Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Free trade and climate change

It has been reported last week that the World Trade Organization (WTO) has ruled against China on whether they can restrict media (books, movies, etc.) to only those imported by state-run companies.

What is interesting is the reasoning in the ruling. Something not mentioned in some of the news media's coverage is that WTO says that China can restrict media for reasons of censorship. That I think sends the message that what we care about is "free trade" and do not care about human rights, freedom of speech, etc.

What has this to do with the environment? Just last month the WTO and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) issued a joint report on free trade and the environment.

The problem with free trade is, well, that it is not free trade. Countries which are the biggest pushers of the free trade rhetoric, such as the United States and the European Union, also have tariffs and quotas for everything from steel to sugar. Companies which claim to want free trade are also the same companies that push for government intervention to "protect their industry". I would further argue that there will never be such a thing as free trade, the stakes are too high.

With that in mind, is free trade good for the environment?

The problem is that the WTO and other free trade advocates are constantly saying that anything which restricts free trade is bad. Yes, in the report WTO hints that you could incorporate climate change regulations into free trade agreements (such as the current Doha round of negotiations); however, their history shows otherwise. It has consistently said previously that non-trade issues should be handled by other international laws and bodies.

The problems with free trade I feel can be summed up in three ways: movement of polluting industries and varying regulations, removal of barriers which are beneficial to the environment, and technology transfer. We have already seen with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that many industries have moved to Mexico which has much more lax environmental regulations. Despite all the talk of corporate responsibility, most companies will only operate to the level of government standards, even if those standards are very poor. Even the ISO 14000 (environmental management) standard only requires meeting the country in which it is located standard.

Removal of trade barriers which are beneficial to the environment can often occur because they are considered anti-free trade. Again it has been developed countries which have complained the most to WTO about countries developing countries barriers against polluting industries, food safety, and climate change.

Technology transfer is often considered important for improving the environment, especially for energy. Yet the same free trade people are also the people who talk a lot about protecting their "intellectual property". They hide the technology under so-called trade secrets and try to prevent the technology from being spread unless they get a slice (a big slice) of the pie.

Again I will repeat there is no such thing as free trade. It is all just a dream.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Agent Orange, again!

It seems that Agent Orange is back in the news, again! You would think with all of the years that have gone by since the Vietnam war this issue would be a rest.

For those who are not familar with agent orange, it is a mixture of herbicides composed of predominately 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T that was used by the US as a defoliating agent in the Vietnam war. The major problem was its toxicity much of which is due to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) which was a contaminate.

The US government has only provided a very amount of funding. Almost all of the funding has come from other governments and NGO's.

I sometimes think that the missed name US Department of Defense (DOD) is probably the worst environmental polluter of them all. And proud of it at that. Its legacy in Asia is particularly bad. Agent Orange in Vietnam, unexploded ordinance in Laos, mine fields in Korea, depleted uranium in Iraq.

In this age of "corporate responsibility" (a much overused term anyway), the military simply wants to take no responsible for its actions. Instead they hide behind the cloak of "national security" (I have discussed this before) or simply ignore the issue.

Agent Orange is a classic example. The military denies that the agent orange is toxic. They often state there is no evidence. Huh? The International Agency for Cancer Research (part of the World Health Organization) has determined there is enough evidence to classify TCDD as a known human carcinogen. Further the military state that they needed to use it to clear the fields, and it was therefore necessary. So what?

Why does the military think not take any responsibility? I feel it is simply arrogance. The military thinks it is special and therefore anything it does is right and does not care what anybody else says. It has what it feels is it mission and it will do anything to fulfill that mission. Add to this the fact that it claims that it can go anywhere in the world to support "American" interests (even if it has nothing to due with the US). And you have an corporation which is reponsible to no one but themselves.

Issues like this must also be taken from the Asia perpective, which is often forgotten or ignored. Firstly, many Asia see the US as a bully and agent orange and other similar problems simply reinforce that viewpoint. Secondly, as we have seen in the climate change debate between India and the US, developing countries have complained (rightly or wrongly) that developed countries (and especially the US) are responsible for most of the environmental damage that has been done. Again the US military actions reinforce this view. Lastly, countries such as Vietnam do not have the resources to clean up the mess and why should they pay for problems they did not create.