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China’s Time to Shine as US Withdraws from International Effort to Combat Climate Change

When it comes to President Donald Trump’s Twitter page, there is no shortage of inane posts, particularly in relation to global warming. Of these tweets, however, the one suggesting that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to hinder US manufacturing ambitions as opposed to a widely accepted scientific observation has garnered particularly widespread attention. The feed of @realDonaldTrump is a true bevy of fact-defying opinions about the current climate crisis: He seems to believe cold temperatures are sufficient evidence to debunk a claim supported by 97 percent of the world’s scientific community.

In 2014, Trump wrote, “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice.” While these tweets are peripheral to his larger, more violent volley of alternative facts, it is becoming ever-more apparent that his tweets can translate into codified policy. Domestically, this shift means coal companies are now lawfully permitted to jettison their heavy-metal debris into streams and contaminate local water sources. And while domestic concerns are important, imminent changes to US foreign policy could alter the dynamics of the current world order.

Last year, the US brokered The Paris Agreement, a deal with 195 other countries to confront the global rise of greenhouse gasses. The agreement committed signatories to keeping the global average temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius, maintaining lower greenhouse gas emissions, and raising their domestic environmental standards. The Paris Agreement was an unprecedented turning point in the fight against climate change, but scientists warn that even the multilateral agreement and two-degree goal won’t be enough — governments must do much more to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

Reports are already swirling that President Trump intends to withdraw from the Paris Accords. Though this impending possibility hasn’t yet caused other countries to consider similar actions, it has elicited condemnation from other nations and left a massive leadership vacuum in the fight against climate change. The US was not only a leading force in the decadeslong negotiations of the Paris Agreement but during the Obama Administration, it also began practicing what it preached as a model for other nations. During his eight years in office, President Obama took significant steps towards combating climate change through policy. For example, he pledged to cut carbon emissions 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels in the next ten years through the Clean Power Plan.

However, with the US reconsidering its role in the Climate Accords and overall commitment to fighting global warming, China has a unique opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the United States, especially in forums like the UN. China has already begun to position itself as the authority figure in Sino-Third World relations, erecting a sphere of influence in places like Southeast Asia. This ambition lies at the core of each iteration of the Communist Party of China’s periodic Five Year Plans. Given that smaller, developing countries are often situated on the front lines of climate change — facing a rising number of climate refugees and natural disasters — climate change offers an ideal conduit for further cultivating that foreign influence. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), China was present as a part of the Group of 77, or G77, a coalition of developing nations pursuing similar collective economic interests in the UN’s monetary negotiations. Although China’s membership isn’t official, it has provided financial and political support.

It appears that China is already starting to capitalize on the American policy shift. Xie Zhenhua, China’s top negotiator for climate talks has recently said that China would “act as [a] facilitator to boost climate negotiations on implementing the Paris Agreement, regardless of the stance that the United States takes.” Throughout the press coverage of the Paris climate talks, Beijing repeatedly emphasized the idea that it didn’t see this commitment as a philanthropic or humanitarian effort, but as an initiative that would inherently benefit the Chinese people. In light of the severe health crisis the country faces due to air pollution, and the “red alert” over air pollution in Beijing that coincided with the Paris conference, this claim has a notable element of validity.

Beyond public safety, there is economic potential at stake in combatting climate change as well. In fact, even before the accords, China displayed a tangible commitment to its goals at climate talks. In fact, it has invested more in green energy development than the United States — despite the discrepancy in the sizes of their economies — establishing itself as the world’s leading investor in renewable energy. One look at its most recent Five Year Plan renders it impossible to deny that combatting climate change has become a national priority. The plan holds ambitious goals for cutting dependency on coal while increasing sources of renewable energy by 30 percent over the next 15 years. Beijing’s investments will be diverted away from carbon-based industry and towards sustainable energy initiatives. In a state-run economy, these investments translate into far more than mere subsidies; they set the economic agenda for the next few years.

These efforts are hardly a sudden departure: Despite high levels of growth in GDP and population, China’s coal consumption is at its lowest point since before 2000. This poses a sharp contrast to the US, where scientists have reported that we could already be at 100 percent renewable energy if we allocated consummate funds. As shown, it has serious government backing that proliferates innovation and industry expansion. China has already seen some fruits of its labor, becoming the international leader in installed wind power capacity, while the US’ best advancements in clean energy have come from a boot-strapped private sector with few subsidies from the government. With proper funding, companies like Tesla could power the US’ entire electric grid, but this potential has not been fulfilled by the public or private sector.

In this light, China will witness the economic returns of a prolific industry (an industry seeing close to 2 trillion of investment per year) that the US will struggle to meet. The most recent Five Year Plan sets out to increase wind and solar power to 210 GW and 110 GW, which would lead to sales of five million new electric vehicles. Conversely, oil and gas are likely to experience a resurgence with the Trump administration. China has already begun piloting carbon markets, an economic incentive structure intended to reduce carbon emissions and pollution. In 2011, China began carbon trading in seven of its provinces and seeks to proliferate their growth, developing 100 low-carbon cities (from the current 40) by 2020. Meanwhile, Trump expressed nostalgia for coal-country America. China has realized that investing in industries of the future will lead to more job growth than the current energy markets, while the US remains staunchly rooted in the past, largely due to the power of Rust Belt voters.

As Trump make the US retreat from the world stage, another superpower, one that actually walks the walk, has an unprecedented opportunity to assume massive global influence. Climate policy is a unique area of leadership for China because it allows the country to reclaim some of the moral high ground that it tends to lose in debates surrounding human rights violations and labor rights. Depending on how far the US moves towards isolationism in the upcoming years, Beijing and climate change could challenge American influence in new, unprecedented ways. If China seizes the years of the Trump administration to further advocate for its own developmental model of authoritarian capitalism that is already gaining ground in developing nations, it could mitigate concerns of autocracy by mapping an environmentally responsible vision atop its existing framework.


About the Author

Justine Breuch is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.