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Trade Trumps Climate Change Action At COP21

You’ve heard of off-Broadway, the smaller plays that don’t reach blockbuster audiences.  In Paris, we have a similar dynamic. While leaders inside the Paris Climate Conference do their trade-offs and political manoeuvring inside, a truly international group of activists are also gathering outside the official conference.

I have been attending these events: the Alternatiba People’s Climate Summit, the Zone d’Action pour le Climat and the Espaces Générations Climat outside the conference hall at Le Bourget, as well as countless other rallies and actions.


Photo: Guerilla billboards at la Place de la République

And through it, we are piecing together how trade agreements such as the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are getting in the way of climate action.

Trade agreements affect how we choose our energy; how much power our states have to make laws to protect the environment; how much input oil and mining companies have in determining our regulations; and whether the food we eat comes from a large-scale, pesticide-ridden factory farm or from a local family farm.

Trade agreements boost export-oriented farming, which is more economically efficient but troublesome in its use of pesticides, GMOs and fossil fuels to transport food to other markets. This is the case with North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), under which two-million Mexican farmers lost their livelihoods.

With CETA, and the TPP, we are sacrificing our supply management system, the very system that protects small family farms and enables food to be produced locally. We have seen, too, how trade agreements also enable companies to loosen regulations on the environment and on food and safety standards.  Under CETA, companies will meet to discuss regulations, before parliamentarians or the rest of us even see them.

Trade agreements are being used an instrument by big oil and big mining to stop our efforts to combat climate change. A recent report indicates how TTIP, the EU-US agreement and CETA will pave the way for polluters.


Photo: Sujata Dey at Le Bourget

In fact, if trade negotiators get in the way, we will choose our energy source based not on its effects on the environment but on the lowest price. According to leaked documents, in the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) being negotiated by the WTO, countries would not be allowed to discriminate between energy from fossil fuels and from alternative sources.

According to Public Services International, this could deny regulators the right to distinguish solar from nuclear, wind from coal, or geothermal from fracking by establishing the principle of technological neutrality.

And when our democracies try to act on climate, trade agreements get in the way. For over 20 years, we have been fighting ISDS, the investor state dispute settlement clause in Chapter 11 of NAFTA, which allows companies to sue states over their decisions. It is a favourite tool of energy and mining companies. When governments step in to protect the environment, whether it’s prohibiting a quarry in Nova Scotia or placing a moratorium on fracking in Quebec, environmental laws and actions are being challenged.

Canada is facing $6 billion in challenges under ISDS in NAFTA. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports that almost two-thirds of claims against Canada involved challenges to environmental protection or resources management that allegedly interfered with the profits of American corporations.

ISDS has been used to undermine local alternative energy programs and shifts to alternative energy. Ontario’s Clean Energy Act was successfully challenged under World Trade Organization rules and is now is being challenged under NAFTA. India’s attempts to create a local solar industry have also been challenged under ISDS provisions.

Worse yet, in negotiating CETA, Canada has torpedoed EU regulations that would have labelled tar sands as “dirty oil” because of its higher carbon dioxide emissions.

A new study by Gus Van Harten, a scholar at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, says that it doesn’t even take an ISDS challenge or the threat of an ISDS challenge to change policy. In interviews he held with Ontario policymakers, they reported that policy decisions get delayed or shelved because of potential lawsuits.


Photo: Ribbons with people’s hopes at le Zone d’Action sur le Climat

One lawyer reports that legislation is reviewed to see if it is compatible with trade agreements. He says “Chapter 11 is the one that really bites.” Another policy official said, “You don’t have to be even threatened before it (ISDS) is a factor in your decision-making process.”

So, what can we do? The Council of Canadians is championing a carve-out for ISDS in the Paris climate agreement.  Proposed by Van Harten, this solution would put into a climate agreement, or any future agreement, a safety clause that would allow international agreements to override ISDS provisions in 3,200 existing agreements. This was adopted as the position of the European Parliament at the Paris talks.

However, the road has been bumpy.  The European Council overrode the European Parliament, saying it wasn’t the UN’s role to deal with trade but the WTO’s.  Worse yet, leaked documents from the European Union reject ANY discussion of trade agreements at the climate talks.  And, the US Congress just passed a custom bill which would prohibit the mention of climate change in any trade agreement the U.S. is involved in.

This is bad news for people wanting to live on this planet later in this century.  Trade agreements do not deal with climate change, scarcely naming it and often getting in the way of action.  But international organizations refuse to curb trade agreement’s dangerous effects.

In the meantime, we can learn from our successes.  In 2015, November 4 and 5 mark the 10-year anniversary of the defeat of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.

Inspired by Latin American organizations, in 2016 many others all over the world will organize actions around those dates to oppose trade agreements.  In August, Montreal will be hosting the World Social Forum from August 9 to 14. This will be a good time to get together and plan our actions.  And we still have one year before COP22 in Morocco

Until then, there are plenty of opportunities to act.

Photos: Sujata Dey

Originally published in the Huffington Post.