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Paris climate summit 2015

With US out of Paris climate deal, China’s now able to lead … but is it willing?

Experts say China’s progress in reducing its own emissions has been so good that it has the capability to assume the mantle from a retreating United States

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 1:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 3:06pm

China has the capability to take the lead in the international effort to tackle climate change after the US administration withdrew from a global accord, and it is simply a matter of willingness, according to analysts and a former United Nations climate official.

US President Donald Trump said on Friday that he would pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, a 195-nation deal to curb the global warming after 2020, leaving a leadership gap that is potentially open to China, which is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Watch: Anger as Trump announces US withdrawal from global climate deal

“If the US is not going to be with them there, shoulder to shoulder as they used to be, well then China, could be the leader,” said Christiana Figueres, who was a top UN climate official from 2010 to 2016.

“It’s not what China needs to do, it is not about what the US has pushed China to do: quite the contrary, it’s what China wants to do. China does want to protect its economy, to be competitive in the future,” she told a press conference on Friday.

China, which has been wrestling for years with dirty air and water and had been regarded as a laggard in dealing with climate change, has poured huge resources into developing green energy as an alternative to the fossil fuels blamed for climate change.

How China overtook the US in leading the battle against climate change

Under the Paris deal, the country committed to halting growth in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, and Premier Li Keqiang publicly reaffirmed China’s commitment to the Paris deal just ahead of the US decision during his visit to Germany.

In his Friday announcement, Trump said the Paris deal was “very unfair, at the highest level” to the US energy sector, as China would “be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants”, and “increase its emissions by a staggering number of years – 13”.

“In fact, 14 days of carbon emissions from China alone would wipe out the gains from America – and this is an incredible statistic – would totally wipe out the gains from America’s expected reductions in the year 2030,” Trump said.

China vows to work with EU on climate pact even if Trump pulls out of Paris deal

However, Figueres said Trump’s comments were “factually incorrect”, and other climate experts said that China was already on track to meet its targets, and has the capacity to do more.

“There is opportunity for China to be more ambitious because the track record to date has been promising. Coal consumption has been dropping for last three years, and China’s CO2 emissions has largely stabilised,” said Barbara Finamore, Asia director at the Washington-based National Resources Defence Council.

“So that has put China on track to achieve its CO2 peaking much earlier than its 2030 target day.”

China could use leadership in the issue as a way to build relationships, trust and credibility with other countries, Finamore said. “It’s such a lost opportunity for the United States, such a reckless move.”

However, others cautioned that China would not want to portray itself as a leader too hastily.

“China will do things that fit its interests and capability,” said Jia Qingguo, a foreign relations expert from Peking University. “China signed the accord because it can safeguard its own as well as global interests, but China will tackle environmental and climate problems according to its own capability,” Jia said.

There are also benefits to being a world leader in tackling climate change, not just economic sacrifices.

“China recognises that the transition to clean energy is the biggest market opportunity in this century,” Finamore said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang