EU sees thirsty China as a partner at Rio

  

China’s growing water problems make it a likely ally for European efforts to press global action on sustainable development at a UN conference later this year, Denmark’s environment minister said yesterday (25 January).

While European officials have questioned some of Beijing’s climate credentials, Ida Auken said China’s looming water challenges could help jump-start international efforts to cut waste and aid developing nations that share China’s resource shortages.

Auken, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the European Union would take a leading role at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

“Neither Denmark nor the EU can safeguard the world’s water supplies alone,” she said in Brussels in a speech on the Danish presidency's priorities. “That’s why at this conference we need to gather more allies to reduce water pollution and ensure clean drinking water for everyone.

“We must try for a set up where China and the EU are represented as equal partners in an effort to promote a green transition of the economy.”

The UN is poised to release its Global Sustainability Report on Monday, setting the stage for the June talks in Rio. Auken vowed to make environmental issues a priority at the EU level and at the conference.

‘EU must take the lead’

Rio offers the opportunity “to make concrete and ambitious commitments on sustainable development. EU is a driving force in this respect," she said, "and the EU must take the lead on this issue.”

But recent international efforts to tackle climate change have had mixed results, often with the United States and China working to weaken EU-backed proposals.

A UN official familiar with the sustainability report due out on Monday declined to comment on specifics, but told EurActiv that the document is likely to press for major commitments on expanding of renewable energy to developing nations.

That would be in line with one of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s development priorities and the latest UN Human Development Report, which urges developed nations to cut subsidies to fossil fuels and channel the money into renewable projects to provide electricity to the estimated 1.5 billion people who are off-grid.

This week in Brussels, the Danish presidency promoted a water cooperation deal with China to replace an expiring EU programme on riverbasin management. A new arrangement might help the Chinese improve efficiency, protect groundwater, and reduce flooding, said Jakob Nielsen, head of the water sector division, at the Danish Ministry of Environment.

The discussions would help set the stage for working with China to make water conservation and access a core concern at Rio.

Beijing recently announced a five-year plan to improve water efficiency and address chronic urban shortages.

Common ground on water

In her speech, Auken said conservation is an area of common international concern and less incendiary than topics like carbon emissions.

“We can’t neglect the fact that Europe is challenged by a financial crisis, but Europe as well as the rest of the world are also faced by the challenges of an increasing scarcity of natural resources. Water is one of them, so we have to solve these two crises together.”

But challenged on working with China – which has a spotty record on human rights and recently threatened the EU over its controversial emissions standards for airlines – the Socialist minister said it was an economic reality.

“It’s not a question of whether we like the Chinese or not. They are there, they are a huge economic power and we cannot ignore that,” she said. “We can’t ignore human rights issues but China also offers a market out of the financial crisis.”

China is the EU's second trading partner, after the United States, and the EU's biggest source of imports, according to the European Commission, and the EU is also China's biggest trading partner.

Timeline: 
  • 30 Jan.: Release of the UN Global Sustainability Report in Addis Abeba (Ethiopia)
  • 12-17 March: 6th World Water Forum in Marseille (France)
  • 20-22 June: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (Brazil)
External links: 
  • Danish presidency of the EU:Website
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