But trade in the controversial material also likely won't rise if trade deal is signed, they say.
Canadian exports of asbestos to India won't be examined as part of an environmental assessment recently launched in connection with the Canada-India free trade talks, say experts—and that has some calling on the government to widen its scope.
A Nov. 12 notice in the Canada Gazette, an official federal government publication, announced that Canada is now conducting a strategic environmental assessment as part of ongoing talks launched in September 2010 toward a Canada-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.
The government is inviting Canadians to submit their views by Jan. 11 on "any likely and significant environmental impacts" that the proposed trade deal, which enters its third round of talks in Delhi from Dec. 13 to 15, might have on Canada.
In light of continued controversy over asbestos, some see the export of the material to India as a major environmental issue that is worth examining. Canada exported $40.3 million worth of asbestos-related products to India in 2010, according to Industry Canada, and the World Health Organization says asbestos causes an estimated 8,000 deaths each year in India—a phenomenon described in a recent Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary as an "epidemic."
But the environmental assessment won't cover asbestos exports because the assessment's mandate is to only look at domestic environmental impacts, says Aaron Cosbey, associate and senior adviser for trade and investment at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
While these environmental assessments have been a regular feature of trade negotiations for a decade, since the assessment is limited to impacts in Canada, asbestos exports would only likely be tackled, if at all, by the Indian government, agreed Dan Ciuriak, a former deputy chief economist at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade who sat on the committee that established the procedures and the manual for federal environmental assessments.
India, however, doesn't conduct any of its own environmental assessments for trade deals, said Mr. Cosbey. The Canada-India joint study that was released at the launch of the talks also says that India's current policy is not to include environmental issues in trade talks.
"I can't see this issue being addressed anywhere in the talks," he wrote in an email.
That has William Amos, director of the Ecojustice environmental law clinic at the University of Ottawa, calling on the government to widen its scope. There is merit to the trade talks looking at the impact of asbestos exports to India—even if it could be argued that the environmental assessment itself did not have the mandate to do so, he said.
"There's a purpose to a strategic environmental assessment, and I think its purpose is limited. There are bigger questions, and some of those questions don't extend beyond the scope of narrow [free trade agreements]; they go to the issues of, 'What are the impacts of increased Canadian exports of products to India, in particular, asbestos?'" said Mr. Amos.
Prominent anti-asbestos campaigner Kathleen Ruff agreed that the trade talks should look into Canada's exports of asbestos to India.
"It is a convenient way of having a double standard when the environmental impact of Canada's trading activities with India excludes the impact in India," she wrote in an email.
When asked about the potential to examine asbestos exports as part of the Canada-India trade talks, a spokesperson from Foreign Affairs and International Trade wrote in an email only that "As is routine for Canada's trade negotiations, an environmental assessment of the Canada-India CEPA will take place. Other countries assess trade negotiations according to their own laws and regulations."
Asbestos tariff unlikely to change
But all of this is not to say that the asbestos trade between Canada and India would rise if the trade deal goes through.
For that to happen, business would have to see an incentive to trade more. But Mr. Cosbey is quick to caution that the applied tariff rate for asbestos in India—the actual amount of duty that must be paid on the product—is at 10 per cent, relatively low compared to its technical upper limit of 40 per cent.
The trade talks would thus have to hammer out a deal on the upper limit to get the applied rate even lower, he said, meaning it would be unlikely to happen.
Environmental assessments are also typically angled toward more traditional issues associated with the environment, like greenhouse gas emissions, said Mr. Ciuriak.
He said they typically examine three things: whether a trade deal would make the Canadian economic structure adjust toward more or less greenhouse gas-intensive factors; whether the trade growth that is expected to occur will lead to a growth in greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption; and whether increased trade would lead to promoting the use of environmentally-friendly technology that may in fact offset other negative environmental outcomes.
But he said an environmental assessment is for the most part a vague exercise since there is little data that can be used to directly examine the environmental impacts of a trade deal. As well, they do not bind the country to halt progress on a trade deal if the outcome is environmentally negative.
Conservative government support
The asbestos issue has been back in the headlines ever since a failed Nov. 1 NDP vote in the House of Commons on banning asbestos exports saw five Conservative MPs abstain instead of voting with their colleagues, according to a Nov. 20 Canadian Press report.
CP also reported that on Nov. 14, industry scientists privately met with roughly a dozen Conservative parliamentarians.
The Harper government supports asbestos exports, even though it's a construction material banned in Canada and in several other developed nations, and while the government is spending millions of dollars removing asbestos from federal buildings in Ottawa.
The government demonstrated its support for the industry when it blocked asbestos from being included in a UN hazardous materials treaty on June 22. And Mr. Harper himself made clear his support when he visited an asbestos mining town in Quebec during the spring federal election campaign.
The government maintains the product is safe if handled properly, similar to other potentially dangerous industrial products regularly used in manufacturing or heavy industry.
The Chrysotile Institute, a non-profit industry group, says chrysotile asbestos can be encased in high-density products with no associated health risks, and can be used in fabrication safety if appropriate equipment is worn and procedures are followed. The group also says the world's asbestos mines have agreed to supply asbestos only to companies that show they are complying with national health regulations.
However, the WHO says all forms of asbestos can cause cancer in humans, as well as other diseases like fibrosis of the lungs. It estimates that over 107,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases each year.
Other prominent health organizations like the Canadian Medical Association also condemn asbestos use. At the CMA's general assembly in August, delegates voted almost unanimously to support a motion that opposed the Harper government's decision to block the listing of chrysotile asbestos at the UN as hazardous.
Published November 23, 2011