China-EU pledge to fight climate change, but formal agreement derailed by trade dispute

Leaders commit to cutting back on fossil fuels, developing more green technology and helping raise funds to help poorer countries cut their emissions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 10:46am

The European Union and China warned US President Donald Trump on Friday he was making a major error by withdrawing from the Paris climate pact, but the pair failed to agree on a formal climate statement because of divisions over trade.

Speaking alongside Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, European Council President Donald Tusk said efforts to reduce pollution and combat rising sea levels would now continue without the United States. But a spat on trade and steel production underscored the differences in a sometimes difficult EU-China relationship.

“We are convinced that yesterday’s decision by the United States to leave the Paris agreement is a big mistake,” Tusk told a news conference with Li and the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker.

“The fight against climate change, and all the research, innovation and technological progress it will bring, will continue, with or without the US,” Tusk said.

While there’s no separate statement on climate change as it had been expected, a press release on European Commission’s website noted that EU and Chinese leaders “reaffirmed their commitment to implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change” and “highlighted the importance of fostering cooperation in their energy policies”.

Juncker was quoted in the statement as saying that EU is “happy to see that China is agreeing to our unhappiness about the American climate decision. This is helpful, this is responsible, and this is about inviting both, China and the European Union, to proceed with the implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

In addition, EU and Chinese leaders also looked forward to co-hosting, along with Canada, a major ministerial gathering in September on the climate change deal, according to the press release.

In a statement on the Chinese government website published on early morning Saturday, Li said that China and EU should “enhance cooperation on climate change and implementation of the Paris Accord”.

In their meeting, the three leaders committed to cutting back on fossil fuels, developing more green technology and helping raise funds to help poorer countries cut their emissions, but a dispute about trade ties scuppered plans for a formal joint statement.

Despite what officials described as a warm meeting, China and the European Union could not agree on a broader final communique meant to focus on a range of other issues discussed at the talks, including a commitment to free trade and measures needed to reduce a global steel glut.

The leaders’ news conference was delayed for three hours as they sought to find agreement.

According to one person present at the summit, China’s insistence on a reference that the European Union will eventually recognise China as an economy driven by the market, not the state, blocked the final 60-point statement.

That also meant there could be no agreement on a formal pledge to work together to reduce global steel production.

China’s annual steel output is almost double the EU’s total production and Western governments say Chinese steel exports have caused a global steel crisis.

That theme was an undercurrent of the day-long meeting. Before the formal EU-China summit got under way, Juncker referred at a business conference with Li to a World Bank report placing China 78th out of 190 countries in terms of the ease of doing business.

“A big economic powerhouse needs to be higher than mid-table,” he said, adding that a planned EU-Chinese investment treaty needed to be completed to ensure reciprocal relations.

France, Germany and Italy have mooted the idea of allowing the EU to block Chinese investment in Europe, partly because European companies are denied similar access in China and because of risks of China acquiring prized European technology.

In reply, Li said China was working hard to promote a trade balance, with Chinese tourism to Europe now far greater than EU tourism in China. Foreign investment opportunities, he said, were far different from when China first opened up.

“I do hope you can put things into context. We find the problems, but we are working on them ... Our ranking is getting better,” he said.

The meeting between China and the EU came just a day after Trump provoked worldwide disappointment and anger by announcing plans to withdraw from the Paris pact, which curbs fossil-fuel production.

In a Rose Garden announcement on Thursday, Trump framed the decision as one made in the best interests of his country, saying the Paris deal was “very unfair, at the highest level” to the US energy sector. China would “be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants” and “increase its emissions by a staggering number of years – 13”.

Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, said his administration would begin negotiations either to re-enter the Paris accord or to have a new agreement “on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers”.

Many US allies have expressed alarm over the move by the US to abandon the chief effort to slow the planet’s warming. The leaders of France, Germany and Italy joined to “note with regret” the Trump decision and express doubts about any change in the accord.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the decision by Trump to pull the US from the accord “can’t and won’t stop all those of us who feel obliged to protect the planet”.

Merkel said the announcement by Trump was “extremely regrettable and that’s putting it very ­mildly”.

But she said in a brief statement that “it’s now necessary to look forward after last night’s announcement by the US administration”.

Christiana Figueres, who was a top United Nations climate official from 2010 to last year, said China “could be the leader”, picking up the leadership role in combating climate change left by the United States.

“It’s not what China needs to do, it is not about what the US has pushed China to do: quite the contrary, it’s what China wants to do. China does want to protect its economy, to be competitive in the future,” she said.

Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London, said Trump’s move had forced the EU into carving out a new strategy for various global issues.

“Trump has posed a huge challenge, and it is important now for the EU to have a game plan to engage with a US for the first time in living memory that is unreliable, and potentially unstable,” he said.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated Premier Li Keqiang and top EU officials had agreed on a joint statement. This has been amended.

Additional reporting by Reuters, AP