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Sierra Club Conservation Policies

International Trade

The Sierra Club believes that environmental policy must not be subservient to trade policy. Trade policy internationally must be reformed to reflect full compatibility with environmental needs. Toward that end:

  1. All units of government should be able to make their environmental regulations and programs as strong as they wish, unrestricted by trade policy, provided that their regulations apply equally to domestic and foreign products (i.e., are non-discriminatory);
  2. These environmental regulations should not be limited in stringency by upper limits set by international bodies or trade institutions;
  3. Nor should they be subject to standards of acceptability set by international trade institutions; conflicts between trade and environmental policy should be resolved by impartial bodies;
  4. Trade institutions should operate in an open and accountable manner which permits public participation; normal deliberative practices should not be suspended when trade agreements are approved by nation legislative bodies;
  5. Nations should be able to restrict imports into and exports from their national territory on a non-discriminatory basis in order to pursue bona fide environmental objects, such as enacting "life cycle" product responsibility laws; laws designed to keep products harmful to the environment out of circulation; to prevent resource depletion both at home and abroad; to protect endangered species and habitats anywhere; and to enforce international environmental conventions;
  6. There should be no presumption that trade agreements prevail in cases of conflict with international environmental conventions, nor should the scope of such conventions be limited by trade doctrine; and
  7. Governments should be able to provide subsidies to encourage good environmental practices, as in agriculture, without being precluded from doing so by trade policies.

Adopted by the Board of Directors, May 7-8, 1994


The following Guidelines have been adopted by the Club's International Committee for implementation of the policy on international trade:

1. Trade agreements (such as the GATT) must not interfere with the authority of nations, or their subdivisions, to make environmental regulations as strong as they choose, as long as they apply equally to domestic and foreign products. Sates, provinces, and local authorities must also retain the authority under these conditions to promulgate regulations which are even stronger than those set at the national or international level. However, bodies at the international level should be empowered to promulgate environmental regulations which set a minimum, or floor, for all jurisdictions.

2. Nations and their subdivisions should be empowered to make environmental regulations dealing with imported products to protect their territory and citizens, their borders, and global commons (high seas, atmosphere and space).

Moreover, they should be empowered to act by themselves to regulate imports where they are trying to protect significant environmental values located in the territories of other countries in the following cases, provided there is no discrimination in favor of domestic products; to protect species of wildlife which are either endemic, vulnerable, threatened or endangered; to protect genetic variability within populations of wildlife species, or to protect given populations of wildlife which are endemic, or which are vulnerable, threatened, or endangered; to protect critical habitats, including ecosystems and biomes; to protect protected areas which are being compromised; to deter unsustainable takings of wildlife (e.g., takings which are excessive or involve non-target species); to protect traditional, sustainable patterns of life in human communities, including subsistence, agrarian economies; or to deter production processes which injure community health or workers owing to grossly lax environmental standards.

3. Nations should also be empowered to act alone in enforcing the environmental policies of international governmental institutions (of the UN or treaty powers) through the use of trade sanctions, including measures against collateral products and against nations which have not signed the environmental treaties in question (e.g., under the Montreal Protocol).

4. Environmental laws and regulations should find their justification as public policy in terms of environmental considerations and not have to meet tests posed by trade bodies which attempt to make environmental regulations subservient to trade policy.

5. Nations must have the right to restrict the export of their products to protect their domestic environment, provided that domestic consumption of these products is subjected to similar limitations, where applicable. Restrictions may be justified to limit or prevent the depletion of scarce natural resources, to reduce environmental impacts, or to keep products which harm the environment out of circulation. Where applicable, they should also be able to restrict exports where they might endanger significant environmental values in other countries (see 2).

6. Nations should also be able to require that companies domiciled there, or controlled by their citizens, comply with the environmental standards which are higher when these companies operate abroad -- those of their home country or host country. Nations should be able to make financial assistance to such firms contingent upon compliance with such requirements. Nations should also be allowed to tax earnings on foreign investments differently according to whether such requirements are met.

7. However, in general the Club does not favor subsidies by government to enterprises which operate for market purposes. It believes that such enterprises should pay their own way and internalize the costs of protecting the environment in their operations and prices. It recognizes that subsidies for non-market operations pose a different question, and the Club acknowledges that some subsidies for environmental purposes may be justified. Because in practice it is not possible to isolate subsidies to firms for environmental purposes so that they have no effect upon the market, the Club opposes trade doctrines which would rule out such environmental subsidies if they provide any discernible competitive advantage.

8. National institutions, and their subdivisions, which are democratically accountable, and which do not discriminate between domestic and foreign products in their policies, should not be forced to cede authority over bona fide environmental regulation to international trading institutions, such as the GATT, which are not accountable, that operate in secret, that exclude the public as observers, or that cede authority to private, commercial entities (e.g., Codex Alimentarius). Trade institutions should be required to operate in an open, accountable manner so that the public can have ready access to vital documents, provide input, observe proceedings, and have recourse where commitments are violated. No authority should be ceded to privately constituted bodies.

9. Determinations on the fate of environmental regulations promulgated by national and sub-national authorities should not be made through arbitrary, accelerated procedures in legislative bodies (e.g., the "fast track" procedure in the U.S. Congress) that provide too little time to understand the content of trade proposals, that deny opportunity to correct defects, or that deny final votes on the proposals (offering only an "up or down" vote on accepting all changes proposed in domestic legislation for the purposes of implementation).

10. Environmental treaties and agreements should not have to give way to trade agreements when they are in conflict. Customary doctrines of international law for resolving conflicts of laws in such cases should be applies.

11. When disputes arise over conflicts between environmental regulations and trade doctrines, these should not be decided by parties biased against environmental regulations (e.g., GATT panels). It should be presumed that environmental regulatory authorities will decide such questions, unless a threshold case is made before an appropriately neutral, expert body, such as the International Court of Justice or a panel of arbitration, that domestic and foreign products have been treated differently. When such a case is made, such neutral, third-party adjudicatory bodies should decide the dispute.

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