The new Trans Pacific Partnership agreement will have an undeniable influence on the future health of New Zealanders and needs the full attention of the nation’s health professionals.

The rebranded Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TransPacific Partnership (CPTPP) pays lip service to broader social and environmental concerns, but privileges transnational and foreign investors over human and environmental health. 

This article focuses on the CPTPP in the context of the global climate crisis and its potential impacts on health.

There is scientific consensus on the harmful effects of climate change on health – so much so that it is identified as the most serious threat to global public health this century. Direct impacts include death, illness and injury due to extreme weather events. Indirect impacts include shifting patterns of infectious disease, air pollution, freshwater contamination, impacts on the built environment from sea level rise, forced migration, economic collapse, conflict over scarce resources and increasing food insecurity. Mental health impacts are also significant, particularly within indigenous and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

Climate change is already affecting New Zealanders’ health, according to a recent Royal Society report, particularly in vulnerable groups: children, elderly, low-income, Māori and Pacific populations.

Yet significant health benefits could be achieved through reduction of emissions in sectors such as transport, housing, energy and agriculture. Indeed, tackling and mitigating climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century – but governments must be willing to make bold changes in social and economic policy.

The Paris Agreement, signed in April 2016, represents a significant step towards addressing climate change threats partly by reducing carbon-intensive industry. Yet this commitment is directly at odds with the binding rules of the CPTPP. It is vital therefore to examine how the treaty might threaten essential government action on climate change.

Only six of the 30 chapters of the CPTPP deal with trade in goods such as meat, milk and motorcars. The rest of the 6,000 pages cover matters such as electronic commerce, government procurement, labour and environment. Nowhere is the term “climate change” mentioned.

There is oblique acknowledgment of the climate crisis in Chapter 20 which states: “transition to a low emissions economy requires collective action” and that the parties “shall cooperate to address matters of joint or common interest” such as “development of cost-effective, low emissions technologies and alternative, clean and renewable energy sources”. There is also recognition of other environmental issues including ship pollution of the marine environment, depletion of the ozone layer, overfishing and conservation of flora, fauna and natural resources.

But it is important to realise from a legal standpoint that these soft acknowledgements contrast starkly with enforceable rules designed to protect the profitability of foreign investments.

The CPTPP would limit the New Zealand government’s regulatory powers and override democratic legislation. There are strong and expansive rights for foreign investors through the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism. This allows foreign investors to sue governments if they adopt regulations that, for example, erode the expected value of assets through environmental regulations such as the phasing out of fossil fuel extraction.

These protections are not available to New Zealand citizens and businesses, yet they extend to “every asset that [a foreign] investor owns or controls, directly or indirectly, that has the characteristics of an investment, including such characteristics as the commitment of capital or other resources, the expectation of gain or profit, or the assumption of risk”.

For instance, a Canadian energy company brought a claim of US$15 billion against the US under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) after the Obama administration cancelled construction of the Keystone XL pipeline on environmental grounds including concerns about climate change.

The fundamental objective of treaties like the CPTPP is to protect investor business interests (primarily transnational corporations) by limiting the legislative power of future governments, even if they gain a democratic mandate for change.

The Labour-led Government has launched into its first term with bold plans to align New Zealand’s economy with priorities dictated by the urgency of the climate crisis which includes introducing a Zero Carbon Bill that sets a 2050 target for net-zero carbon emissions. Health professionals will have the opportunity to contribute to the nationwide consultation beginning in May.

Ironically, the Government’s ambition will be seriously undercut if it signs a treaty that underwrites the economic status quo and creates strong legal headwinds for essential regulatory action. A systematic and independent assessment of the CPTPP’s anticipated impacts on climate disruption, and on mitigation strategies, should be undertaken and released for public discussion before the treaty is ratified. The assessment should also include an analysis of the projected impacts on population health and equity.

Such an assessment is particularly critical as climate change poses such clear risks to the health of New Zealanders, and the constraints on climate action conferred by the CPTPP (as presently formulated) would prevent important steps to protect our health and create a fairer society.

Associate Professor David Menkes is from the Department of Psychological Medicine and Dr Rhys Jones is from Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, both at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. The original, more extensive version of this article appeared in New Zealand Medical Journal on 9 March, co-authored by Wellington solicitor Oliver Hailes and two Christchurch-based doctors, clinical microbiologist Joshua Freeman and forensic psychiatrist Erik Monasterio.

Dr Rhys Jones is from Te Kupenga Hauora Māori at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

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