OMAHA (DTN) -- In her first major policy speech as U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai said one of her goals in trade negotiations will be to help make carbon sequestration policies being created by USDA "the new global standard."
Tai's speech during an online event hosted by the Center for American Progress stressed the importance of using trade policy to advance the Biden administration's environmental goals, including negotiating with trading partners to adopt practices that deal with climate change.
Tai, who heads the U.S Trade Representative's office (USTR), said comprehensive actions are needed to address climate change and the issue "must be at the center of U.S. foreign policy, national security and economic policy." The trade ambassador added that, "USTR sits at the intersection of all three areas."
The ambassador said she sees an array of issues that will be part of her focus in trade.
"The intersection of environment, climate change, labor and trade are key to our collective ability to compete, innovate and create livable wage jobs that will provide hope and opportunity for future generations and underserved communities," Tai said. "This is why I believe that trade policy is an essential and strategic part of the solution to these huge challenges."
Touching on several topics, Tai spoke just briefly on agriculture. Pointing to people in business seeing the need to tackle climate change, the ambassador said, "Climate-friendly and sustainable agricultural production is essential to meeting our climate and sustainability goals. Our farmers and ranchers can lead the world with innovative carbon conservation practices."
Tai added that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "has proposed ambitious ideas, including expanding the use of cover crops and making carbon capture a mainstream conservation practice. I am eager to work with him to help make these practices the new global standard."
USDA currently has been soliciting comments on how to implement President Joe Biden's executive order to tackle climate change. The comment period does not close until the end of April, but USDA leaders, including Vilsack, have spoken repeatedly since coming into office about beefing up conservation programs, helping private carbon markets develop and even possibly tapping the Commodity Credit Corp. to create a "carbon bank" program. So far, most of these items remain in the concept stage.
Looking historically at trade policy, Tai said the U.S. believed more trade liberalization would gradually improve environmental protection. Instead, Tai said, countries have been reluctant to raise their environmental standards.
"The reality is that the system itself creates an incentive to compete by maintaining low standards. Or, worse yet, by lowering those standards even further."
Low costs too often drive sourcing decisions by companies, creating pressure on countries to lower their environmental protection to attract investment, the ambassador said. "This is what people mean when they say the trade rules promote a race to the bottom."
Tai criticized the trading system and the World Trade Organization (WTO), saying WTO trade policies help encourage that "race to the bottom." She added, "This is part of the reason why, today, the WTO is considered by many as an institution that not only has no solutions to offer on environmental concerns but is part of the problem."
Trying to get environmental issues into trade agreements has often been blocked as "wrongheaded bleeding-heart attempts to incorporate 'social issues' into the trading system," Tai said, leading trade negotiators to typically ignore environmental policy in trade talks.
"For too long, the traditional trade community has resisted the view that trade policy is a legitimate tool in helping to solve the climate crisis," Tai said. "As we have so often seen with labor issues, there is a certain refuge in arguing that this is all a question of domestic policy and that we need not tackle the daunting task of building international consensus around new rules."
Still, Tai highlighted changes in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that put in new rules on wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and fishing, fishery subsidies, litter in oceans, as well as air and water pollution. That makes USMCA one of the strongest of any trade agreement in the world on the environment, she said.
"I am all too aware that, however laudable, they must actually be enforced."
Citing chronic challenges with illegal logging and overfishing, Tai said trade policy must address enforcement actions in both of those areas. She also talked about negotiations with South Korean companies that make electric batteries in the U.S. and the need for "a strong, diversified, and resilient supply chain of electric vehicle batteries in America" to expand U.S. manufacturing of electric vehicles.
The Biden administration's infrastructure plan calls for as much as $174 billion in investment in electric-car infrastructure, which has become a bone of contention with biofuel and agricultural groups that view the focus on electric vehicles as a threat to the biofuels industry.
Tai also noted President Biden had immediately rejoined the Paris climate agreement and signed an executive order making it clear his administration would take a "whole-of-government approach" to deal with climate change.
"As the science indicates, the window of opportunity to prevent a catastrophic environmental chain reaction is closing fast, and the United States must be a leader in the collective effort as we work toward a global solution," Tai said.
Tai added: "What we do here at home must be reflected in what we do abroad. Our domestic efforts cannot lead to the exportation of polluting industries to countries with lower standards."
With Earth Day next week, Biden is inviting 40 world leaders for a Summit on Climate on April 22-23, calling for collective action, Tai said. The goal of the summit is to announce more ambitious goals for reducing emissions, she said.
Politico also reported Thursday that Biden will sign another executive order on "climate-related financial risks" next week, further linking the federal government efforts on regulations for climate and industry "that would touch every sector of American industry, including banking and insurance, oil and gas, housing, agriculture, and federal contracting, purchasing and lending," Politico reported.
Federal Register notice on USDA's request for comments on tackling climate change: https://www.federalregister.gov/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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