What the Three Amigos should have talked about

By Geoff Garver and Peter G. Brown

As U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderón met in Guadalajara earlier this month, the drug trade, the economy, climate change and the flu pandemic dominated their discussions. These issues warrant concerted action, no doubt, but their whirlwind summit barely acknowledged the elephant in the room.

The big story of the 21st century will be the story of how global society manages the perceived necessity of economic growth against the growing global ecological crisis, manifested significantly, but by no means only, by climate change. In North America, the North American Free Trade Agreement, along with its environmental and labour side agreements, still provides the regional framework for managing the tension between growth and ecological impact.

But NAFTA has done little to align the North American economy with its ecological reality.

As NAFTA turns 15, our leaders should have taken a fresh look at the dire ecological circumstances that mark this period in history and crafted a reinvigorated agenda for environmental co-operation and action. This revitalized agenda needs to focus on moving North America toward an economy and trade regime that assures the region will live within its ecological means.

The need for a reformed approach to the trade and environment agenda is urgent. Global information on not only climate change, but also species extinctions, loss of biodiversity, depletion of freshwater and other resources, ocean dead zones, population growth, topsoil degradation, deforestation, dying coral reefs, decimation of ocean fish stocks and the sheer throughput of natural capital is beyond alarming.

North America’s contribution to the global ecological crisis is unconscionable. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2008 Living Planet Report tells us that globally, the sustainable average per capita ecological footprint in 2005 was 2.1 hectares per person (hpp). Yet, the U.S. average footprint was 9.4 hpp, the Canadian average was 7.1 hpp and the Mexican average was 3.4 hpp. At 7.8 hpp, the North American average was more than 3.5 times greater than the sustainable rate. This is not sustainable development.

Leadership in addressing this ecological crisis is what will make the real difference in the long term, not just economic leadership measured in terms of gross domestic product. Competitiveness, which featured prominently in the leaders’ post-summit statement, must go hand in hand with upward harmonization of environmental standards, and ultimately, it must be about who can drive their ecological footprint toward sustainable levels the fastest. This will require a shift away from the tendencies of the three governments to define their national interests in the international arena primarily in terms of maximizing international markets for their domestic products, services and investors.

NAFTA and its side agreements may yet have the potential to support the leadership that will show the world North Americans can indeed live within their ecological means. NAFTA’s environmental side agreement, the North American Agreement on Environmental Co-operation, empowers North American governments to develop an agenda that meets President Obama’s intention to address trade-related environmental concerns by strengthening existing mechanisms like NAFTA’s Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

The 2009 session of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) Council, which took place in Denver in June, provided some hopeful signs. The new themes that the Council chose for the CEC’s next five years are healthy communities and ecosystems, greening the economy, and climate change and a low-carbon economy.

In order to meet its potential within this framework, the CEC must do two things:

First, it should do a more rigorous calculation of the North American ecological footprint, publicize the results and develop clear strategies for driving it down. For example, the green building movement provides sound principles for developing economy-wide strategies for reducing use of ecological capacity: minimize demand for energy, water and resources; maximize renewable energy; maximize reuse and recycling of materials; and favour local sourcing over long-range transport of materials. Reducing the material and energy throughput of the economy is essential, even if it means reducing international trade or a radical re-thinking of economic growth as essential to societal well-being.

Second, the CEC should develop indicators, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, that provide a much more accurate picture of our well-being than does gross domestic product. By the measure of contribution to GDP, the oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez contributed more to society by being spilled and generating clean-up costs and lawyers’ fees than it would have had it entered the marketplace.

Ultimately, North America’s leaders have not yet come to terms with the unprecedented ecological reality we face: for the first time in human history, we are using up the Earth’s ecological capacity faster than it is being regenerated.

As NAFTA turns 15, the three amigos have more to talk about – and a great opportunity to turn a new face to the future.

Geoff Garver is an environmental lawyer and PhD student at McGill. Peter Brown is a professor of geography at McGill. They are co-authors of Right Relationship – Building a Whole Earth Economy.