Commission for Environmental Cooperation

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The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) was established by Canada, Mexico, and the United States to implement the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC), the environmental side accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The CEC supports cooperation among the NAFTA partners to address environmental issues of continental concern, including the environmental challenges and opportunities presented by continent-wide free trade.

Origins and structure

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation was created in 1994 by Canada, Mexico and the United States, under the NAAEC. The NAAEC was implemented in parallel to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and complements the environmental provisions of NAFTA. It signifies a commitment that liberalization of trade and economic growth in North America would be accompanied by collaboration and continuous improvement in the environmental protection provided by each of the three signatory countries. In part, the NAAEC was driven by U.S. President Bill Clinton's need to mitigate public concern about the impact of trade liberalization on the environment.

The CEC is composed by the Council, the Secretariat and the Joint Public Advisory Committee. The Council is composed of cabinet-level environmental officials from each of the NAAEC Parties; governs the CEC; oversees the implementation of the Agreement, and oversees the CEC Secretariat. JPAC is a fifteen-member independent body that provides advice to the Council on any matter within the scope of the Agreement. The CEC Secretariat is headquartered in Montreal, has a liaison office in Mexico City and his headed by an executive director. The Secretariat implements the operational plan authorized by the Council; develops independent Secretariat reports on North American environmental issues, and processes submissions on enforcement matters (SEM).

Cooperative Work Program

The CEC's cooperative agenda has been defined through the Strategic Plan. The first Strategic Plan was adopted by the Council in 2005. The CEC Strategic Plan 2005-2010 identified three areas of priority action for the CEC: Information for decision-making, Capacity building and Trade and the environment. Since then, some projects have been implemented at the CEC and have survived to date. In 2009 the Council set forth a change in the CEC agenda and adopted a new Strategic Plan for 2010-2015 to ensure the organization is positioned to deliver results in three environmental priorities, namely: Healthy Communities and Ecosystems; Climate Change – Low-Carbon Economy; and, Greening the Economy in North America. Apart from the Strategic Plans, the Operational Plans present how the goals and objectives of the Strategic Plan will be implemented through project activities and key initiatives, and specifies the budget for the Commission. The Operational Plan is updated annually.[1]

Healthy Communities and Ecosystems

Canada, Mexico and the United States recognize that North America’s well being—both environmental and economic—is grounded in healthy communities and ecosystems. Therefore, the Parties commit to build upon and renew collaborative efforts within the CEC to protect, sustain and restore the health of people, communities and ecosystems using integrated and comprehensive approaches and partnerships. There are four strategic objectives: improve environmental health of vulnerable communities in North America; increase resilience of shared ecosystems at risk; enhance regional approaches to sound management of chemicals; and strengthen regional enforcement and wildlife law enforcement.

Pollutant Release and Transfer Register

The North American PRTR Project involves the compilation and dissemination of information on the sources, amounts and handling of toxic substances released or transferred by industrial facilities in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, based on data reported to the pollutant release and transfer register (PRTR) of each country. The main products of this project are Taking Stock Online: a website featuring information and a searchable database of integrated, North American PRTR and the annual Taking Stock report. The online platform brings together information allowing stakeholders to understand the context and limitations of PRTR data and areas for further improvement. The Taking Stock report also features special analyses of the data, which can provide additional insights for decision-making.

Regional Approach to Sound Management of Chemicals

The Sound Management of Chemicals (SMOC) program gathers senior government officials charged with setting a framework for addressing the sound management of persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic chemicals in North America.

Strengthening Regional Environmental and Wildlife Law Enforcement

The North American Working Group on Environmental Enforcement and Compliance Cooperation is tasked with enhancing compliance with and strengthening enforcement of environmental and wildlife laws in North America. The EWG is composed of senior-level environmental and wildlife law enforcement officials from North America.

North American Partnership for Environmental Community Action

Improving environmental conditions across North America is a challenging task. Individual investments made by each country can achieve greater success if a shared sense of responsibility and stewardship is developed at the community level. This can be accomplished when government efforts are supported and complemented through strong partnerships with stakeholders and the public in all three North American countries. With this in mind, the CEC Council established NAPECA in 2010 to support communities in their efforts to address environmental problems locally.

North American Environmental Atlas

The CEC is responsible for coordinating the North American Environmental Atlas, which aims to map North America’s shared environment in order to depict environmental issues from a continental perspective. The North American Atlas is an interactive tool to research, analyze and manage environmental issues in Canada, United States and Mexico.[2]

Part of the commission's work included the creation of a system of ecozones and ecoregions covering the continent. This system is distinct from that used by the World Wildlife Fund. Although different names are used, the Canadian ecozone system, which is used by Environment Canada, has the same boundaries and parameters as those used by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States. The US term “Level 1 ecoregion” is equivalent to the term "ecozone" in Canada.

Environmental assessment of NAFTA

The CEC was designed in part to investigate the environmental impact of NAFTA, which was the first regional trade agreement between a developing country and two developed countries. A notable concern was that North American industry would be drawn to jurisdictions with lax environmental laws or weak enforcement, leading to a “race to the bottom” in standards or enforcement. The CEC’s mandate includes an ongoing after-the-fact environmental assessment of NAFTA. In support of this objective, the CEC held four symposia concerning the environmental impacts of NAFTA, and commissioned 47 papers on this subject. In keeping with the CEC’s overall strategy of transparency and public involvement, the CEC commissioned these papers from leading independent experts.[3]

The CEC created a comprehensive analytical framework for conducting environmental analysis of NAFTA. This was one of the first ex post facto frameworks for the environmental assessment of trade liberalization. It was designed to identify and empirically document environmental quality changes and policy trends linked to trade liberalization. The CEC aimed to produce a focused and systematic body of evidence concerning initial hypotheses about the environmental effects of NAFTA. For instance, it aimed to test hypotheses such as: “NAFTA will create race to the bottom in environmental regulation among the three countries” or “NAFTA will pressure governments to increase their environmental protection mechanisms.[4]

Overall, many of the most dire hypotheses about the environmental impact of NAFTA were not confirmed. Data and research collected with the support of the CEC indicated that many of the positive and negative expectations that were discussed during NAFTA negotiations did not materialize.[5] The CEC concluded that NAFTA did in fact not present a systemic threat to the North American environment, as was originally feared. However, NAFTA-related environmental threats occurred in specific areas where government environmental policy, infrastructure, or mechanisms were inadequately prepared for the increasing scale of production that resulted from trade liberalization. In some cases, the CEC found that government policy was neglected in the wake of trade liberalization. In other cases, NAFTA’s measures threatened to discourage more vigorous environmental policy, such as in the case of Chapter 11 investment protection, along with measures against non-tariff trade barriers.[6] CEC studies found that the most serious overall increases in pollution due to NAFTA were found in the base metals sector, the Mexican petroleum sector, and the transportation equipment sector in the United States and Mexico, but not in Canada.[7]

Submissions on enforcement matters

Articles 14 and 15 of the NAAEC provide for a mechanism whereby any person or non-governmental organization can file a submission asserting that a Party to the Agreement is failing to effectively enforce its environmental law. The process may lead to the development and publication of a factual record containing information relevant to a consideration of the alleged failure(s) by a Party to effectively enforce its environmental law. The process is informed by the Guidelines for Submissions on Enforcement Matters under Articles 14 and 15 of the NAAEC.

Between the 1994 entry into force of the NAAEC and December 2012, 80 submissions have been filed with the Secretariat: 30 concerning Canada, 40 concerning Mexico, 9 concerning the US, and one concerning both Canada and the US. During that time, the Secretariat has dismissed or terminated 68 submissions: 26 submissions did not warrant further consideration based on Article 14(1) or (2); 18 were dismissed following the concerned Party’s response; and 5 others have been withdrawn. 26 factual records have been recommended to the Council—the last one in 2008—. In two cases, the Council has voted against the Secretariat’s recommendation to develop a factual record. The Secretariat has published sixteen factual records.[8]

Independent Secretariat reports

Under NAAEC Article 13 the CEC Secretariat may develop independent reports on any matter within the scope of the annual program. If the report is intended to address any other environmental issue, the Council has to approve it by a two-thirds vote. The Secretariat may obtain the assistance of independent experts of recognized authority in the matter under review to assist in the preparation of a report.[9]


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