The Role of Environmental Groups in Shaping International Trade Agreements

In this guest post, Christina L. Toenshoff discusses the findings of her recent article in Environmental Politics, Defensive issue linkage: exploring the origins of environmental content in trade agreements’. She shows how concerns over large trade deals’ protective economic clauses led to a mobilisation against the deals by environmental groups, and explores the effects of these protests.

In 2015 , hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in European capitals to protest against TTIP and CETA. They were accompanied by a giant inflatable horse that the environmental group Friends of the Earth created to symbolize what they characterized as “trojan” trade deals.

Since trade agreements are an economic policy tool, we usually think of businesses and labor unions when we think of lobbying in international trade agreement negotiations. Yet, in recent negotiations of large trade deals, including TTIP (EU-US), TPP (Pacific Region), and CETA (EU-Canada), some of the most forceful lobby groups did not come to the table to represent their economic interests. Instead, consumer groups, human rights groups, and – prominently – environmental NGOs mobilized to protest trade agreements’ impact on non-economic issues and were highly successful at garnering public support.

The protests of 2015 were of a scale rarely seen in Europe, but protests by environmental groups against trade agreements are not new. One may recall, for example, the 1999 “Battle of Seattle,” in which, among others, environmental activists in turtle costumes disrupted a Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization.

In a recent article in Environmental Politics, I use a multi-method approach of case studies and regression analysis to take a closer look at the mobilization of environmental NGOs around trade agreements. The paper asks two related questions: What drives environmental NGOs to mobilize around trade? And what does environmental NGO mobilization mean for the content of trade agreements?

The drivers of environmental NGO mobilization

I argue that environmental NGOs mobilize primarily out of a sense of threat to domestic and international environmental policymaking. This threat arises due to the ever-expanding scope of trade agreements’ economic clauses. Over the last three decades, trade agreements have become increasingly “deep” – going far beyond just regulating tariffs. The new economic provisions of many modern trade agreements often clash with environmental policies. To give a few examples, intellectual property rules can be in tension with international agreements on preserving endangered species. Stringent investment protections can allow international investors to sue countries for new environmental regulations undermining profits. Trade rules that govern product safety regulations can prevent countries from banning products whose production harms the environment.

Fearing such interference in environmental policy, environmental NGOs mobilize to try and preserve their traditional policy space. I find evidence of this across three case studies of NGO mobilization in the US, the EU, and Malaysia. In all three cases, NGOs name policy space and sovereignty as primary motivations for their lobbying on trade. Quantitative evidence corroborates this finding: environmental NGOs are only associated with significant changes in trade agreement content when trade agreements are economically “deep.”  This suggests that groups mobilize (more forcefully) when they are worried about the subordination of environmental policy by expanding economic provisions.

The (unintended) consequences of environmental NGO mobilization

Prior work suggested that even if environmental NGOs mobilize, they will have little impact on trade policy. Indeed, environmental NGOs often do not achieve their primary demands. This is because their opposition to trade policy interference leads them to demand sweeping exclusions of provisions or even the abandonment of agreements as a whole. For example, a coalition of NGOs in Malaysia that formed during negotiations of the mega-regional TPP agreement demanded that there be no chapters on investment, government procurement, property rights, or competition – all cornerstones of modern deep trade agreements. Policymakers are unlikely to acquiesce to such demands during trade negotiations. Instead, they often choose an easier route: placate just enough politicians and members of the public whom environmental NGOs have riled up.

They do this by introducing more environmental clauses in trade agreements. NGOs themselves are highly skeptical of the efficacy of such clauses. One European environmental lobbyist I interviewed, for example, stated that:

“[w]e don’t really believe that the EU trade policy at the moment can really help in terms of [the] environment. […] To date, there hasn’t been an environmental organization that has really been saying, ah, this is great […].”

Yet, environmental provisions can be popular with the public and moderate policy-makers. Thus, while not placating environmental NGOs, they help shore up overall support for trade agreements in the face of NGO opposition. Ironically, this implies that in an effort to stop trade policy from encroaching on environmental policy, environmental groups’ protests may ultimately lead to the increased entanglement of the two policy areas.

Outlook: A potentially very different future

My recent paper in Environmental Politics posits that over the last three decades, environmental NGOs have mobilized around trade agreements when they worried that environmental policy would become subordinated to trade policy. For “traditional” deep trade agreements that have been in the pipeline for a while – such as the potentially upcoming EU-Mercosur agreement – NGO opposition likely follows the patterns I describe in my paper. Yet, in the 2020s and beyond, the tables may be slowly turning. As the urgency of preventing climate catastrophes increases and a global race for green economic leadership intensifies, free trade is becoming subordinated to climate goals.

In 2022, the US Inflation Reduction Act ignored World Trade Organization principles and introduced rules that favor domestic producers of electric vehicles.  One year later, the EU finally agreed on a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism that would levy border taxes on some emission-intensive products produced in countries without carbon pricing. As part of this trend, it is possible that climate policy goals will also become a primary objective of new international trade agreements. If priorities shift, environmental groups may become less defensive and may start to actually see trade policy as a potentially useful tool. The emerging use of trade policies to achieve climate goals will be interesting to watch.

Bio: Christina Toenshoff is an Assistant Professor at Leiden University’s Institute of Political Science. Her research interests center around the role of lobbying and public opinion in environmental and climate policymaking. Next to her recent work on environmental NGO lobbying, she is currently working on a number of projects that examine how companies and their lobby organizations engage with climate policy. Prior to her position at Leiden University, Christina obtained a PhD in Political Science from Stanford University.  

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