The Guardian | 30 November 2015
The secretive trade agreements that could scupper climate change action
While all the focus and hope for tackling climate change is on COP 21 in Paris, starting today, secretive global trade deals are already negating any commitments that might be made at the summit.
The texts from the various trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), make it clear that they will increase production, trade and consumption of fossil fuels.
What we know of the EU trade deals with Canada (Ceta – Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) and the US (TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) points to significant increases in European fossil fuel imports from North America, and a restriction of the policy space to promote low-carbon economies and renewables.
Trade deals are particularly bad news when it comes to food and climate change. The global food system is already responsible for around half of global greenhouse gas emissions. The World Bank is projecting that emissions from agriculture and food could account for as much as 70% (pdf) of total allowable emissions to keep below a 2C temperature rise by 2050, if governments continue to ignore the problem.
If we are going to deal with climate change, we have to overhaul the global food system. But a new generation of trade deals will amplify emissions from the food system.
Trade deals and emissions
At a most basic level, trade deals are designed to open up markets and increase trade of the highest emitting foods – meat and dairy. For example, TPP will boost US pork and beef exports to Asia and US dairy exports to Canada. TTIP is expected to open Europe’s border to more US beef. Australia’s dairy exports to China, up 300% in the past eight years, are a big reason why the two countries just signed a trade pact. The flow of cheap imports resulting from these deals will play a part in increasing global consumption of meats by 76% by 2050.
Trade agreements also favour food production from intensive farms and large-scale plantations. When China joined the World Trade Organisation and opened its market to soybean imports the result was a dramatic expansion of soybean plantations in the forests and savannahs of the southern cone of Latin America and a corresponding rise in intensive pig production in China, fed on the imported beans.
New trade deals will likely do the same for maize imports. Meanwhile, the EU economic partnerships with Africa threaten to undercut traditional backyard poultry, perhaps the lowest emitting source of meat on the planet, with frozen cuts of industrial chicken from Europe, which are high up on the emissions scale. Obama has just retaliated against attempts by South Africa to protect its own local poultry industry.
Some of the most serious impacts from trade deals result not so much from the immediate lifting of trade restrictions but the creation of new advantages for foreign investors that lead to longer term changes in what and how people eat.
Once Mexico began implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), investment from foreign food companies and retailers flooded in, bringing with it a drastic increase in the consumption of processed foods that are high on the emissions scale, partly because of all the packaging but mainly because these foods are made with high emissions, imported ingredients, such as powdered milk and palm oil.
The trade deals also contain measures that allow food companies to challenge popular initiatives that are good for the climate but impinge on their profits. “Buy local” programmes, with their obvious benefits to fighting climate change, are generally considered discriminatory and trade distorting under free trade doctrine. The TTIP, for instance, may forbid initiatives to support the use of local foods in public services like schools and hospitals.
The same is true of initiatives to support “green” purchasing or programmes to require purchasing from small- and medium-sized enterprises in the name of mitigating climate change. Both of these types of effort can be contested by companies as discriminatory, under the investor-state dispute mechanisms contained in many trade agreements.
While we can say that agriculture has been getting more attention in climate change discussions over the past two years, this has yet to result in a comprehensive assessment of the role of our food systems, much less in meaningful government action. What governments have presented so far is sparse and heavily dominated by the industry’s most polluting companies, as can be seen in the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, a group dominated by the fertiliser lobby.
In trade agreements, where the real binding commitments are made and subjected to corporate-led dispute settlement, governments are moving in the opposite direction and not even acknowledging the mismatch between their trade and climate agendas.