European diplomats have expressed fears to BuzzFeed News that action on climate change will fall short at this year's G20 summit because the host, Argentina, doesn't want to upset US president Donald Trump.
They also worry the host is planning to sidestep a debate on another thorny issue, multilateral trade – the set of principles and rules that the world’s governments adhere to, and that underpin multilateral global trade – for the same reason.
When Argentine officials presented “issue notes” at a meeting in Bariloche in mid-December outlining the agenda for this year’s G20 summit to emissaries from the two dozen participating governments, a number of key issues were missing from their presentations. According to two diplomats present, those were “climate change”, “Paris Agreement”, “protectionism”, and the “multilateral trading system.”
As the G20 host, Argentina sets its priorities for the summit and coordinates how the overall agenda is structured. But the overall content has to ultimately be agreed, and negotiated, by all members during the year-long process.
Two European diplomats who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity said they were left dismayed and disappointed after seeing the notes – and with a sneaking feeling that Argentina would be looking for an unambitious consensus on climate action by simply avoiding the topics that put the Trump administration at loggerheads with the other 19 governments throughout 2017.
The diplomats said the Trump presidency was such a disruptive force that it was creating new dynamics between countries, and causing the world’s governments to forge new alliances on the global stage.
“[Argentina’s] desire to keep a consensus results in a tendency to try and side-step difficult issues such as the Paris Agreement and the future of the multilateral trading system,” one of the officials said.
At the meeting in Bariloche, a US official read out prepared remarks to underline the Trump administration’s support for an energy transition, and to help countries, especially emerging economies, along this path as long as any measures adopted cover a diverse portfolio of fuels, including “clean fossil fuels”.
“The US intervention was a bit of a buzzkill,” the diplomat said. “Their argument is that there shouldn’t only be a focus on new energy sources, but also [a focus] on the importance that ‘clean’ fossil fuels continue to have in light of low prices and the access this means for poorer countries.
“Basically, the US says it recognises the overall goal, reducing emissions, cleaner lands, water, and so on, but wants to do it their way.”
An Argentine government source told BuzzFeed News that in the G20 agenda, climate issues will be treated in “a manner that emphasises the continuity of dialogue and the search for common ground, with a focus on sustainable finance and promoting adaptation to climate change and extreme weather events.”
“The Climate Sustainability working group will address issues that feature in the Paris Agreement, like NDCs [nationally determined contributions],” the source said.
Fundamental differences between the Trump administration and the rest of the world’s advanced economies over trade and especially climate change were laid bare at a string of international meetings last year, including at the G20 in Germany and the G7 in Italy.
The US was often left isolated at these meetings after officials from the Trump administration repeatedly questioned some of the basic principles that have underpinned decades of international relations – and the contrasts were put on record in the summits’ conclusions.
Now the choice facing the world’s most powerful governments will be whether to continue to highlight these important differences or seek instead a watered down compromise with the US.
BuzzFeed News understands that the aim of the Argentine presidency is to seek a consensus around its three priorities for this year’s G20 – the future of work, infrastructure for development, and a sustainable food future – with topics such as “climate sustainability” and gender equality permeating all three.
The rationale is that an attitude that carves out the US's differing point of view isn't sustainable in the long term. But European diplomats are sceptical about the feasibility of the Argentine approach.
“The tactic may well keep the US on side, but it will not work for Europe’s governments,” one senior European diplomat told BuzzFeed News.
Argentina’s decision to separate energy and climate working groups, which prepare the ground for the agreement that leaders then sign up to at the end of the year-long process, is one example where European governments feel there will be a lack of concrete progress.
“This [separation] means you will have meetings on different dates, at different locations, and energy ministers negotiating without climate and environment ministers present,” the diplomat said.
They added: “The net result would be that while the energy agenda will show some continuity with the previous summit, for example on energy efficiency and renewables, there is a problem with the climate agenda. It’s minimal, not very ambitious, and deals more with adaptation, for example to extreme weather events, than with mitigation and phasing out carbon emissions on a more aggressive timetable.”
The official predicted that a need to add bite to climate action would come to a head before the 20 leaders meet in Buenos Aires on 30 November: “The Europeans, including the UK, are determined to keep pushing this, and there will be a showdown between August and November.”
Although climate change remains the issue where there are the biggest differences between the US and everyone else, trade follows immediately afterwards.
Argentina’s presentation on trade avoided references to contentious issues such as the “multilateral trade system”, which has long underpinned global trade, and “protectionism”, which international forums pre-Trump historically rejected in all its forms. The presentation focused instead on trade in agriculture and a “new industrial revolution”.
Referring to the presentation, a European diplomat noted that “they [Argentina] cannot simply ignore the issue of reinforcing and improving the multilateral trade system”.
Argentine officials reject suggestions that the host country is shying away from placing multilateral trade high on the agenda, pointing to the G20 vision document that states: “Trade is an engine of growth, but fair trade is an engine of development, which requires fair global institutions and clear rules. We need a rules-based system that is strong and WTO-consistent at multilateral, regional, bilateral and national levels.”
An Argentine government source told BuzzFeed News: “President [Mauricio] Macri at the opening ceremony was forthright in emphasizing the importance of multilateral trading systems. The fact that Argentina intends to hold a trade ministerial (which Germany didn’t) points to the importance the government places on international trade.”
Still, a second European diplomat said: “Argentina is deluding itself if it thinks it can avoid this debate by hiding the card on another table. The leaders will want to reaffirm these principles when they meet.”
One consequence of the Trump presidency, according to the European diplomats, is the emergence of new dynamics, and alliances, between the world’s governments.
“French, EU and Chinese officials used the meeting in Argentina to voice concerns about Trump’s tax reforms", a diplomat said. "Officials also discussed whether the G20 was the right place to debate differences they had at the World Trade Organisation. On free trade, China and Europe are allied against the US. While on steel and excess capacity, the US is allied with the EU against China.”
“However,” they added, “the problem with the US is that it’s not a multilateral approach but always ‘America first’. And there is a constant threat of unilateral action [against China] that would hurt the EU, Canada, Mexico and others.”
“China takes a ‘wait and see’ approach," the same diplomat went on to say. "They wait for the US to speak first, and try to avoid any clashes. Beijing is looking to exploit the situation by taking on a leadership role despite a tainted CV on trade that has protectionism in its DNA. They are one of the world’s biggest polluters but their commitment [to fighting climate change] seems sincere.”
BuzzFeed News understands that at the mid-December meeting in Argentina, Chinese officials spoke up for multilateralism, claiming that “no country was an island in a globalised world”.
“Meanwhile, [French president Emmanuel] Macron is determined to become the ‘leader of the free world’,” the same diplomat chuckled, referring to the December climate summit hosted by the French president as well as his push to make multilateralism the central theme of this year’s Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development meetings.
Elsewhere, officials described broad support among the G20 members towards less divisive issues such as the future of work, cybersecurity, financial inclusion, remittances, development in Africa, counterterrorism, anti-corruption, infrastructure, and Antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
However, the same diplomats noted a reluctance among some officials, and the US above all, to expand the G20 agenda to include new topics such as marine waste, obesity, and other health-related issues.
“The US sees the healthcare debate in the context of Obamacare,” one of the two European diplomats told BuzzFeed News.
“At the meeting, a US diplomat noted that it’s not the responsibility of governments provide healthcare to the entirety of their populations and any work on universal health care should respect differences in provision and the role of the private sector,” the diplomat said.
The second official noted a reticence on Argentina's part to take on new issues without majority support from members.
According to the two European officials, Canada, which is hosting this year’s G7, is likely to face a similar balancing act to Argentina.
Reports in Bloomberg suggest the US is already fighting against references to climate change in the new NAFTA deal the Trump administration is renegotiating with Canada and Mexico.
“They [Canada] will probably focus heavily on practical issues such as oceans, coastal towns, and extreme weather events, and, despite gender equality being one of their priorities, could try to keep controversial discussions about sexual reproduction rights off the leaders’ table,” one of the diplomats told BuzzFeed News.
The US was against defining sexual and reproductive health as a right as part of last year’s G7 process, arguing that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning or sexual and reproductive health care”.
A Canadian government insider with insight into the country’s preparations for the G7 told BuzzFeed News: “Canada will be bringing a lot of the tactics adopted during NAFTA renegotiations to the G7: ‘clear focus, don’t rise to the bait, ignore the outbursts’.”
The source went on to say: “Canada will not go head-to-head with the US because it would be like arguing with a toddler, and they don’t abide by the process. The [Canadian G7] presidency will be focused on concrete outcomes.”
Canada’s priorities for the G7 include advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, and “working together on climate change, oceans, and clean energy”. The G7 summit is also seen as an important stepping stone to a major women’s rights conference Vancouver is hosting in 2019.
A European diplomat said: “Italy and Germany had an ‘easier’ task because the US was still developing its positions, and in many cases these were incomplete or didn’t exist at all. For Canada and Argentina it will be more difficult as the US positions have firmed up.”