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GUEST OPINION: Re-imagining trade to address the climate crisis

Originally scheduled for March, the Bridgewater Climate Café has been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns and crowd regulations. There are plans to reschedule it. There are also several other cafes set to take place during the next few months, including one at the Riverport Community Centre on May 23 at 7 p.m.
Over the past few months, as the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, and travel and economic activity slowed, carbon emissions declined. While the change was substantial, the long-term effect is unclear. - 123RF Stock Photo

Anne Wheatley
Guest opinion


Over the past few months, as the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, and travel and economic activity slowed, carbon emissions declined. While the change was substantial, the long-term effect is unclear. What is clear and what the pandemic has accentuated is that fundamental transformation of our social and economic systems is needed in order to address global inequity and the climate emergency.

One of those systemic changes has to do with international trade. There are several ways in which the current free trade model contributes to global warming and interferes with our capacity to slow it down.

Most obviously, free trade agreements are designed to move large amounts of “stuff” around the planet. The more that’s transported, the more carbon is emitted. It’s about maximizing production, driving extractive industries and industrial agriculture, sectors responsible for a great proportion of global carbon emissions.

Many current agreements include Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanisms (ISDS) which allow multinational corporations to sue countries when they perceive government policy could impede their profit-making. Canada has been sued many times and paid millions of dollars in compensation to corporations, often over environmental policies. The threat of being sued is a disincentive to governments to put in place policies, including those related to reducing carbon emissions, that serve the public interest.

ISDS is just one way in which trade agreements are enforced, while international climate agreements such as the Paris Accord are voluntary, with no penalties for non-compliance, despite the fact that failure to deal with climate crisis is far more calamitous.

We need to replace the old model of trade agreements with new rules that get serious about climate change. There are plenty of possibilities. For example, trade agreements could require participating countries to have a plan to reduce their carbon emissions and fulfil their Paris Accord commitments.

Trade and procurement rules must allow communities to make the transition to renewable energy and ensure that community benefits and good jobs result from locally sourced production. Legal challenges under current trade rules have forced a number of countries to abandon progressive policies like this.

Public services should be protected and allowed to expand. In fact, the free trade agenda could interfere with P.E.I.’s ability to create an Island-wide public transit system, something that is part of the current government’s sustainability plan. Expanding public services would create more jobs that are in effect carbon-neutral, jobs in long-term care, for example, and other health services.

And, it’s time to end our relationship with industrial agriculture. Trade policy should support small-scale farming, which promotes biodiversity and contributes much less to global warming.

We can do this. The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to extraordinary government measures and a massive shift in how we relate to one another and live our lives. Governments have been willing to take extreme precautionary measures and people have changed their behaviours in the interest of public health. Unprecedented support was offered to workers who were displaced from their jobs.

So how can we apply some of our “pandemic lessons” to the most urgent issue of our time? Climate scientists tell us that if we don’t act now to drastically reduce carbon emissions, it will be too late. We can support workers in extractive industries to transition to new green jobs. We can trust that a critical mass of people will change their behaviours when the wellbeing of their neighbours and communities are at stake. We can reimagine trade policy to address the climate crisis.

Ann Wheatley represents Cooper Institute and the Environmental Coalition of PEI in Trade Justice PEI

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