Pundits frequently oppose US and EU models for dealing with the environment. The former is said to promote an evidence-based approach while the latter privileges a precautionary approach. Yet, as the TREND dataset reveals , opposing the US and the EU models can be a misleading caricature.
To be sure, the US and the EU initially pursued different objectives when introducing environmental provisions in their respective trade agreements. Historically, the US sought to establish a level playing field with its trade partners and to protect its regulatory sovereignty from legal challenges. For these reasons, US trade agreements tend to adopt a strict legal approach, compelling parties to enforce their own laws and regulations while providing several environmental exceptions.
Balancing trade, environmental and development objectives: the EU as a role model?
By comparison, the EU was first motivated by a more cooperative approach, with the aim of achieving greater coherence between its trade, environmental and development objectives.
EU agreements typically include provisions promoting greater dialogue and facilitating the exchange of information on environmental matters.
Moreover, instead of using a standardised model, the EU adjusts the environmental clauses of its trade agreements to the political, economic and ecological context of its partners. European environmental clauses range across diverse issues, including sustainable fisheries, deforestation, renewable energy, climate change adaptation, toxic wastes, greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, migratory species, endocrine disrupting chemicals, soil erosion, wetlands, invasive species, scenery preservation, mercury, heavy metals and genetically modified organisms.
In a paper based on TREND, I show that US and EU negotiators drew similar lessons, learned from each other and gradually converged on a shared set of environmental norms. Recent American agreements have become more European-like. They integrate some features of earlier European agreements, such as provisions on technology transfer and detailed commitments on specific environmental issues. In parallel, recent European agreements are becoming more Americanised. They include stricter enforcement rules, environmental safeguards on investment matters and enhanced protection on regulatory sovereignty.
US and EU approaches: celebrating the convergence
Of course, differences remain between the US and EU approaches. First and foremost is the US insistence on covering environmental provisions in the framework of the trade agreement’s main dispute-settlement mechanism. European agreements, for their part, are the only ones to formally acknowledge the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities for global environmental degradation. The TREND dataset nevertheless reveals a clear convergence between the US and the EU in the way they address environmental issues in trade negotiations.
This convergence should be celebrated. Mixing the US legalistic and adversarial style with the EU cooperative and sectoral approach constitutes a promising formula.
Far from being incompatible, these two approaches are complementary.
When combined, they result in a set of environmental commitments that offer a broad scope and significant depth in terms of enforceability. Countries that sign these trade agreements are encouraged to increase their level of environmental protection in a variety of domains and also to seriously enforce their environmental standards.
But this convergence is far from being complete, and multiple other approaches have been experimented with elsewhere. Trade negotiators still have a lot to learn from one another.