Canada’s Strong Words on Climate Face a Test in Trump’s Nafta Makeover

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2018

President Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the G7 Summit in Quebec in June. Christinne Muschi/Reuters

WASHINGTON — As President Trump demanded a makeover of the North American Free Trade Agreement over the past year, Canada staked out a position squarely at odds with the White House: Any new pact must recognize climate change.

That demand is now facing a test.

The United States and Mexico, the other two parties to the three-nation trade deal, in recent days have hammered out a possible revision of the pact, and Mr. Trump is urging Canada to sign on or be hit with automobile tariffs. The revised terms don’t mention climate change, according to the scant details made public Monday, and the Trump administration has long dismissed the science that shows global warming poses a serious threat to people and economies.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, was in Washington on Tuesday to continue negotiations. Her government so far has given little indication of its intentions beyond a statement by Ms. Freeland’s spokesman, Adam Austen, who said the priority was that any deal be “good for the middle class.”

Canada’s calls for a trade deal to address climate change are the latest example of the ways that global warming can break on to the world stage and trigger political setbacks, even in nations already struggling to meet their targets for reducing pollution under the Paris climate agreement.

In France, the environment minister quit during a live radio interview on Tuesday, saying the nation wasn’t doing enough on green issues. And last week in Australia, the prime minister was unseated by a challenger with strong coal-industry connections. Canada, much like Australia, has a powerful energy industry, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces a challenge from politicians aligned with the oil industry there. The new premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, also has vowed to fight Mr. Trudeau’s plan to put a price on carbon emission in Canada when it takes effect next year.

For reasons like these, Canadian environmental activists and United States foreign-policy experts said Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government would have to pick and choose its priorities in the tense coming days, and many say climate change most likely will not make the cut. The Trump administration has opposed any mention of the phrase.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen at this point,” said George David Banks, former international energy and environment adviser to Mr. Trump. Mr. Banks said neither the Trump administration nor Mexico appeared interested in pursuing climate change in Nafta.

Mr. Trump has said if a compromise cannot be negotiated with Canada he will cut the country out of the deal. It’s not at all clear, though, that Congress — which must sign off on any trade deal before it takes effect — would accept that.

For Canada the risks are both economic and political. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, American exports to Canada have increased 165 percent since 1993, the year before Nafta came into force, and imports from Canada rose 150 percent. If Mr. Trudeau is unable to strike a deal with Mr. Trump he could come off looking weak in the eyes of his public. But if Mr. Trump imposes a 25 percent tariff on automobiles it would hit hard the economic powerhouse province of Ontario.

The absence of climate change language wouldn’t have an immediate effect on the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions projections from Canada, the United State or Mexico. After all, the current agreement also makes no mention of the need to drive down global warming.

But environmentalists say that failing to incorporate a mention would be a missed opportunity to make a statement in support of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls on nearly 200 nations to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and which did not exist when Nafta was drafted.

“It violates the norm that the environment belongs at the negotiating table,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“We seem to be pushing our trading partners to say, ‘It’s prosperity or the environment. It’s prosperity or human rights,’” he said, arguing that it shouldn’t be thought of as an either-or.

Canada, for its part, has made climate change a centerpiece of its international agenda. It features prominently in the title, for example, of upcoming discussions at the Group of 7 energy discussionsslated for Nova Scotia in September.

But the Canadian government also has sought out ways to avoid isolating the Trump administration by bringing less antagonizing issues, for instance cleaning plastic from the oceans, to the table.

When it comes to Nafta, the Trudeau government has taken a similarly pliable position. In August, Ms. Freeland outlined Canada’s vision for what it called “progressive elements” to any new trilateral trade deal. The priorities: strengthening labor safeguards and incorporating new chapters on gender equality, indigenous rights and climate change. On climate, Mr. Trudeau maintained that he wanted to see the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the need to move to a low-carbon economy to be written into the new Nafta.

“We are certainly looking for a better level playing field across North America on environmental protections,” Mr. Trudeau said last year.

Shortly after that remark, the Canadian foreign affairs minister sent the Trump administration a proposed chapter that included those elements but did not require the United States to accept or embrace the Paris Agreement.

However, late last year the Trump administration declined to accept that language, according to Mr. Banks and a Canadian official who asked not to be identified.

The Canadian Foreign Ministry and the office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to a request to discuss the role of that agenda in this week’s talks.

“The big question will be to what extent Canada will be interested in going to the wall on climate,” said Dale Marshall, national climate program manager for Environmental Defence, a Canadian nonprofit group. “When the rubber hits the road and we’re talking about economic trade, does Canada feel strong enough about those issues to be willing to scuttle a deal? I’m not sure,” he said.

Joshua C. Zive, a trade lobbyist who works with energy and utility companies for the firm Bracewell in Washington, said he did not think pushing climate change this week would be in Canada’s negotiating interest. Already, he said, the Trump administration is intent on casting Mr. Trudeau as the scapegoat if a deal falls through.

“It’s a risk for Canada if they introduced concepts that could be cast as Canada complicating negotiations,” Mr. Zive said. “If it became too aggressive, particularly pushing for items that are not on the U.S. or Mexico agenda, it could further the narrative of Canada being the outlier, which is clearly the narrative the administration is preparing to position with the public. The goal here is to jam Canada.”

Mr. Zive for his part questioned the need to incorporate climate change into Nafta, and said the trade deal had always been a fairly technical way to deal with specific products like automobiles. If negotiators push for a mention of climate change “just for symbolic purposes, you’re also importing the symbolic controversy,” he said. “There is no need to force people to resolve this in an already-complicated and high-stakes trade dispute.”

Mr. Banks, who accepts climate-change science and supports the overall goal of the Paris Agreement (but not the United States target for carbon reduction), said he was nevertheless bullish that in the long run there would be a merger of trade and climate policy, even under the Trump administration.

“As the United States recognizes that it can take advantage of the fact that it is less carbon intensive than its competitors, including China, that bolsters the United States’ competitive advantage when it comes to manufacturing,” he said.

Catherine Porter contributed reporting from Toronto.