Climate change

How China would help soften impact if Trump abandons Paris climate accord

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 June, 2017, 8:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 June, 2017, 9:55am

China’s top-down environmental initiatives, energy market forces and sub-national mandates in the US would mitigate the impact of President Donald Trump’s possible withdraw from a global climate pact, according to energy and climate experts.

Media outlets citing unnamed White House sources reported that Trump will likely fulfil his 2016 presidential campaign promise to withdraw from the United Nations’ Paris Agreement, signed by Barack Obama last year. Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday he would announce a decision on the pact on Thursday afternoon, Washington time.

The accord commits the US to cutting carbon dioxide and other fossil-fuel-related emissions by about 27 per cent by 2025, using 2005 emission levels as a baseline.

Trump appears poised to announce US withdrawal from Paris climate pact

More than 140 other countries have signed the agreement, cobbled together as part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, committing themselves to varying reduction targets. As the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, China and the US are the two most important signatories.

“There’s very credible evidence to suggest that” China will hit its commitment to peak the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions earlier than the planned target of 2030, Andrew Light, a former US State Department climate negotiator, said in an interview with the Post.

“It would send a signal of hope to the rest of the world if the Chinese re-committed themselves to a peak earlier, and all eyes are on China, especially when [President Xi Jinping] has said they will step into the leadership gap on this issue.”

China doesn’t face the same kind of opposition to climate-change action that has pushed Republican presidents in the US – particularly from religious groups and some energy producers – to stymie efforts to lower carbon dioxide and other emissions related to the burning of fossil fuels, said James Miller, director of the cultural studies programme at Queen’s university in Canada.

“China is the place where the environmental consequences of economic growth are felt the most, in the form of a lack of clean air and contaminated soil and water,” said Miller, who wrote China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future, a book published this year by Columbia University Press. The environment “is very much a local problem for China, whereas it’s more of an abstract, global issue for many in the US.”

The US has managed to limit its greenhouse gas emissions growth despite opposition from the Republican Party and lobbying by some energy producers, largely due to state-level initiatives and declining natural gas prices. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel that emits about half the amount of carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced, compared with coal.

“Rather than being a function of international treaties, emissions reductions in the US have been driven primarily by the historically low price of natural gas, augmented by state and corporate efforts to increase use of renewable resources just as costs for such resources are falling,” said A.J. Goulding, a principal at London Economics International, a Boston- and Toronto-based energy consulting firm.

“While withdrawing from the Paris climate accords will not put a single coal miner back to work, or reduce costs for US businesses, it will harm those US companies seeking to export, as US products may be viewed as less environmentally friendly.”

State initiatives include renewable portfolio standards, which are mandates for the amount of power utilities need to generate using solar, wind, biomass and other renewable resources. More than 20 US states have adopted such mandates, with California pushing the most aggressive target: the state expects utilities to use renewables for half of the power they generate by 2030.

Renewable energy sources accounted for 15 per cent of electricity generation in the US by the end of 2016, according to the Washington DC-based US Energy Information Administration.

“There were already a lot of commitments being made by states and cities prior to the election, and it seems there’s an increasing commitment by those parties to do more in the face of the election,” Light said.

Trump said he’ll make a final decision in the next few days whether leave the Paris Agreement.

Still, observers cautioned that sub-national efforts in the US to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even paired with accelerated efforts by China, won’t necessarily yield the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

“Walking away from Paris would be much more damaging than what happened when President [George W.] Bush walked away from the Kyoto Protocol,” Todd Stern, the former US chief negotiator for the Paris Agreement, said in an interview. Stern was the US special envoy for climate change under Obama from 2009 to 2015.

Former US president George W. Bush pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to curb green house gases emissions, when he came into the Oval Office in early 2001, saying the Protocol “would have wrecked our economy”.

“The Paris Agreement has been broadly accepted by the whole world. It has received a great deal of acclaim from all quarters - whether it’s the environmental community, Fortune 500 community, or the national security community- wherever you look,” said Stern.