, she maintains that "the actual obligations will be very weak." The language, she explains, is not enough to deter illegal activity. "They say that governments must combat these activities, but unless there is a ban on shark fin trading or a prohibition on illegal wildlife trading, these words on paper are meaningless."

While the environmental chapter of the TPP would allow for market sanctions if member states fail to uphold their end of the deal, environmental groups point out that the United States, in more than 20 years of free trade agreements, has not brought a single case of environmental violations against a fellow signing country. David McCauley, the WWF's senior vice president for policy and government, agreed that implementation and enforcement were "fair concerns."

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Related: Is the US Ignoring Human Trafficking Abuses to Score Its TPP Trade Deal?

While the TPP's environmental chapter may result in some improved attention to ongoing concerns, many critics point to the investment chapter as another major barrier to real change. As part of this chapter, which is historically included in all free trade agreements, corporations operating in member states can sue governments if they are able to show that local environmental regulations have negatively affected their profits. The loophole led Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate, to tweet that "Wall Street and other big corporations have won again."

In a statement released on Monday, Sanders cited specific concerns that the TPP would allow corporations to challenge local environmental legislation in member countries that could negatively impacted their profit margins. Sanders promised to fight the TPP in the Senate.

While Congress anticipates a debate, environmental groups are looking on, eagerly awaiting the release of the final text. McCauley underscored that the WWF was "guardedly optimistic" about the development, adding that it would "have to see not only the final text, but also the provisions and actions associated with enforcement" before there was real reason to celebrate.

Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva