NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)

On December 17, 1992, Canada, Mexico, and the United States entered into a historical trade pact called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It aims to increase trade by expanding market access and reducing investment barriers across North American borders. Of the many aspects of the debate in the United States over the ratification of NAFTA, none received as much attention as the potential impact of the agreement on the environment. A number of issues including labor market disruptions fueled intense debate over NAFTA, especially in the United States. But no issue received as much attention as the impact of NAFTA on the environment. Debate focused on (1) possible threats posed to previously signed U.S. domestic environmental laws and international environmental agreements; (2) concern that harmonization of environmental standards would result in acceptance of the least common denominator; and (3) fear that U.S. industries would establish pollution havens in Mexico, where labor is cheaper and enforcement of regulations is weaker than in the United States.

In order to allay such concerns, several provisions were added to the NAFTA text. For example, the preamble commits governments to undertake increased trade in "a manner consistent with environmental protection and conservation," and the agreement's dispute-settlement provisions can place the burden on the country challenging an environmental regulation. In addition, prior to NAFTA entering into force on January 1, 1994, the participating governments agreed to the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC), which obliges each country to "ensure that its laws and regulations provide for high levels of environmental protection and to strive to continue to improve those laws and regulations." It also ensures access by private persons to fair and equitable administrative and judicial proceedings on matters pertaining to the environment. The NAAEC established the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), which has three institutional components: a Council, a Secretariat, and a Joint Public Advisory Committee. The Council, assisted by the Secretariat, is charged with monitoring NAFTA's environmental impacts. When they uncover adverse environmental impacts, they publicize them in various ways, including posting notices on their web site. The aim of the council is that, by means of this public shaming, countries will take action to remedy these situations.



Audley, John N. (1997). Green Politics and Global Trade: NAFTA and the Future of Environmental Politics. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Magraw, Daniel. (1995). NAFTA and the Environment: Substance and Process. Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association.

Internet Resource

NAFTA Secretariat Web site. Available from .

Michael G. Schechter

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