US President Donald Trump’s June 1 speech announcing America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord was laden with implied references to China.
He labelled the deal “unfair”, “draconian” and designed to give other countries “financial advantage over the United States”. It was an attempt by some of the “world’s top polluting countries” to keep America “tied up and bound down”, he said.
The Paris deal was signed in December 2015 by 196 countries and the European Union. Until this month Syria and Nicaragua were the only nations on earth not part of the agreement. Yet the 2015 pact would not have been possible if the US and China had not got together to work out their differences: America was the globe’s largest polluter for over 100 years, while China has held that dubious mantle for 11 years.
In the end, the compromise was this: each country was responsible for its own emission controls as long as collectively global warming was kept under 2 degrees Celsius.
China pledged that its carbon dioxide emissions would peak no later than 2030 and that it would reduce emissions per unit of GDP by at least 60% (from 2005 levels) during the same period. It also promised to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to around 20% by the same date.
Meanwhile America agreed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% (from 2005 levels) by 2025 and to provide funds to mitigate and compensate for the effects of climate change in developing nations.
The upshot was that the US needed to start cutting its emissions now, but China’s could still grow in real terms for a few more years – an arrangement Beijing reckoned fair because America and Western nations bear more of the historic responsibility for climate change. Beijing argued it needed more time to develop its economy and pull more of its people out of poverty. India, the world’s fourth biggest emitter after the European Union, made the same argument.
So in some ways Trump’s depiction was accurate: America was taking more of a short-term hit than most (with the possible exception of the EU which agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from their levels in 1990 by 2030).
Yet walking away while the other big player China remains committed has only damaged Washington’s standing and enhanced Beijing’s.
“Trump Hands the Chinese a Gift: The Chance for Global Leadership,” pronounced the New York Times. “Quitting Paris pact, Trump abdicates leadership of the free world” was the LA Times’ verdict.
Amid such dramatic events, China’s simple pledge to safeguard the agreement was powerful. Speaking in Germany a few hours before Trump’s announcement Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said his country would “shoulder its international responsibilities”.
“Step-by step and with tremendous effort China will move steadfastly towards the 2030 goal,” he reiterated. “We [China and Germany] are both ready to contribute to stability in the world.”
Li’s German visit could not have been more timely, coming at a moment when relations across the Atlantic shows signs of fraying. Indeed, having just suggested Trump’s America was no longer “a reliably close ally”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Li that China has become “a more important and strategic partner”.
Merkel and Li held wide-ranging talks on issues from trade to climate change and a slew of business deals were signed, including an upgrade by Daimler and BAIC of a Mercedes-Benz factory in Beijing for electric vehicles.
And cracks are not only widening among the Western alliance but also within America itself. Ignoring Trump, individual US states and cities have pledged to uphold the terms of the Paris agreement even if the US federal government will not.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has yet to make a direct comment on America’s withdrawal but on Tuesday he met with California’s governor Jerry Brown, one of America’s most environmentally progressive leaders and a staunch critic of the White House’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
The New York Times and the LA Times both noted that one-to-one meetings between US state governors and the Chinese president are extremely rare – let alone ones that last 45 minutes and take place in the Great Hall of the People.
Afterwards Brown told reporters that he and Xi had discussed climate change and green technology. “It’s highly significant that the governor of California can meet with the president of China and talk about the foremost issue of our time,” the LA Times quoted him as saying.
Brown is in China to promote his ‘Under2’ initiative in which local governments commit to cutting CO2 emissions and exchanging green technologies and best practice. Sichuan, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces are all signatories. While Brown was in Beijing he also signed a deal with the Ministry of Science and Technology to cooperate on clean technology, emissions trading and other “climate-positive” efforts such as carbon capture.
Tellingly, Rick Perry the US secretary of state for energy – who was also in town for a summit on clean energy – did not get an audience with Xi, or any local media coverage.
Speaking from Tokyo a day before flying in, Perry denied the US was shirking its global commitments. “We’re not stepping back, and we haven’t created a void,” he told reporters on Monday before the Chinese leg of his journey. “I hope China will step in and attempt to take the mantle away. It would be a good challenge for them because I’ve been to Beijing, I’ve been to Shanghai, I’ve been to Shenzhen, and the air is not as pleasant as it is here in Tokyo.”
A day before that, the acting US ambassador in Beijing, David Rank, resigned saying that as “a parent, a patriot and a Christian,” he could not in good conscience implement Trump’s decision.
“Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement fulfilled a campaign promise, but was soon met with widespread discord both at home and abroad,” noted Xinhua.
Meanwhile the China Daily accused the US of “hypocrisy”, while for the Global Times the decision was “the latest example of how the US disregards international agreements to suit its selfish and short-sighted needs”.
Yet that still leaves the question of whether China will emerge as a global leader on the issue of climate change.
In some ways it already has: China was the largest investor in renewable energy last year – spending $32 billion – and it accounts for 40% of the sector’s global workforce. It is also scrapping plans for coal-fired power plants and has introduced an ambitious carbon trading scheme.
It’s even possible its emissions have peaked already, according to one study. And even if they haven’t China will almost certainly hit its 2030 peak emission target early, experts predict. Demand for coal – China’s main contributor to greenhouse gases and dirty air – has fallen for the last three years.
Yet against that reassuring data is the fact that China still relies on coal for two thirds of its energy and that its emissions per capita now exceeds that of the EU. There is also the uncomfortable problem that much of China’s renewable energy is wasted – 21% of wind, 11% of solar in the first half of 2016, according to World Resources Institute.
So perhaps Chinese experts are right when they say Beijing doesn’t want a leadership role – just yet.
Most say that Beijing will look to share that role with the EU if the US really steps aside. “Taking on global leadership is too much, too soon for China. The US is a significant emitter, so reducing emissions can’t be entirely achieved without US participation,” the Global Times commented.
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