BY PAT DUNBAR, STAFF WRITER

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), https://www.vox.com/2018/10/3/17930092/usmca-mexico-nafta-trump-trade-deal-explained. (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), https://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/trump-clinton-come-out-swinging-over-nafta-228712, (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), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/naftas-economic-impact (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), https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/474504-green-groups-urge-lawmakers-to-oppose-usmca (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), https://www.iisd.org/articles/usmca-nafta-environment (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), https://www.huntonnickelreportblog.com/2020/07/the-usmca-trade-and-the-environment/ (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), http://vox.lacea.org/?q=blog/usmca_environmental_provisions (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) https://tax.thomsonreuters.com/content/dam/ewp-m/documents/tax/en/pdf/brochures/tr1089774-usmca-and-nafta-differences.pdf (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), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/amanda-maxwell/usmca-huge-missed-opportunity-act-climate (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), https://www.politico.com/story/2019/06/06/environmental-groups-push-dems-to-tank-usmca-over-climate-change-1356576 (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), https://newrepublic.com/article/156240/new-us-trade-deal-climate-sabotage (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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