December 11, 2002
It’s NAFTA’s 10th anniversary and what a great decade for the environment it’s been. Sulphur dioxide emissions are down, ground level ozone levels are down, inhalable airborne particle levels are down and energy efficiency is up. Our air is clearer, our water is cleaner and, as a by-product, we’re healthier, too.
Acid rain was once a hot-button issue. No more. With harmful emissions slashed, formerly threatened lakes have been making a comeback, Environment Canada data shows. Only 9% of lakes continue to decline, a consequence of past acidifying pollution. Fifty per cent of lakes are now classed as stable and 41% show improvement.
The Great Lakes have also come back impressively, according to The Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy 2001. Mercury pollution is down, PCBs are down, dioxins and furans are down, HCBs are down, alkyl-lead is down. As a result, the environment of the Great Lakes is off the front pages.
When the NAFTA treaty was signed, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and labour unions predicted a decline in environmental standards. Industry would blackmail governments into ratcheting environmental standards downward, this environmental-union coalition claimed. The result would be a “race to the bottom” in which industries gravitated to the jurisdictions with the laxest regulations. Harmonization of standards – a goal of trade treaties – would inevitably lead to lower standards and environmental ruin, they believed.
Under different circumstances, it might have worked out that way. Had U.S. environmental standards been lower than those of Canada and Mexico, the United States might well have bullied its NAFTA partners into playing by weak rules.
But CELA and the unions didn’t realize that U.S. standards are, in almost all cases, superior to those of Canada, and that the United States was not about to lower its standards to those of Canada or Mexico. Instead, Canada and Mexico generally found themselves harmonizing their standards upwards, to meet those of the United States. Citizens in Canada and Mexico were the better for it.
Before NAFTA and its predecessor, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, Canada-U.S. relations were marked by major environmental controversies. Many Canadians feared the wholesale export to the United States of our natural resources: The sale of our oil and gas, of our water, and of our forests – giveaways, they were called – inflamed public opinion.
With the passage of NAFTA, these concerns have not only been calmed, they have been turned on their heads. Because Canadians trust deal-making between businessmen more than deal-making between politicians, we no longer fear giveaways. Today, no one talks of the United States taking too much of our oil and gas, and the chief cries heard over lumber exports – which are still political and largely outside NAFTA’s beneficial influence – blame the U.S. government for taking too little of our wood. As for large-scale water exports – a wonky, uneconomic proposition that could only proceed with major subsidies from Canadian governments – nary a word is now heard in serious circles. Big water diversions may have seemed likely in the former era of closed economies run by Big Government, but in a more liberal, free-trade world, they have become economically unthinkable.
In the entire decade since NAFTA was passed, no major NAFTA-related environmental issue has arisen between Canada and the United States. The only environmental issues warranting press coverage – mini dust-ups with obscure names like Metalclad and Methanex – loom large in the anti-globalization movement but would make few environmentalists’ lists of Top 10 concerns. NAFTA-spawned institutions did, however, generate a wealth of information comparing the environmental performance of Canadian provinces and Canadian industries to those south of the border, thus shedding light on the distance Canada must go to catch up with the United States, and serving to keep our polluters’ feet to the fire.
NAFTA alone can’t be credited with all these environmental accomplishments. Thanks to other trade liberalizations, both before and after NAFTA, the need to compete has forced industries to use resources ever more efficiently, leading to the transformation we’ve seen away from the resource sector and toward the information and knowledge economy. That transformation will get a further boost on NAFTA’s 10th anniversary, when more free-market reforms take effect.
Much, much more needs to be done, however. The areas that remain in the grip of government – our fisheries, our forests, our farmlands, our power utilities and our water works among them – remain paragons of environmental mismanagement. Fortunately, other trade treaties – the Free Trade Area of the Americas, to incorporate South and Central America, and the General Agreement on Trade in Services – are in the works. With their passage, we can look forward to Canadian drinking water becoming as safe to drink as water in the United States, for example, and to meaningful nuclear reactor safety standards.
In the meantime, we can count our blessings. The Commission for Environmental Co-operation, a NAFTA-created watchdog, in a study last year of the industrial pollutants landing on the continent’s air, land and water, was heartened by a downward trend in emissions. So should we all be. NAFTA and the advent of continent-wide competition has given us a present of one of the most precious gifts of all – a much, much cleaner environment.