EU, China move to deepen ties. The potential gap left by the US will be difficult to fill.
Author: Kalina Oroschakoff
MARRAKECH, Morocco — The United States and China went from being the bad boys of global climate diplomacy to its champions.
Now, the tag team of the world’s top two polluters may be undone by Donald Trump, who has pledged to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement.
Some Europeans want the EU to be China’s new climate dance partner.
“We always had very good relations with China, but in view of the coming circumstances, we will become much more active,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, European commissioner for climate action and energy, after meeting China’s chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua in Marrakech.
The EU has long played a key role in climate diplomacy. It helped engineer the final push for an agreement in Paris last year by corralling a coalition ranging from sinking island states to big industrial economies like Japan and fast-growing emerging countries like India and Brazil. Europe also pioneered many of the approaches now being pushed more widely around the world, from its Emissions Trading System carbon market, to investing heavily in renewable energy, which has helped push down the price of solar and wind power to levels that are increasingly competitive with coal and gas.
“I am fully convinced that Europe now has to fill the gap, which the U.S. will leave behind,” Germany’s Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks told reporters at the COP22 climate summit in Morocco, where deliberations ended Friday. “As Europeans we have to close ranks with China.”
It’s unclear if Brussels can be the same kind of partner for Beijing as Washington. Unlike a nation state, the EU is a cumbersome and slow-moving body. It took a lot of arm twisting and pressure for the EU to ratify the Paris agreement (something not all member states have completed), a process spurred by panic at being left behind when the U.S. and China took the lead in speedily approving the climate deal earlier this year.
The most likely outcome of a U.S. retreat from climate diplomacy isn’t a Beijing-Brussels axis but a multi-polar world of shifting alliances.
The EU also sends mixed messages on climate change: Brussels is ambitious, and some member countries like Germany — pushing to drop most nuclear and fossil fuels by mid-century — are out in front when it comes to going green. Others like Poland see a long future for coal.
Relations between China and Europe — and in particular Germany — are strong, but it’s not that easy for a bloc of 28 countries to simply decide to take on a new leadership role — even if Germany and the European Commission agree on deepening ties with China to push the climate agenda, a European government source cautioned.
There is “a bit of a question mark what Europe’s leadership capacity will be,” said Liz Gallagher of E3G, an environmental think tank.
China has been taken aback by Trump’s unexpected presidency and its impact on climate policy. Beijing has already fired back at Trump’s 2012 tweet, saying climate change was a Chinese-inspired hoax aimed at harming U.S. business, though it also says the U.S. remains a crucial climate diplomacy partner.
“The recent election of the U.S. has really awakened the world,” said Liu Zhenmin, deputy foreign minister and vice-president of the Chinese delegation. “Of course, people are worried” that the U.S. under Trump will repeat what it did in 2001 under President George W. Bush, when it backed away from the Kyoto Protocol, a pact that set binding targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, he added.
It’s also opened up an opportunity for China to take on a new leadership role. “The way in which China made clear it’s going to continue to move forward and wants to play a leadership role internationally on the issue — I think that stands out,” said David Waskow of the World Resources Institute.
Liu said he hoped China’s place in international climate efforts would grow in the coming years, building on the “very important” role it has already played over the past few years.
Liu offered a mini-history lesson, pointing out that the global climate negotiation process was actually kickstarted under the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan. “That’s why I hope that the Republican administration will continue to support this process,” he said, adding that China “will continue its effort to support the Paris agreement.”
He also said that China would look to “enhance” cooperation with the European Union, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter.
The most likely outcome of a U.S. retreat from climate diplomacy isn’t a Beijing-Brussels axis to replace the Beijing-Washington one. Instead, a multi-polar world of shifting alliances among the EU, China and big polluters like India may emerge.
“The vacuum left by if the U.S. withdrew, which is still not a foregone conclusion, could be filled by [the EU],” said Thoriq Ibrahim, energy minister for the Maldives and the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States. “But I suspect China, India and other big countries would also take on important leadership roles, as well.”