12/08/2017 03:27 EST | Updated 12/11/2017 05:03 EST

Environment concerns in trade talks with China progressing well, says McKenna

OTTAWA — Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says Canada and China have made good progress on environmental laws and regulations that are among the barriers to launching official free trade talks.

McKenna is in China this week as part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's trade mission, as well as for meetings of her own aimed largely at connecting Canadian clean tech companies with Chinese enterprises.

Trudeau left China on Thursday without officially launching the formal free trade talks the two countries have been working towards, citing issues such as gender, the environment and labour among the sticking points.

Some Canadian businesses fear less-stringent Chinese regulations and laws could make it harder for them to compete in a free trade environment.

McKenna said Canada has made clear the environment is one of its key issues ahead of launching formal free trade talks with China but she doesn't think it will be a deal breaker.

"I think that is an area we've made very good progress over the past few years," she said.

"I think that's one area where I think we have a lot of common ground and I think we can certainly build on that should we enter into formal trade negotiations. I think both Canada and China see that as a win-win."

McKenna believes China is firmly committed to combating climate change and improving environmental protections, pointing to things like its commitment to the Paris climate accord, its recent development of a national emissions market for carbon-heavy industries, and even its kicking off a Chinese national parks system.

She says there are two ministerial-level discussions starting up between Canada and China, on climate change and clean technology growth.

Intellectual property protections will be among the issues critical for Canadian clean tech companies and are something she says a free trade agreement could help protect.

However she noted there are Canadian companies already operating in China with confidence, pointing specifically to Ballard Power, a British Columbia-based fuel cell manufacturer which has an agreement with a Chinese company.

McKenna said one of her roles is to help connect clean tech companies from Canada with the Chinese market, noting it can often take government assistance because businesses in China looking for Canadian technology are state-owned.

How a free trade agreement would manage the multitude of state-owned enterprises in China is also one of the barriers to a free trade agreement with the world's most populous nation.

Canada is aligning itself with China and the European Union, hoping to be seen as the world's leaders on environmental policies, particularly when it comes to climate change. The three are trying to help fill the void left by the United States and the climate change-skepticism of President Donald Trump.

But Canada's international climate diplomacy was dealt a blow this week when its climate change ambassador had to resign her post following a family tragedy. Jennifer MacIntyre was only appointed to the job in June, assigned to help McKenna lead Canada's international push on climate change policy.

But in October, her husband suddenly died, which led to MacIntyre's decision to step away from the high-profile and travel-heavy role so she could be with her two young daughters.

"I'm devastated for her personally," McKenna said. "She was an excellent climate ambassador."

She said the government will look for someone else to fill the role.

"That role is critically important because Canada is seen as a leader on climate action," said McKenna.

"We believe that we need to be showing leadership, especially right now, if the U.S. is going to step back, Canada is going to need to step up more."

— follow @mrabson on Twitter.