Contentious Talks on Climate and Trade dominate G20 Summit (G20 Summit Recap Part 1/2)

Photo By: White House

On June 7-8 G20 leaders met in Hamburg, Germany for the 2017 G20 Summit, in what turned out to be a fractious two-day meeting. As I wrote in a recent post, predictions for the summit were that it would be hampered by disagreement among the G20 leaders on a variety of issues, particularly trade and climate change. Sure enough, those two issues were the defining storylines throughout the summit, a “venue better known for sleepy bromides about easy-to-agree-on issues.”

While disharmony on certain issues is not uncommon among G20 leaders, the level of disharmony at this summit was unmistakable, with the United States the clear outsider on a number of issues. One G20 veteran commented that G20 delegations usually arrive at the summits in a "collaborative spirit," but this year G20 leaders arrived at Hamburg expecting difficult discussions. Indeed, in her opening remarks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the differences between the United States and the rest of the G20 countries, but stressed the need for compromise when no clear consensus could be reached.

The contentious case of climate change: G19 + 1

Even before President Donald Trump announced in June his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Germany, as host of the summit, had identified climate change as one of the priorities for the summit. It seemed inevitable, then, that the decision to withdraw from the agreement was bound to pit the United States against the rest of the G20, all of whom are parties to the agreement.

After tense negotiations on the first day of the summit that carried on late into the night, G20 leaders settled on language in the leaders' communiqué that acknowledges U.S. withdrawal from the agreement while reaffirming the commitment of all other G20 countries to the agreement. While the communiqué clearly notes the U.S. decision to withdraw, language was inserted – reportedly with an objection by some other G20 countries – to say that the United States “will endeavor to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.” The communiqué proceeds to state that every other country considers the Paris Climate Agreement to be “irreversible” and reaffirms their “strong commitment to the Paris Agreement, moving swiftly towards its full implementation.” Furthermore, the other countries endorsed the G20 Hamburg Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth, a broad climate and energy plan that includes a detailed road map for reducing emissions.

While a unanimous declaration on climate change did not materialize, the outcome is nevertheless a success for the German presidency, and Merkel in particular, who worked to maintain a cohesive position on climate among the G19. Prior to the summit, some observers speculated that fossil fuel-dependent countries might hesitate to back the Paris Agreement, and that some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, might refuse to endorse the G20 climate action plan. Yet, the G19 unanimously reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement and each agreed to the climate action plan.

There’s a first time for everything: Concession on trade for “trade defense instruments”

Heading into the summit, there were concerns among some G20 leaders that the United States might not explicitly commit to free trade and resisting protectionism. After all, President Trump campaigned, and was ultimately elected, on a platform calling for an “America First” approach to foreign policy. G20 countries’ concerns were further stoked by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin earlier this year when, at a meeting of G20 finance ministers, he refused to provide an unequivocal answer when asked whether the United States would commit to reject protectionism.

To a certain extent, these concerns proved unfounded, as the final language in the leaders’ communiqué indicates a consensus among the G20 countries to “keep markets open” and “fight protectionism”. Yet, while G20 countries renewed their pledge against protectionism in the communiqué, this year’s statement was the first time that language was inserted to recognize the rights of countries to protect their markets. Specifically, the declaration made concessions for “the role of legitimate trade defense instruments,” in what is widely regarded to be a concession to the United States. Indeed, it was reported that sources indicated the United States was backpedaling on language condemning protectionism that President Trump agreed to at the G7 summit in May, and that trade discussions were held under threat of the United States placing restrictions on steel imports, prompting fears of trade wars between the United States, the European Union, and China.

Interestingly, there appear to be mixed views of the G20 trade outcomes among G20 leaders, with some leaders reportedly “particularly pleased” with the language on trade, while others were markedly frustrated. France’s Emmanuel Macron, for example, lamented that without more coordination among G20 countries, “we will be moving back toward narrow-minded nationalism.”


This blog post is part 1 of our G20 Summit recap. Read part 2 here.

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