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Report On Business Ottawa strikes NAFTA advisory council to target environmental protection

In a release on Thursday, Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said current negotiations on a renewed NAFTA present “an opportunity to strengthen environmental protections for generations to come.”

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Liberal government has established an advisory council on the North American free-trade agreement and the environment as Ottawa tries to persuade the Trump administration to increase environmental protections in the trade deal.

In a release on Thursday, Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said current negotiations on a renewed NAFTA present "an opportunity to strengthen environmental protections for generations to come."

In an interview, Ms. McKenna said that the United States is calling for high environmental standards to be included in the agreement, which creates grounds for discussion. However, President Donald Trump is pursuing an effort to cut regulations and to roll back climate-change efforts initiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

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"I'm feeling quite optimistic," the Minister said. "All three countries realize clean air and clean water is quite important … and that it is in our own interest to protect air and the water.

"Having high environmental standards is a good way to attract investment and you certainly don't want to be having lax environmental standards as a way to attract investment," she said.

The 10-person advisory council includes two former premiers, British Columbia's Gordon Campbell and Quebec's Pierre-Marc Johnson, and former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon.

Canadian, Mexican and U.S. negotiators are due to meet for a second round of talks this weekend in Mexico City, even as Mr. Trump threatens to terminate the existing deal. Mr. Trump is touting his deregulation effort as necessary to investment and jobs. He also began a process of withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, claiming it was bad for the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, some Canadian business leaders are urging Ottawa to proceed with caution on carbon pricing and other environmental measures, in order to avoid undermining this country's industrial competitiveness.

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In laying out Canada's negotiating priorities in mid-August, Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa wants to strengthen the trade deal "to ensure no NAFTA country weakens environmental protection to attract investment," and to introduce measures that support efforts to address climate change.

The U.S. trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, signalled the American side wants a far narrower scope for environmental protection that would prohibit countries from failing to enforce pollution regulations, or waiving environmental rules, in order to attract investment.

The Americans also proposed to eliminate the NAFTA environmental side deal, which has been criticized as toothless but provides a forum for joint efforts.

The United States also says the deal should require countries to implement their trade-related obligations under multilateral environmental agreements, such as the convention on international trade in endangered species. But that would not include the Paris agreement.

One trade expert questioned whether Ottawa's wish list on the environment will carry much weight with the United States.

"The evidence from the President of the United States is that he doesn't see environmental issues as particularly important," said Oonagh Fitzgerald, director of the international-law program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ont.

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"In fact, he seems to see them as an impediment to making economic progress."

She said there are some areas where NAFTA's environmental protections could be strengthened, including clear wording that corporations cannot launch compensation claims against governments that regulate on the environment or to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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