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Greenwashing the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Fossil Fuels, the Environment, and Climate Change
The Santa Clara Journal of International Law (2016)
  • Matthew Rimmer
There has been much controversy over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a plurilateral trade agreement involving a dozen nations from throughout the Pacific Rim – and its impact upon the environment, biodiversity, and climate change.

The secretive treaty negotiations involve Australia and New Zealand; countries from South East Asia such as Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan; the South American nations of Peru and Chile; and the members of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada, Mexico and the United States. There was an agreement reached between the parties in October 2015. The participants asserted: ‘We expect this historic agreement to promote economic growth, support higher-paying jobs; enhance innovation, productivity and competitiveness; raise living standards; reduce poverty in our countries; and to promote transparency, good governance, and strong labor and environmental protections.’ The final texts of the agreement were published in November 2015.

There has been discussion as to whether other countries – such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea – will join the deal. There has been much debate about the impact of this proposed treaty upon intellectual property, the environment, biodiversity and climate change. There have been similar concerns about the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a proposed trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.

In 2011, the United States Trade Representative developed a Green Paper on trade, conservation, and the environment in the context of the TPP. In its rhetoric, the United States Trade Representative has maintained that it has been pushing for strong, enforceable environmental standards in the TPP. In a key statement in 2014, the United States Trade Representative Mike Froman insisted: ‘The United States’ position on the environment in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations is this: environmental stewardship is a core American value, and we will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement.’ The United States Trade Representative maintained: ‘Our proposals in the TPP are centered around the enforcement of environmental laws, including those implementing multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) in TPP partner countries, and also around trailblazing, first-ever conservation proposals that will raise standards across the region’. Moreover, the United States Trade Representative asserted: ‘Furthermore, our proposals would enhance international cooperation and create new opportunities for public participation in environmental governance and enforcement.’

The United States Trade Representative has provided this public outline of the Environment Chapter of the TPP:
A meaningful outcome on environment will ensure that the agreement appropriately addresses important trade and environment challenges and enhances the mutual supportiveness of trade and environment. The Trans-Pacific Partnership countries share the view that the environment text should include effective provisions on trade-related issues that would help to reinforce environmental protection and are discussing an effective institutional arrangement to oversee implementation and a specific cooperation framework for addressing capacity building needs. They also are discussing proposals on new issues, such as marine fisheries and other conservation issues, biodiversity, invasive alien species, climate change, and environmental goods and services.

Mark Linscott, an assistant Trade Representative testified: ‘An environment chapter in the TPP should strengthen country commitments to enforce their environmental laws and regulations, including in areas related to ocean and fisheries governance, through the effective enforcement obligation subject to dispute settlement.’ Inside US Trade has commented: ‘While not initially expected to be among the most difficult areas, the environment chapter has emerged as a formidable challenge, partly due to disagreement over the United States proposal to make environmental obligations binding under the TPP dispute settlement mechanism’.
Joshua Meltzer from the Brookings Institute contended that the trade agreement could be a boon for the protection of the environment in the Pacific Rim:

Whether it is depleting fisheries, declining biodiversity or reduced space in the atmosphere for Greenhouse Gas emissions, the underlying issue is resource scarcity. And in a world where an additional 3 billion people are expected to enter the middle class over the next 15 years, countries need to find new and creative ways to cooperate in order to satisfy the legitimate needs of their population for growth and opportunity while using resources in a manner that is sustainable for current and future generations. The TPP parties already represent a diverse range of developed and developing countries. Should the TPP become a free trade agreement of the Asia-Pacific region, it will include the main developed and developing countries and will be a strong basis for building a global consensus on these trade and environmental issues.

The TPP has been promoted by its proponents as a boon to the environment. The United States Trade Representative has maintained that the TPP will protect the environment: ‘The United States’ position on the environment in the TPP negotiations is this: environmental stewardship is a core American value, and we will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement.’ The United States Trade Representative discussed ‘Trade for a Greener World’ on World Environment Day.
Andrew Robb, at the time the Australian Trade and Investment Minister, vowed that the TPP will contain safeguards for the protection of the environment.

In November 2015, after the release of the TPP text, Rohan Patel, the Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, sought to defend the environmental credentials of the TPP. He contended that the deal had been supported by the Nature Conservancy, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, the World Wildlife Fund, and World Animal Protection.

The United States Congress, though, has been conflicted by the United States Trade Representative’s arguments about the TPP and the environment. In 2012, members of the United States Congress - including Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and John Kerry (D-MA) – wrote a letter, arguing that the trade agreement needs to provide strong protection for the environment: ‘We believe that a '21st century agreement' must have an environment chapter that guarantees ongoing sustainable trade and creates jobs, and this is what American businesses and consumers want and expect also.’ The group stressed that ‘A binding and enforceable TPP environment chapter that stands up for American interests is critical to our support of the TPP’. The Congressional leaders maintained: ‘We believe the 2007 bipartisan congressional consensus on environmental provisions included in recent trade agreements should serve as the framework for the environment chapter of the TPP.’

In 2013, senior members of the Democratic leadership expressed their opposition to granting President Barack Obama a fast-track authority in respect of the TPP House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said: ‘No on fast-track – Camp-Baucus – out of the question.’ Senator Majority leader Harry Reid commented: ‘I’m against Fast-Track: Everyone would be well-advised to push this right now.’ Senator Elizabeth Warren has been particularly critical of the process and the substance of the negotiations in the TPP:

From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the deal in the upcoming trade talks. So the question is, Why are the trade talks secret? You’ll love this answer. Boy, the things you learn on Capitol Hill. I actually have had supporters of the deal say to me ‘They have to be secret, because if the American people knew what was actually in them, they would be opposed. Think about that. Real people, people whose jobs are at stake, small-business owners who don’t want to compete with overseas companies that dump their waste in rivers and hire workers for a dollar a day—those people, people without an army of lobbyists—they would be opposed. I believe if people across this country would be opposed to a particular trade agreement, then maybe that trade agreement should not happen.

The Finance Committee in the United States Congress deliberated over the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in 2014. The new chair Ron Wyden has argued that there needs to be greater transparency in trade. Nonetheless, he has mooted the possibility of a ‘smart-track’ to reconcile the competing demands of the Obama Administration, and United States Congress. Wyden insisted: ‘The new breed of trade challenges spawned over the last generation must be addressed in imaginative new policies and locked into enforceable, ambitious, job-generating trade agreements.’ He emphasized that such agreements ‘must reflect the need for a free and open Internet, strong labor rights and environmental protections.’

Elder Democrat Sander Levin warned that the TPP failed to provide proper protection for the environment:
The TPP parties are considering a different structure to protect the environment than the one adopted in the May 10 Agreement, which directly incorporated seven multilateral environmental agreements into the text of past trade agreements. While the form is less important than the substance, the TPP must provide an overall level of environmental protection that upholds and builds upon the May 10 standard, including fully enforceable obligations. But many of our trading partners are actively seeking to weaken the text to the point of falling short of that standard, including on key issues like conservation.

Nonetheless, 2015, President Barack Obama was able to secure the overall support of the United States Congress for his ‘fast-track’ authority. This was made possible by the Republicans and dissident Democrats. Notably, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden switched sides, and was transformed from a critic of the TPP to an apologist for the TPP.

For their part, green political parties and civil society organisations have been concerned about the secretive nature of the negotiations; and the substantive implications of the treaty for the environment. Environmental groups and climate advocates have been sceptical of the environmental claims made by the White House for the TPP. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Australian Greens and the Green Party of Canada have released a joint declaration on the TPP observing: ‘More than just another trade agreement, the TPP provisions could hinder access to safe, affordable medicines, weaken local content rules for media, stifle high-tech innovation, and even restrict the ability of future governments to legislate for the good of public health and the environment’. In the United States, civil society groups such as the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, WWF, the Friends of the Earth, the Rainforest Action Network and have raised concerns about the TPP and the environment. Allison Chin, President of the Sierra Club, complained about the lack of transparency, due process, and public participation in the TPP talks: ‘This is a stealth affront to the principles of our democracy.’ Maude Barlow’s The Council of Canadians has also been concerned about the TPP and environmental justice. New Zealand Sustainability Council executive director Simon Terry said the agreement showed ‘minimal real gains for nature’. A number of organisations have joined a grand coalition of civil society organisations, which are opposed to the grant of a fast-track.

On the 15th January 2013, WikiLeaks released the draft Environment Chapter of the TPP - along with a report by the Chairs of the Environmental Working Group. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' publisher, stated: ‘Today's WikiLeaks release shows that the public sweetener in the TPP is just media sugar water.’ He observed: ‘The fabled TPP environmental chapter turns out to be a toothless public relations exercise with no enforcement mechanism.’ This article provides a critical examination of the draft Environment Chapter of the TPP. The overall argument of the article is that the Environment Chapter of the TPP is an exercise in greenwashing – it is a public relations exercise by the United States Trade Representative, rather than a substantive regime for the protection of the environment in the Pacific Rim.

Greenwashing has long been a problem in commerce, in which companies making misleading and deceptive claims about the environment. In his 2012 book, Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams, Guy Pearse considers the rise of green marketing and greenwashing. Government greenwashing is also a significant issue. In his book Storms of My Grandchildren, the climate scientist James Hansen raises his concerns about government greenwashing. Such a problem is apparent with the TPP – in which there was a gap between the assertions of the United States Government, and the reality of the agreement.

This article contends that the TPP fails to meet the expectations created by President Barack Obama, the White House, and the United States Trade Representative about the environmental value of the agreement. First, this piece considers the relationship of the TPP to multilateral environmental treaties. Second, it explores whether the provisions in respect of the environment are enforceable. Third, this article examines the treatment of trade and biodiversity in the TPP. Fourth, this study considers the question of marine capture fisheries. Fifth, there is an evaluation of the cursory text in the TPP on conservation. Sixth, the article considers trade in environmental services under the TPP. Seventh, this article highlights the tensions between the TPP and substantive international climate action. It is submitted that the TPP undermines effective and meaningful government action and regulation in respect of climate change. The conclusion also highlights that a number of other chapters of the TPP will impact upon the protection of the environment – including the Investment Chapter, the Intellectual Property Chapter, the Technical Barriers to Trade Chapter, and the text on public procurement.
  • Trans-Pacific Partnership,
  • Environment,
  • Climate Change,
  • Intellectual Property,
  • Biodiversity
Publication Date
May 24, 2016
Citation Information
Matthew Rimmer, ‘Greenwashing the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Fossil Fuels, the Environment, and Climate Change’ (2016) 14 (2) Santa Clara Journal of International Law 488-542.