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Climate change

How China is inching into the void left when Trump pulled US out of Paris climate change deal

Delegates at recent conference say Beijing prefers to get its own house in order first rather than dominating discussions on global warming,

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 6:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 10:49pm

China has filled some of the void on climate change leadership left by US President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the 2015 Paris climate pact by curbing its own greenhouse emissions but it did not seek to dominate the latest talks which finished on Friday, according to delegates.

Some nations had expected that Beijing would be more active in making proposals and pushing its views that the rich should be doing far more to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to provide finance to poor nations.

But its delegation has acted broadly in line with past meetings on climate change, other attendees said, championing the cause of emerging nations and pointing to its domestic programmes to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

“They were rather quiet in the meetings,” one senior European negotiator said at the talks in the German city of Bonn. “Their focus is very much on action at home.”

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“China has been pretty much the same as always,” echoed Ian Fry, who represents the Pacific Island of Tuvalu. “I don’t think they tried to fill the space left by the US.”

The talks, which made progress on detailed rules for the Paris agreement, are the first since Trump decided in June to pull out of the pact, handing Beijing a chance to reflect President Xi Jinping’s drive for a bigger global role.

Trump, who doubts that climate change is caused by man-made greenhouse gases, plans to promote domestic coal and oil. Under the terms of the Paris accord, a US pull-out will take until 2020.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts, said China has to work out how to balance its need for more fossil fuel energy to fuel economic growth with conflicting demands to curb air pollution and climate change.

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“I don’t think they were in a position to make bold claims in Bonn,” he said. The Paris Agreement seeks to cut emissions to limit a rise in temperatures to avert heatwaves, floods, storms and rising sea levels.

Beijing has traditionally seen itself as only the leader of emerging economies, arguing that the United States, the European Union and Japan have to lead in making cuts because they have emitted the most greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution.

Still, the basic design of the Paris agreement was hammered out by US President Barack Obama and Xi in 2015. With Washington leaving, many predicted clear Chinese leadership.

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“I’ve heard that point (about China taking over), I think it’s largely rhetorical,” said George David Banks, a Trump adviser on energy and the environment attending the Bonn talks.

He noted that China’s goal under the Paris Agreement was for its carbon dioxide emissions to peak by 2030.

“Is that leadership in climate mitigation? At the same time the United States continues to reduce its emissions … We have been a global leader,” he said. “It’s about actions, not words.”

US emissions peaked about a decade ago but Trump opposes Obama’s pledge to cut them by between 26 and 28 per cent by 2025 from 2005 levels, saying it would harm US competitiveness.

China says it needs to use more energy to lift living standards for its 1.3 billion population and still places the burden squarely on the rich to cut emissions.

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“Before 2020 we hope developed countries can implement the consensus we have reached in the past,” said Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead climate official at the talks. “China has taken better actions than we are asked to do.”

Many delegates predict that China will reach a peak in carbon emissions years before 2030 and praise its actions to shift from coal to solar and wind power.

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“The fact is that China is going all in on renewables with something like US$361 billion in investments expected by 2020,” said Thoriq Ibrahim, energy and environment minister for the Maldives and chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States.

“If leadership is defined by action, then China is way out in front,” he told Reuters.

Mohamed Adow, of Christian Aid, said that many nations were stepping up actions. “We’re seeing distributed leadership across the world. The days when you look to one country to lead the transition are gone,” he said.

Among other nations the European Union’s efforts to fill the gap have been held back because German Chancellor Angela Merkel is locked in negotiations on forming a coalition, where she is facing pressure to do more to phase out coal.