What can China do to counter Trump’s move to axe US climate change efforts?
Chinese climate officials surprised by new US leader’s move, as experts urge Beijing to take global leadership role and build alliance with European nations to tackle greenhouse gases
Chinese climate officials’ hopes of US President Donald Trump – who labelled global warming a “hoax” during his election campaign – softening his stance on the issue once he moved into the Oval Office have proved unfounded.
Within hours of Trump’s inauguration ceremony to become the 45th president of the United States, his administration announced its commitment to eliminating the US Climate Action Plan, according to the “America First Energy Plan” posted on the White House’s official website.
Observers may have been dismayed by Trump’s intention to “backtrack” on his predecessor Barack Obama’s climate legacy, but they believe it is still a little early to confirm the “death penalty” has been imposed on the international deal to limit dangerous rises in global temperatures.
China’s top officials tried to reassure the world’s of its leadership role in tackling climate change at the Davos summit last week, leading to calls for the world’s largest carbon emitter to actively build an alliance with European nations to follow through on the global plan of action set out in the Paris Agreement, reached in France in late 2015.
The US Climate Action Plan, led by former president Obama, sets out the world’s largest economic pledge to tackle the challenge of climate change caused by greenhouse gases, within the UN framework.
However, the White House stated on its website on Friday that “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the US Rule [that protects the nation’s waterways].
“Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than US$30 billion over the next seven years.”
It continued: “We must take advantage of the estimated US$50 trillion in untapped shale, oil and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.
“The Trump administration is also committed to clean coal technology and to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.”
The announcement came days after China’s senior officials made it clear at the Davos summit that the country was willing to take a leadership role and defend the Paris Agreement.
“The Paris Agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance,” China’s President Xi Jinping said in a speech at the summit.
“We must ensure this endeavour is not derailed. All parties should work together to implement the Paris Agreement. China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honour its obligations.”
Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative for climate change, also said last week that China was “capable of taking a leadership role” while also open to working with all countries to achieve economic restructuring.
It is the first time Chinese officials have demonstrated their clear intention to take a leadership role on climate change since Trump’s election victory last November, which observers regarded as the end of the close Sino-US cooperation on reducing emissions.
However, Xie may find himself caught off the guard by the swift abandonment of the US Climate Action Plan under Trump.
In the interview with the official China Daily, Xie said he had expected Trump’s attitude to “shift” after taking office.
“Trump has softened his tone on whether climate change is real,” he said, noting that two weeks after the November 8 election Trump had acknowledged that global warming was linked to human activities.
Li Shuo, a climate policy adviser at the environmental pressure group Greenpeace in China, said renouncing the Climate Action Plan meant that the US under Trump was backtracking on the global move towards a safer cleaner energy future.
“In the first days after his inauguration, Trump’s administration goes in the opposite direction to the rest of the world,” he said. “Right when China shuts coal power plants, Trump vows to cancel climate change action.”
However, Zhang Haibin, a professor at Peking University’s school of international studies, said that while Trump was determined to eliminate Obama’s climate legacy, it was not the worst-case scenario.
“It is not yet a death penalty,” Zhang said. “The US has not formally withdrawn from either the Paris Agreement or the wider UN climate framework. So there is still space for manoeuvring.”
As long as US stayed “in the loop” the global climate change diplomatic structure would remain relative stable so that other countries could stick to their stated commitments, Zhang said.
Li said that as Trump appeared to be renouncing Obama’s climate change legacy, Xi should “establish one of his own”.
“The Davos speech [by Xi] was welcome and the first concrete step forward in this direction,” Li said. “China should assure the rest of world that it will honour its commitment, regardless of the US situation by actively building an alliance with other key partners, such as Europe.”