How the TPP could make or break environmental protection

A new free-trade agreement being brokered may pose a threat to Australia’s sovereignty and environment, or secure an international win for endangered species.

THIS WEEKEND AUSTRALIA will be hosting the next round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) trade negotiations with three days of talks due to begin on Saturday 25th October. Another boring and anonymous meeting of bureaucrats that would appear irrelevant to our daily lives you may think, dragging on for years as these things tend to do. But this one is different, both for the immense dangers it could pose for the global environment, but also for the opportunities it represents to actually change the way in which such agreements treat the environment.

The TPP would be the largest regional trade agreement in the world, involving Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

These countries are responsible for a third of the world’s threatened species, a quarter of the global seafood catch, and 40 per cent of global GDP. Huge and very serious negative implications abound for the environment at every level, including massive wildlife trade and illegal logging, overfishing, shark finning, perverse fishing subsidies, pirate fishing, chemical pollution, threats to the ozone layer and climate change, to name but a few of the issues at stake.

The immense biological diversity of the Pacific region, on which all human life depends, will be at high risk if nations sign up to a trade agreement that ignores the environment. The TPP can either make things far worse or put in place a range of measures to help mitigate any negative environmental consequences, and vastly improve the way that we are able to enforce environmental laws. Ordinary Australians stand to gain or lose a great deal.

Although there is a strong nexus between trade and impacts on the regional and global environment, it is sadly the case that trade agreements are normally finalised without binding and enforceable obligations to protect the environment. This is despite the fact it’s commonly understood that by increasing trade through tariff liberalisation (which is what the TPP plans to do), illicit trade in a wide variety of products also increases, including wildlife and wildlife products. A badly negotiated text for example will simply add to the growing global wildlife crime statistics, a criminal activity worth many tens of billions of dollars a year.


But the TPP could be different. For the first time in the murky world of international trade agreements, the TPP will include a separate and stand-alone environment chapter, championed by the United States.

There was hope on the horizon, but a WikiLeaks released draft text of the TPP Environment Chapter in early 2014, prompted WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange to state, “Today’s WikiLeaks release shows that the public sweetener in the TPP is just media sugar water. The fabled TPP environmental chapter turns out to be a toothless public relations exercise with no enforcement mechanism.”

In her assessment of the leaked draft, Jane Kelsey, Professor of Law at Auckland University, noted, “Instead of a 21st Century standard of protection, the leaked text shows that the obligations are weak and compliance with them is unenforceable. Contrast that to other chapters that subordinate the environment, natural resources and indigenous rights to commercial objectives and business interests. The corporate agenda wins both ways.”

Disturbingly, according to the WikiLeaks information, Australia had opposed most of the progressive environmental provisions in the TPP. Therefore, in a recent letter to the Coalition Government, five major international non-government organisations based in Australia, including my own organisation, sought reassurances about the Government’s attitude to strong environmental provisions. We asked that Trade Minister Andrew Robb support the United States in seeking agreement to prohibit wildlife trade that violates foreign law; prohibit subsidies that contribute to overfishing or overcapacity; ensure that the environment chapter is fully enforceable through dispute settlement procedures; and ensure that multilateral environment agreements are also enforceable through the TPP.

Those same international conservation organisations had met mid-year in Sydney with the visiting US Trade Representative, Ambassador Froman and the US Consul General. The Ambassador’s refreshing environmental outlook and hopes for the TPP appeared a little at odds with that of Australia, with the US making it clear it was not going to sign a TPP that did not contain enforceable dispute settlement measures.

The Australian Trade Minister’s response to the joint NGO letter was generally evasive, referring to “Australia’s already high environmental standards and rigorous protection regimes”, conveniently ignoring the fact that the Commonwealth was still proceeding to hand over all its national and some international environmental responsibilities to the states and territories. The Places You Love conservation alliance is still fighting this policy with much vigor. Subsequent to this correspondence we have been unable to gain an audience with the Minister, and even a face to face with his advisers has been deemed by the Minister’s office not to be worth the effort, although we continue to try.

The other great danger in the current TPP negotiations is the proposal to allow ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ that directly threatens the sovereign power of a member state. Professor Kelsey states that, “The most egregious threat the environment is in the investment chapter, in particular the prior consent by all countries except Australia to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). The vast majority of investment arbitrations under similar agreements involve natural resources, especially mining, and have resulted in billions of dollars of damages against governments for measures designed to protect the environment from harm caused by foreign corporations.”

It seems now though that Australia will back the US on ISDS proposals.

The next few days will tell whether we are facing famine or feast on the environmental regulation and enforcement front, although with the usual secrecy that surrounds such talks, it may be very difficult to determine. Australia must not sell its environmental soul for sake of relaxing an extra trade barrier or two, or to let global corporations rule the roost. Australians and their unique environment are worth more than that.

Michael Kennedy is director of Humane Society International.

Originally Published at

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