China sees an opportunity to lead as Trump withdraws from Paris. But will it?

Chinese leaders are eager for more influence on the international stage and the US has created a void it could fill

China’s President Xi Jinping may see advantages to be had with America’s withdrawal from climate change agreements.
China’s President Xi Jinping may see advantages to be had with America’s withdrawal from climate change agreements. Photograph: JASON LEE / REUTERS / POOL/EPA

As Donald Trump walked off the stage in the Rose Garden after announcing the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, one could practically hear the champagne corks popping in Beijing.

Chinese leaders are eager for more influence on the international stage, and Trump’s move opened up another opportunity for China to fill a void left by the US.

“China is taking a very internationalist stance, so taking the leadership on climate fits in well to that and they will be able to dramatically expand clean energy investment and markets overseas,” said Kate Gordon, a senior advisor at the Paulson Institute focusing on climate change. “That’s all opposed to a very nationalist stance from the United States.”

China is grappling with clouds of toxic smog that frequently blanket the country’s cities. In an effort to clean up the air and reduce emissions, the government plans to spend 2.5tn yuan (£280bn) on renewables by 2020, an investment that is projected to create 13m jobs in China.

While China is taking aggressive actions, it remains the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, about double the US. Although in terms of carbon emissions per person, China produces less than half compared to the US.

“There is no question that China will show leadership on climate, including putting a cap and trade system in place, investing in renewable energy, ramping down carbon emissions, ramping down coal,” Gordon added. “Those are all things they are committed to for environmental reasons, but also just for economic reasons.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping is currently pushing a $900bn global investment initiative, known as the Belt and Road project, opening markets across Asia and Europe for China-made solar panels and wind turbines.

China is also working on establishing a national trading platform for carbon and officials have shown no sign of retreating from their commitments.

“China will stay committed to upholding and promoting the global governance on climate change, and take an active part in the multilateral process on climate change,” Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said the day before Trump’s announcement.

“We will work with all relevant parties to safeguard the outcomes of the Paris Agreement, press ahead with the negotiation and implementation of the enforcement rules, and promote green, low-carbon and sustainable growth of the world.”

While Trump promised to “renegotiate” the Paris accord in his speech, the administration has not formed a team of negotiators to tackle climate issues, with other countries, particularly China, concerned about who the US will send to the table.

In the meantime, China will likely look for a new global partner to tackle climate change, as Chinese officials are not entirely comfortable taking sole responsibility.

“The moment Trump announced his Paris pull out marked the divorce of US-China climate relationship and the beginning of a reinvigorated partnership between China and the EU,” said Li Shuo, climate policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia.

But some in China are wary of the newfound focus on China to lead the world in solving a problem its leaders have been slow to address.

“The international community’s expectation of China will now rise sharply, and whether or not China will assume this responsibility is still a major question,” said Zhang Haibin, a professor at Peking University in Beijing and expert on environmental politics.

“China will not alter its commitments because of Trump, or follow him in quitting. But I don’t think China is currently able to independently assume the mantle of global climate change governance, China can’t fully take the place of the US.”

While much of the world is now looking to China, the country’s leaders may choose to lead in a radically different style.

“Now China can step in and become the leader on climate, but without the pressure from the US, they don’t need to go as far to have that leadership mantle,” said Alex Wang, an environmental law professor at the University of California Los Angeles who formerly worked in Beijing for Natural Resources Defense Council.

The US exit from the Paris agreement also gives ammunition to detractors within the Chinese government who want to slow down the pace of shutting down polluting industries, particularly local governments, Wang said.

Former US president Barack Obama cajoled China into committing to a peak in carbon emission by 2030 in a joint statement, a policy that was already in line with projections but gave Obama the opportunity to make commitments of his own.

But China’s leaders have a distinctly different style.

China has long taken a hands off approach to diplomacy, with officials repeating the mantra of noninterference in the affairs of other countries. In terms of climate negotiations in the future, some say China may be less inclined to exert pressure or propose aggressive goals.

“It’s not a comfortable position for China to press other countries for more ambitious targets,” Wang said.

With additional reporting by Wang Zhen.

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One thought on “China sees an opportunity to lead as Trump withdraws from Paris. But will it?

  1. Trump rút Mỹ ra khỏi Hiệp Định Paris về biến đổi khí hậu. Đương nhiên là lãnh đạo TQ nổ sâm banh ăn mừng. Xem như TQ thành lực lãnh đạo thế giới về Hiệp định Paris. Thế là như hổ thêm cánh – vừa lãnh đạo RCEP (Hiệp định đối tác kinh tế vùng toàn diện – Regional Comprehensive Comprehensive Partnhership), OBOR (One belt, one road), bây giờ thêm Hiệp Định Paris (Paris Agreement – COP21). Trong khi đó Mỹ đã bỏ TPP (hiệp thương mãi lớn nhất thế giới), và bây giờ bỏ luôn Hiệp Đinh Paris (hiệp định môi trường lớn nhất thế giới)..

    Nhưng trong khi TQ đẩy Năng lượng tái tạo (mặt trời và gió) và ngừng năng lượng hóa thạch (than, xăng dầu) thì có thể năng lượng nước từ các đập (hydropower energy) tăng, như là các đập trên sông Cửu Long và các phụ lưu của Cửu Long. Đồng thời, TQ đang và sẽ xuất khẩu các kỹ thuật dùng năng lượng hóa thạch về các nước nghèo như Việt Nam. Không biết ông Điện lực VN và chính phủ có biết điều này không.

    Liked by 1 person

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