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The environmental business of our businesses is nobody's business but ours.

What’s NAFTA Really Protecting?

Back in the old days when the governments of North America were still negotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of the major concerns raised by opponents of the deal was its environmental impact. The primary concern was that companies in one country might be forced to bend their environmental standards in order to compete with businesses working in an area with less stringent rules.

At the time, in these pre-Kyoto accord days and greenhouse emission targets, it was primarily Canada and the United States concerned about whether Mexico’s standards would be so slovenly that they would be able to produce products far cheaper than corporations in either of the two biggest players.

Environmentalists were concerned that their uphill battles to regulate aspects of manufacturing for environmental reasons would be for nought as companies slashed budgets in these “non-essential” areas, leading to a return of the bad old days. In an effort to appease both the business communities and the environmentalists a side deal was struck allowing for the creation of the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC) to monitor how well environmental standards were being maintained.

Some things never change for business people. It doesn’t matter to them if they dump mercury in the English River system in Northern Ontario (as the Reed Paper mills did in the seventies), provided it ensures they can compete with polluters elsewhere. The same arguments are being use against the reduction of smokestack emissions and other poisonous wastes into the air we breathe, as a reason by the Bush government for not signing the Kyoto accord and the Harper government for reneging of Canada’s signature.

“We can’t compete,” they bleat like lost little sheep. “What about all those countries that don’t sign,” they say, “we can’t compete.” That argument is as spurious as it selfish. If a country outside of North America hinted toward not signing the Kyoto Protocol on the dotted line, then they should be threatened with huge tariffs so our borders could effectively be closed to them. Watch how quickly they’d sign on and fall into line.

Within North America the means for ensuring that all countries and companies are complying with the aims of the accord, and that everyone is suffering equally from having to pay for the one time retooling of their equipment exists. That’s what the CEC was created for in the first place, right?

In theory yes, but in practice it doesn’t seem to be the case. First of all there is the budget. With the money they receive, they are supposed to conduct investigations, hire staff, perform research, etc. etc. Activities that run in double digit millions per annum are still being covered by the same $9 million dollar budget they were given when they were established.

Although they were officially designated as an independent body, they are very much controlled by the three countries party to the treaty. Aside from the 40% reduction in real spending power they have had to endure because of inflation and zero increases in budgets, they are dependant on the respective governments for the data they use in formulating their reports.

As an example, The Globe and Mail cites the instance of the report on environmental impact of the concrete industry. The information they used to compile their comparison between the American and Canadian industries was supplied by the respective governments, who in turn had been supplied by the industry in question.

So the governments, and everybody involved, are counting on the industry people to step up and say, “Oh, by the way, we went way over the top last year and polluted like crazy – sorry about that”. Even the CEC realizes that this makes their findings a little suspect. So they added an addendum to the report saying that it doesn’t fall within there mandate to investigate the provenance or integrity of the information supplied for the report and findings should be judged accordingly.

In other words take this side of fries with lots of salt.

It’s conditions like this that have environmental specialist and University of Ottawa professor Stewart Elgie thinking the committee is next to useless because they are hamstrung by the governments on which they were founded to monitor. Instead of being a watchdog, he says, they have become a house pet — implying they work only to the limits their masters allow.

With only a month left on the job, The outgoing chair of the committee William Kennedy freely admits there are problems that make their job next to impossible. The primary reason for their inadequacy, he says, is they were created as window dressing to allay the fears of the public. Not because any of the governments actually supported the idea of their creation.

They dare not open their mouths on greenhouse gasses, because the Bush administration would block them from issuing the report because it doesn’t follow their line of thinking. It’s probably safe to say, given Steven Harper’s decision to ignore parliament ratifying the Kyoto accord, that the current administration in Canada would be of the same mindset.

The CEC already ran into hot water when they were able to commission a report on the dangers to Mexico of genetically modified corn. Although the report was written by some of the world’s leading agricultural scientists, the recommendation of a cautious approach to preserve wild strains of corn in Mexico was denounced by the Bush administration as fundamentally flawed and scientifically unsound.

The American food industry is anxiously trying to sell genetically altered products in markets all over the world, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with that reaction would it? With most of the world’s markets already resistant to the idea, a bunch of disagreeable scientists could only make matters worse by clouding the issue with facts that seem to offer support for their position.

NAFTA was designed to allow the businesses and people of all three countries freer and greater access to each other’s markets. In theory this was supposed to allow the manufacturing and resource industries of each country to flourish, but in practice has fallen far short of that objective.

Never has it been harder for people from Mexico and Canada to cross the border into the United States, especially if they are looking for employment. Canada and America have been locked in a bitter dispute over duty that the Americans have been collecting on softwood lumber being sold by Canadian companies in the U.S. for close to five years now.

Instead of the intended result of countries thinking in terms of one big happy business community working together to strengthen the economy of North America as a whole, more then ten years after the signing of the pact everybody is still as protectionist as before. Is it any wonder that their environmental watchdog pretty much reflects that outlook?

It just wouldn’t do, now would it, for one country to admit that they are actually polluting more then their counterparts in another country, or that one of their businesses practice’s could be detrimental to another county’s welfare. The environmental business of our businesses is nobody’s business. But ours has become the official environmental policy of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In the meantime, rather than studying the impact of 145,100 tonnes (metric) of cancer causing materials into the atmosphere on the health of children, the CEC concentrates on providing reports that their sponsoring governments can really support: energy-efficient buildings. According to Mr. Kennedy, there’s a lot of support for it and that the agency has got a real winner with it.

If that’s the winner, who’s the loser?

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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