Climate change has not been a major feature in U.S. trade agreements. That may change under President-elect Joe Biden. Biden on the campaign trail called for conditioning future trade agreements on partners’ ability to meet their climate targets under the Paris climate agreement, which he plans to rejoin when he enters office Wednesday.

Environmental advocates, trade experts and lawyers told me this shift will help build a global consensus to avert the worst effects of climate change, even though it may rattle certain allies. It will allow Biden to beef up environmental standards at home without the risk of American businesses losing out to companies that operate in countries with laxer environmental standards, they say.

“The Biden administration wants to have a trading system where people are not advantaged by declining to follow through on commitments they’ve made to any number of issues, but notably on climate change in the 2015 Paris agreement,” said Daniel Esty, a professor at Yale Law School with expertise in environment and trade policy.
The shift under Biden could spell a major change in the country’s trade approach.

The issue could come to a head sooner than later: More than 100 lawmakers sent a letter yesterday urging Biden to add Paris commitments to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who leads the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, points out that a simple majority in Congress can approve new multilateral environmental agreements under the deal. Blumenauer hopes the Biden administration takes advantage of that.

After all, although the United States routinely signs trade agreements that include environmental provisions, critics say that those commitments lack teeth.

President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden. (Evan Vucci/AP)

And the U.S. trade record is even more sparse when it comes to climate change issues specifically. Republicans in 2016 successfully pushed for a measure to limit the fast-tracking of any deals that require domestic carbon cuts. When the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal was signed two years later under President Trump, its language made no explicit mention of climate change.