Environmental conference reveals free-trade agreement as constraint on environmental legislation

A report at a conference examining the effect of free trade on North America's environment has revealed the bloc as “a constraint on the ability of countries to adopt higher standards to protect human health and the environment”.

The warning was voiced in one of 14 research papers on the North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA) impact on the environment of its three members, presented at the symposium of the organisation’s environmental wing, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (NACEC).

Some 300 delegates from the US, Canadian and Mexican Governments, environmental groups and industry, gathered at the World Bank in Washington D.C. between 11 and 12 October, heard the revelation in a report on transboundary hazardous waste shipments since NAFTA’s creation in 1994. “The NAFTA trade rules have also been identified as a constraint on the ability of countries to adopt higher standards to protect human health and the environment,” read the document compiled by the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, Texas Center for Policy Studies and the Mexican organisation, La Neta: Proyecto Emisiones Espacio Virtual.

Reports at the conference, the first since NAFTA and NACEC’s creation, also revealed that, as a result of the creation of the free-trade bloc, there had been significant increases in the transportation of hazardous wastes and in Mexican deforestation .

Delegates heard in the report The Generation and Management of Transboundary Hazardous Waste Shipments between Canada, Mexico and the United States that since NAFTA there have been increased exports of hazardous wastes to border areas of Ontario and Quebec, with a significant increase in disposal capacity in the two Canadian provinces, blamed on “less stringent standards”. There was no increase in hazardous waste imports for final disposal into Mexico because of a national ban on the practice, although US companies investing in Mexican waste companies are leading to a growth in the domestic waste market, the report said.

On the theme of whether or not NAFTA’s increased trade has contributed to pressure on natural resources, a view traditionally held by environmentalists, conclusive evidence was presented that forests in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico, had been degraded since the agreement. Assessing the Environmental Effects of NAFTA on the Forestry Sector in Mexico by the Texas Center for Policy Studies and Mexican human rights organisation, Comisión de Solidaridad y Defensa a los Derechos Humanos, concluded that the elimination of tariffs under NAFTA has led to pressure on Mexico to keep timber prices low to compete with cheaper imports from north of the border. This has lead to increased logging and manufacturers opposing environmental regulations. NGOs and local people want public audits of forestry operations and studies to assess environmental damage and to provide the basis for a land management programme.

It was also revealed that NAFTA restricts Mexico from challenging the legality of logging operations bankrolled by other nations, posing a “significant threat to Mexico’s ability to adequately regulate forestry or forest product operations of companies from Canada or the United States”.

There had also been worries that “given Mexico’s role as a potential ‘pollution haven’,” with less environmental control than the US and Canada, companies from the two countries would exploit this. Research revealed, however, that “there has not been a shift of the most polluting industry towards Mexico”, and that NAFTA had in fact served “to open up new markets for environmental technology in the country”.

The 14 research papers presented at the symposium reported other important findings on NAFTA’s impacts on the environments of its three members.

A research paper on air pollution revealed that since NAFTA there have been significant increases in sulphur dioxide emissions in the US and Mexico and also in US carbon monoxide emissions, with the biggest polluting industries in the continent found to be for US base metals and Mexican petroleum. NAFTA’s general equilibrium impact was credited for “a reduction of toxic pollution in the Canadian chemical sector”.

One of the strongest links between international trade and environmental impacts was revealed to be in the transport sector, where data shows an absolute increase in truck transport through concentrated border crossings. The related report says that any plans to upgrade or construct highways has been focused on accommodating traffic and “a broad-based, comparative assessment of the environmental costs, impacts and the benefits of the range of transport alternatives is rare”. The consideration of impacts of increased traffic flow on local communities was found to be “rarer still”.

Wastewater treatment was identified as one area where the implementation of NAFTA has not been found to have altered regulation or quality.

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