More than ever, China needs to lead on climate change
With Trump snubbing a hard-won agreement to cut emissions, Beijing must press ahead to rescue planet from the consequences of global warming
President Donald Trump may have been unable to get legislation to end his predecessor’s health care plan past Congress. But he only had to sign an executive order to honour a controversial election promise to roll back Barack Obama’s climate-change efforts and revive the coal industry. With a stroke of the pen, he has struck at the heart of the landmark 2015 Paris agreement that committed almost every country to action to limit global warming before it triggered a cycle of severe droughts, floods, rising sea levels and food shortages.
The heart of that accord – the catalyst that brought other countries to the negotiating table in Paris – was a breakthrough 2014 deal between Obama and President Xi Jinping (習近平) to enact policies that would cut the emissions of the world’s two biggest polluting countries. It is not clear whether the US will formally withdraw from the Paris accord, but it has effectively repudiated its compliance obligations in the name of job creation. If Trump reneges on a commitment made at presidential level, ahead of a summit with Xi next week, it does nothing to help build trust in a relationship that has been shaken up since his unexpected election. Obama pledged that under the Clean Power Plan for shutting coal-fired power plants and replacing them with solar and wind farms, the US would cut its emissions by about 26 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025.
Xi signalled, at the Davos economic summit in January, that he was prepared to move forward with his Paris pledge that China’s emissions would drop by 2030. With Trump’s climate-change scepticism clearly in mind, he said then: “All signatories should stick to [the Paris accord] instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.” A big concern now is what other key countries, including China, India and Brazil, will do. A US withdrawal could embolden political and business opponents of climate-change action in all three places to try to slow action to combat it.
That said, Obama’s climate-change legacy will not be extinguished overnight. It could take years for the Environmental Protection Agency to undo regulations in the face of legal actions already foreshadowed by a coalition of states, including New York and California. Meanwhile, the trend in the US is still towards solar and natural gas power.
As Trump’s America-first policy plays out, China finds itself championing climate-change action and globalisation in a leadership role without the US. But it has no choice but to push ahead on climate change, with even more need now to achieve emissions reduction targets.