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Policy Analysis

Three Countries, One Environment: Environmental cooperation and free trade in North America

Richard A. Morgan from the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) discusses environmental cooperation within the new trilateral free trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States (known respectively by the parties as CUSMA, T-MEC, and USMCA).

By Richard A. Morgan on July 28, 2021

This article was originally published in IISD's Trade and Sustainability Review, Volume 1, Issue 3

Never before have the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss been such high policy priorities for governments around the world. Similarly, the opportunities to transform our economies and communities into drivers of clean, green growth are more understood and harnessed than ever before.

Throughout North America, the winds of change are being felt across our shared environment. With renewed trilateral commitment embodied in modernized agreements on free trade and environmental cooperation, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) is poised to move the needle on pressing regional and global environmental issues, including those related to trade.

A Historic Milestone and Turning Point

In July 2020, Canada, Mexico, and the United States began implementing the strongest set of environmental provisions ever included in a free trade agreement (FTA), as the new agreement (known respectively by the parties as CUSMA, T-MEC, and USMCA) entered into force alongside a companion Environmental Cooperation Agreement (ECA). Notably, the new trilateral FTA contains a dedicated chapter—Chapter 24—that incorporates all environmental provisions.

This chapter makes these provisions enforceable and commits the parties to concerted efforts on issues of common concern. These include unsustainable fishing, illegal trade, transboundary pollution, and the implementation of multilateral agreements, among others. To speak of the truly transformative evolution in trade relations, as the Office of the United States Trade Representative has deemed it, the new agreement represents the “strongest, most enforceable environmental obligations of any trade agreement.

Chapter 24: A 'Bold Vision for Evidence-Based Decision Making'

The original North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) represented the most advanced trade agreement of its time with respect to innovative environmental provisions. The new FTA continues this evolution. Chapter 24 defines “affecting trade or investment” in a novel way, creating a strong and clear statement that the effective enforcement of environmental laws is a critical priority alongside the expansion of economic and trade relations. Article 24.4.1 and its three footnotes embody this renewed commitment of Canada, Mexico, and the United States particularly succinctly: “No Party shall fail to effectively enforce its environmental laws through a sustained or recurring course of action or inaction in a manner affecting trade or investment between the Parties.”

As consumers and companies alike become increasingly responsive to the many detrimental impacts arising from environmental degradation, this prominent article demonstrates a significant shift in commitment to ensuring that international trade and investment do not come at the expense of our environment.

“The original North American Free Trade Agreement represented the most advanced trade agreement of its time, with respect to innovative environmental provisions. The new free trade agreement continues this evolution.”

Chapter 24 also contains the longstanding CEC Submission of Enforcement Matters (SEM) process, which helps ensure that governments are effectively enforcing their environmental laws. This process includes a unique non-adversarial fact-finding mechanism that allows any person or non-governmental organization in North America to file a submission with the CEC Secretariat asserting “that a Party is failing to effectively enforce its environmental laws.”

Elsewhere, Chapter 24 helps create enabling conditions for transformative trilateral actions that have the potential to position North America as the preeminent model for clean, green growth and help achieve domestic, multilateral, and global goals simultaneously. The chapter contains a prominent public information mandate and mentions explicit matters of mutual interest. These range from “corporate social responsibility and responsible business conduct” and “voluntary mechanisms to enhance environmental performance” to updated approaches to trade vis-à-vis biodiversity, invasive alien species, fisheries, forest products, and innovations related to “environmental goods and services.”

Taken as a whole, Chapter 24 represents a bold vision for evidence-based decision making that integrates a nuanced approach to the complex synergies and tradeoffs inherent in trade and sustainability.

And What About the CEC?

The fate of the CEC was not taken for granted with the desire to renegotiate NAFTA. However, cooperation was recognized as a cornerstone of reaching both individual and joint objectives to protect the environment shared by Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

In fact, this commitment for cooperation was furthered not only through the affirmation of the CEC as the prime vehicle for trilateral cooperation, but also with the creation of a new Environment Committee under Article 24.26.2, “composed of senior government representatives, or their designees, of the relevant trade and environment central level of government authorities of each Party responsible for the implementation of [Chapter 24].”

Alongside the dedicated environment chapter, the companion ECA establishes a comprehensive framework to modernize, facilitate, and enhance trinational environmental cooperation within the context of trade liberalization. The ECA highlights the facilitation of partnerships, linkages, or other new channels, for the development and transfer of knowledge and technologies among representatives from academia, the private sector, and Indigenous peoples. It also emphasizes enhanced cooperation and modern approaches, particularly in the CEC’s strategies for communications and stakeholder engagement.

“As the CEC enters a new era of enhanced cooperation, the renewed trilateral commitment and ambitious agenda under the new ECA mark a turning point in its 25-year history.”

The ECA reaffirms the vital role that we play as a unique, innovative, and important institution, creating official linkages on a North American scale in our commitment to the meaningful involvement of all sectors of society, including industry and other partners and in our development of modern, creative tools and techniques to address environmental issues and concerns.

As the CEC enters a new era of enhanced cooperation, the renewed trilateral commitment and ambitious agenda under the new ECA mark a turning point in our 25-year history. Major issues will continue to evolve as North America leads in the race to confront climate change, restore ecosystems, and build economic, environmental, and social resilience. The CEC will adapt and respond by designing innovative solutions involving communities, the private sector, and a broad range of stakeholders.

A New Strategic Vision for Environmental Cooperation

Aligned with the commitments outlined in the ECA, the CEC’s Strategic Plan 2021–2025 has renewed our mandate and is already driving an ambitious agenda centred around six strategic pillars. As a conduit for cooperation, the CEC’s work in the future will conserve, protect, and enhance the North American environment through its work on:

  • Clean air, land, and water
  • Preventing and reducing pollution in the marine environment
  • Circular economy and sustainable materials management
  • Shared ecosystems and species • Resilient economies and communities
  • Effective enforcement of environmental laws

Of particular importance is working to identify and facilitate win-win solutions that can address environmental issues of common concern while supporting opportunities for sustainable innovation, clean technologies, and regional competitiveness.

Looking ahead, the CEC will continue to emphasize collaboration, inclusiveness, diversity, excellence, integrity, and innovation. At the same time, we will remain highly committed to meaningful involvement of all sectors of society, including industry, non-governmental organizations, academia, youth, and local and Indigenous peoples and local communities. The CEC remains uniquely positioned to capitalize on the promise of a new trilateral agreement and build on current momentum to take on our ambitious agenda and help secure a sustainable future.

The CEC provides a neutral forum for examining emerging and complex issues as well as possible strategies to address them. Much of our success can be attributed to our ability to address these important issues for North America by acting as a convener and facilitating consensus among experts and policy-makers in the three countries.

Over the years, we have facilitated the development of innovative joint approaches, experts’ networks, and tools such as the North American Marine Protected Areas Network, the Trinational Monarch Conservation Partnership, our Taking Stock report,* and the North American Environmental Atlas, an interactive mapping tool to research, analyze, and manage environmental issues in the region.

CEC’s wide-ranging topics also include work on extreme events and disaster risk reduction, conservation of the monarch butterfly along its migratory routes, and working to measure, reduce, and prevent food loss and waste across the food supply chain. We also engage youth, especially in our annual Youth Innovation Challenge, which offers young entrepreneurs the chance to win seed funding for their innovative solutions, to develop their solutions with mentors and peers, and to meet with their country’s top environmental officials during the annual CEC Council session.

With a particular focus on cultivating innovative and effective solutions (as well as diverse and inclusive stakeholder engagement and public participation as cross-cutting approaches in all our work), the CEC is well-positioned to serve as an ever-improving model for international environmental cooperation.

Transforming Words on Paper Into Actions for People and Planet

To address pressing issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss, a common approach that engages the whole of society is critical for our environment, our prosperity, and our health. The CEC will redouble its efforts to engage and include the private sector as a key partner in achieving our objectives and bringing benefits to communities. We welcome and encourage the involvement of all relevant sectors in the implementation of our vision for sustainable development in North America and harness the momentum from the winds of change.

In addition to the two new agreements in 2020, the Chair of the CEC Council also rotated from Canada, under the leadership of the Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and is now held by Michael Regan, Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Along with bold domestic commitments from the new U.S. Administration to issues of common concern, such as climate change and environmental justice, the CEC is already adapting to these priorities, and words are being transformed into action.

On the heels of President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate in April, the White House announced USD 1 million in new grants or cooperative agreements for work supporting environmental justice and climate resilience “with underserved and vulnerable communities, including Indigenous communities, in Canada, Mexico, and the United States to prepare them for climate-related impacts.” With renewed commitment in North America to “strengthen trilateral collaboration” and cooperate on pressing regional and global issues related to trade and the environment, the “trilateral course to address climate change and other environmental priorities” is being charted enthusiastically and optimistically once again.

“To address pressing issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss, a common approach that engages the whole of society is critical for our environment, our prosperity, and our health.”

As the CEC deepens its impact in advancing sustainable development in North America, we eagerly anticipate an ambitious first meeting of the three environment ministers of Canada, Mexico, and the United States under these new agreements and our new Strategic Plan. The United States will host CEC’s 28th Council Session (#CEC28) in Wilmington, North Carolina, from September 9 to 10, with a theme dedicated to climate change and environmental justice solutions.

Following #CEC28, the Chair of the CEC Council will rotate to Secretary María Luisa Álbores González, Mexico’s Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources. In this role, Mexico is expected to continue advancing key priorities such as the social element of environmental concerns and issues related to access to a healthy environment, particularly for Indigenous peoples and local communities and in the context of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As North America builds back better, environmental cooperation will remain at the core of our economic and social relationships.

Richard A. Morgan is the Executive Director of the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), based in Montreal, Canada. The CEC facilitates effective cooperation and public participation to conserve, protect, and enhance the North American environment in support of sustainable development for the benefit of present and future generations. See more at

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) Secretariat, Parties, or Joint Public Advisory Committee.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

*This is an online database that provides data on trinational pollution releases and transfers.