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The TPP is Big Business’ Latest Effort To Buy Its Way Out of Protecting The Environment

In its latest under-reported truth spill, Wikileaks released a recent draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership's (TPP) Environment chapter. We dove into the details.

by Christopher Malmo
Jan 20 2014, 8:37pm

A screenshot of the Wikileaks TPP docs.

In its latest under-reported truth spill, Wikileaks released a recent draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership's (TPP) Environment chapter. The TPP is a 12-country trade agreement under secret negotiation led by the US that I covered for VICE Canada last week, thanks to its noxious effects on the internet. The TPP has also been widely criticized for its potential to increase inequality by depressing wages, making essential medicines more expensive for developing countries, and allowing corporations to sue states for regulations they don't like, all as they continue to hurt the environment. But don't worry, because all this comes in exchange for a projected 0.13% boost to our sweet, sweet GDP by 2025. Yes, that's a rounding error, but the spice must flow.

As we've mentioned before, the draft text of the agreement has so far been unavailable to most elected politicians, but 500 "cleared stakeholders" from America's largest companies and lobby groups do get to join the party and offer their suggestions on how the TPP can better increase their bottom lines trade opportunities. Many of the corporations who enjoy privileged access to classified negotiating texts and to TPP overlord Michael Froman's office happen to be major campaign donors to Senators and Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Depending on who you ask, this money trail is either a gosh-darned coincidence or a sign of a broken system.

The TPP text includes binding enforcement measures for countries that don't fall in line with harsh US-influenced copyright rules. It would erode privacy rights and normalize outsized penalties for people accused of piracy. Regular people can expect more creeping criminalization and monitoring of their everyday lives. By contrast, the whole Environment chapter has no teeth. Full of words and phrases like "may," "appropriate," and "shall make best efforts," it reads like Exxon's corporate social responsibility handbook. Corporate interests are doing their best to ensure the TPP adds zero incentive for countries to punish or discourage environmental "misconduct."

If we take the TPP as it's written, climate change and the lawless pillaging of Pacific fish stocks are considerably less important than cracking down on anyone caught sharing an mp3 of Flo Rida's latest club banger. With big business at the helm, this insanity is a feature of the secret treaty process, not a bug.

If this were 2002, we might expect upstanding global citizen Canada to oppose evil American proposals to greedily destroy the environment for the sake of profits. This wouldn't seem like a big departure from the script so far, given that Canada was sensibly pushing back against some of the harsh copyright rules and enforcement mechanisms Uncle Sam is hoping to include in the agreement. Spoiler alert: 12 years have passed, and things have gotten a lot less eco-friendly up north.

Thanks to Wikileaks' documents, it's evident that a Bush-era agreement is constraining the Americans from being the badass environmental villain even if they wanted to. The May 2007 agreement was a deal between George W. Bush and a Democratic Congress to always negotiate for binding environmental protections in future trade agreements. This means that the Americans are going it alone in pushing for anything that has a remote chance of protecting the environment. They're not really trying too hard though, and as they retreat to even weaker language, commentators have called the whole chapter a PR greenwashing exercise.

This leaves the door open for the new Canada (who now wins fossil awards for throwing a wrench into international climate change negotiations) to continue kicking ass in the only war we're currently winning—the war on the environment.

Canadians reacted with little surprise when the Harper government landed its latest blow in its eight year smackdown of inconvenient science and facts. In this case, the government ordered the closure of "seven [out] of the 11 of Canada's world-renowned Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries, citing a consolidation and digitizing effort as the reason." Observers were appalled to discover that most of the libraries' contents were being unceremoniously thrown out into dumpsters, resulting in a massive loss of data and knowledge. The government countered that taxpayers would now save around $500,000 a year.

At the same time, the government moved quietly to kick the DFO while it's down by transferring its responsibility to protect fish and their habitat along pipeline routes to the much more pro-industry National Energy Board. What's the concern here? After a public input process where the majority of people sounded off against the project, the Board recently ignored the rabble and recommended that Cabinet approve the Northern Gateway Pipeline. You can guess how adept they'll be at listening to fish.

The list of examples like these is already too long to print and growing by the day, and it's representative of the context in which Canadian negotiators are working on the TPP. In all likelihood, they have been tasked thusly: don't accept any binding environmental rules in this agreement.

Canada is in very good (bad?) company in this regard; every country except the US is rejecting even the weakest accountability for environmental protection in the TPP. Even then, according to Wikileaks, "with the exception of fisheries, trade in 'environmental' goods and the disputed inclusion of other multilateral agreements, the Chapter appears to function as a public relations exercise."

Here's a picture of the kind of

hard-nosed language the TPP has in mind for protecting the environment:

"Where a submission [from the public or another country] asserts that a Party [country] is failing to effectively enforce its environmental laws and following the provision of the written response by that Party, any other Party may request that the Committee discuss that submission and written response with a view to further understanding the matter raised in the submission and, as appropriate, to consider whether the matter could benefit from cooperative activities."

Photo via.

If "considering whether the matter could benefit from cooperative activities" doesn't sound to you like a strong enough deterrent to recklessly polluting our one and only home planet, congratulations! You're probably someone who just might give a shit about protecting endangered species, banning cruel shark finning, ensuring aboriginal harvesting rights, and punishing trade-seeking violations of existing environmental treaties. By most accounts, you are not the Canadian government, who is apparently okay with this gutless language.

Let's take a look at another juicy morsel of the leak that illustrates the half-hearted, superficial nature of the TPP's environment chapter:

"...where private sector entities or non-governmental organizations develop voluntary mechanisms for the promotion of products based on their environmental qualities, each Party should encourage those entities and organizations to develop such mechanisms that among other things:

a. are truthful, not misleading and take into account scientific and technical information;

b. where applicable and available, are based on relevant international standards, recommendations or guidelines, and best practices;

c. promote competition and innovation; and

d. do not treat a product less favorably on the basis of origin."

The quote above is about encouraging science-based standards to inform people about the environmental merits of products they buy. But when we unpack the text, it's clear to see that conditions a) and d) cannot reasonably coexist with each other for a great many finished products. If country A sets lower environmental and labour standards than country B, the TPP is asking people not to care about the way a product is made in either country. Without binding enforcement for trade partners to hold each other to account, this is just asking for a good old race to the bottom to attract investment.

Let's take the example of a low-carbon fuel standard, something very near and dear to the Canadian government's heart. If tar sands oil causes three to five times as many greenhouse gas emissions during its production as conventional oil, but both kinds can be refined and put in your gas tank, do you have a right to know about the origins of the oil? Under the TPP, the Harper government could argue that consumers shouldn't be able to make an informed choice, even though the "scientific and technical information" says the oils are vastly different. Of course, like every other part of the chapter, this section is voluntary and non-binding, so at least the idiocy is contained.

Another big threat to the environment lurks in this deal. The investor-state provisions elsewhere in the TPP have already been shown to let corporations sue countries over regulations they don't like or that threaten a vague definition of future profits. Apart from chilling future regulation, this sucks because Canada has already paid out hundreds of millions in legal fees and settlements awarded from a similar provision of NAFTA.The comically tarnished silver lining here is that we're less likely to face these quasi-legal battles in the future thanks to the government's weakening of environmental protections over the last eight years. Canadian mining companies, already generously helping themselves to lawsuits against Latin American countries over regulations, will probably be pretty thrilled about it all, though.

So, what's the bottom line of all this? The PR-driven farce exposed by Wikileaks shows that the TPP won't lead to improvements in environmental protection.Given its self-description as a 21st-century deal, 21st-century voters can't accept aspirational platitudes and token gestures. With the global environmental negotiation process already stalled and weakened, the TPP's toothless lip service strengthens the hand of do-nothing administrations to blame everyone else for a worsening environmental crisis.

After having seen two leaked chapters, it's no wonder that so much secrecy surrounds the TPP: unelected negotiators and lobbyists are barely even trying to balance out its rapacious corporate agenda with the public interest.

Why would any normally sensible national leader sign their citizens up for this multinational experiment in corporatocracy? The public-facing answer, as always, is that we need to because of "today's tough economic reality." Governments around the globe play this tired old tune to justify a litany of other unpopular policies. With the TPP, the Fortune 500 seem to be ensuring that the music will play for a few more decades before a much tougher ecological reality leaves our grandchildren wishing that 10% unemployment was their largest concern.

If this all sounds idealist, keep in mind that nobody expects a trade deal to single handedly solve pressing environmental issues. But at the moment the TPP is nothing more than proof of the old adage: if you can't be part of the solution, there's good money to be made being part of the problem.

Somewhere on a ranch in Texas, George W. Bush is laughing to the point of tears.

Chris Malmo is a donor relations coordinator at OpenMedia.