Policy Analysis No. 198

NAFTA’s Green Accords: Sound and Fury Signifying Little

Executive Summary

The North American Free Trade Agreement has come under well-deserved fire from a coalition of free-trade conservatives for introducing environmental policy considerations into international trade relations. Although the green language of NAFTA is certainly objectionable on its face, some of the free traders’ warnings about national sovereignty and the upward harmonization of environmental law are clearly overwrought and premised upon a fundamental misunderstanding of NAFTA.

Although the treaty encourages high environmental standards and the harmonization of environmental statutes, the sovereign right of nations to set their own levels of environmental protection is repeatedly and explicitly reaffirmed in the treaty. The supranational bureaucracy established to oversee the enforcement of domestic environmental law is an intentionally cumbersome body whose mission is both tightly controlled and narrowly defined. And the environmental goals and objectives outlined in the treaty are just that—goals that for the most part few would argue with. The means of achieving those goals are left for each country to decide.

Neither the Clinton administration nor the environmental community, however, believes that NAFTA will grant the federal government or international bureaucracies the power to impose a new green policy agenda on signatories to the treaty. Indeed, no reasonable reading of the treaty warrants the concerns expressed by conservative anti-NAFTA critics. Although some of NAFTA’s environmental language is, in fact, vague and full of potential mischief, the clauses at issue are hermetically sealed within a wall of qualifications, exceptions, loopholes, and countermanding language.

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Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.