In January of 2020, President Donald Trump signed into law the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), which many view as a revamp of its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).[1]  USMCA represents a fulfillment of President Trump’s campaign promise to replace the 25-year-old NAFT,  which he criticized over the course of his 2016 presidential campaign as the “worst trade deal ever.”[2]  While the debate surrounding USMCA and its predecessor NAFTA underscore negative economic impacts such as job loss commonly associated with free trade agreements, a link between environmental decline and increased globalized trade has also been noted .[3]

USMCA drew considerable criticism from environmental groups throughout its drafting process, as a comparison was often drawn between the agreement’s environmental provisions and how they failed to provide a significant update to what NAFTA already established.[4]  NAFTA was groundbreaking in that it is considered to have effectively linked trade and the environment through internal provisions meant to reduce the environmental impacts of trade.[5]  But despite calls from activist groups that USMCA does not do enough environmentally, commentators believe its environmental provisions expound on the foundation created by NAFTA while also introducing significant changes.[6]

USMCA’s environmental provisions are outlined in Chapter 24 of the agreement.[7] Specifically, these environmental provisions build upon NAFTA in areas such as enforcement, subsidies, and cooperation.[8]  On enforcement, USMCA provides mechanisms for reporting to outside entities, the failure of member countries in compelling third-party adherence to environmental laws.[9]  The treaty also includes several multilateral environmental agreements that all member states are required to not only be a party to but also actively implement.[10] These multilateral agreements include the Montreal Protocol and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.[11] Lastly, other environmental USMCA obligations include promises to reduce sea-based pollution and to promote the corporate social responsibility of businesses incorporated within a member country.[12]

While USMCA’s environmental provisions build on and add to NAFTA’s provisions, environmentalists claim that it follows too closely in NAFTA’s footsteps by ignoring the most significant environmental threat – climate change.[13] Environmental groups believe that the issue of climate change presents requires binding environmental provisions in legislation such as trade agreements.[14] USMCA fails to make any reference to climate change in its environmental chapter.[15]  Instead, fossil fuel companies are protected from tariffs by the agreement, a provision that runs counter to the climate related work of many environmental groups.[16]  Unfortunately for climate advocates, USMCA will likely act as a standard template for future agreements, thus influencing the omission of climate commitments altogether in foreign trade agreements.[17]

[1] Jen Kirby, USMCA, Trump’s new NAFTA deal, explained in 600 words, Vox (Jul 1, 2020, 1:09pm), (providing background information on enactment of USMCA). 

[2] Id. (presenting President Trump’s view of NAFT); Maggie Severns, Trump pins NAFTA, ‘worst trade deal ever,’ on Clinton, Politico (09/26/2016 09:34 PM),, (referencing NAFTA as terrible trade deal during presidential debate). 

[3] Andrew Chatzky et. al, NAFTA and the USMCA: Weighing the Impact of North American Trade, Council on Foreign Rel. (July 1, 2020), (discussing criticism often associated with trade); Jeffrey Frankel et. al., Environmental Effects of International Trade, 3 (Jeffrey Frankel et al. eds. 2008) (asserting existence of negative externalities on environment due to trade and globalization). 

[4] See Rachel Frazin, Green Groups urge lawmakers to oppose USMCA, The Hill (12/13/19 03:49 PM), (discussing push from environmental groups to include specific changes in USMCA).

[5] Scott Vaughan, USMCA Versus NAFTA on the Environment, Int’l Institute for Sustainable Dev. (October 3, 2018), (alleging NAFTA set standard for trade agreements’ environmental clauses). 

[6] Samuel L. Brown, The USMCA, Trade, and the Environment, Hunton Andrews Kurth (July 2, 2020), (suggesting USMCA builds upon well-establish environmental provisions in NAFTA). 

[7] Bashar Malkawi & Shakeel Kazmi, Dissecting and Unpacking the USMCA Environmental Provisions: Game-Changer for Green Governance?, Vox Lacea (3 July 2020), (introducing USMCA’s environmental provisions). 

[8] Brown, supra note 6 (listing notable environmental provisions in USMCA); Vaughn supra, note 5 (providing major differences between USMCA and NAFTA environmental provisions). 

[9] Brown, supra note 6 (discussing enforcement provision of USMCA).  Under NAFTA, although environmental provisions existed, they proved difficult to enforce.  Thompson Reuters, USMCA and NAFT: Breaking Down the Differences, Thompson Reuters (last visited Sept. 13, 2020) (highlighting differences between NAFTA and USMCA). 

[10] Malkawi, supra note 7 (discussing multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) included in USMCA). 

[11] Id.  (listing different MEAs in USMCA). 

[12] Brown, supra note 6 (referencing corporate social responsibility and marine litter provisions); United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Can. -Mex. -U.S., Dec. 13, 2019, 24.12-13 (explaining agreement’s articles on corporate social responsibility and marine litter).

[13] Amanda Maxwell & Dan West, USMCA Is a Huge Missed Opportunity to Act on ClimateNRDC (December 19, 2019), (urging that USMCA should have addressed climate change). 

[14] Zoe Watkins, Environmental groups push Dems to tank USMCA over climate change, Politico (06/06/2019), (suggesting USMCA should include climate change provisions). 

[15] Id. (stating no reference to climate change is in agreement). 

[16] Kate Aronoff, The New U.S. Trade Deal Is Climate Sabotage, The New Republic (January 17, 2020), (suggesting trade deal works against climate change efforts by extending tariff exemptions to oil companies). 

[17] See Malkawi, supra note 7 (implying USMCA will act as template that influences what other countries include in trade agreements). 

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