China can take reins of clean-energy boom should US falter
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Early signs suggest climate change was conspicuously absent from the just-concluded summit between President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

With Trump recently making good on his promises to roll back President Obama’s climate and clean energy agendas and Xi assuring the world that China will face climate change head-on, this absence is not surprising. 

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Still, it is a troubling departure from an important bilateral bright spot. In March of last year, then-President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaReport: FCC chair to push for complete repeal of net neutrality Right way and wrong way Keystone XL pipeline clears major hurdle despite recent leak MORE and Xi declared climate change to be a "pillar of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship" and committed to ratifying the 2015 Paris Agreement, which they did while bringing on much of the international community with them.

 

This announcement was the culmination of over two years of cooperation that saw the U.S. and China reach tit-for-tat agreements on clean energy and emissions reduction targets. The two countries collectively account for over 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making their rapprochement the most important diplomatic climate development of this century.

Trump has since moved to dismantle the U.S. Clean Power Plan (CPP), open up federal lands to fossil fuel exploration, reduce vehicle emissions standards and generally defund and de-emphasize environmental regulation and enforcement. Regardless of whether he attempts to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which is not a straightforward process, Trump has already begun ignoring the American commitments it contains. 

Some suggest that China is poised to fill this growing climate leadership void left by the U.S. This position overestimates prior American leadership, which has long kept international actors nervous with its inability to pass domestic climate legislation. But it correctly locates China as the only globally-leading emitter with plans and actions designed to significantly change its emissions trajectory.  

China is doing so for largely domestic reasons. Conventional pollution has moved environmental issues up the list of development priorities and made them part of the country’s core national strategic calculations.

The scale and scope of protests against air pollution and environmental stress — which by some measurements lead to 1.6 million deaths per year — are on the rise, and Chinese leadership is responding with stronger environmental regulations and enforcement, along with transformative energy goals.   

Beyond pollution control, China is transitioning away from its emphasis on heavy industry in favor of higher-value tech and services sectors for socioeconomic and geopolitical reasons. It is weaning itself off expensive fossil fuel imports and rolling out solar, wind and nuclear power on scales never before seen. This is leading to swift reductions in coal consumption and making it a clean energy export powerhouse. 

Fears that China will use U.S. backpedaling to justify shirking its new climate commitments are misplaced. The U.S. partnership has been only a peripheral force in China’s drive to a cleaner energy future, and the Chinese will not hold their progress hostage to developments in the U.S. or elsewhere. 

But the U.S. retreat does mean the kumbaya moment for Sino-U.S. climate cooperation is clearly over — along with the jolt it supplied to international efforts — which was exemplified by its absence at Mar-a-Lago.

During the run-up to the summit, China appeared reticent to muddy the waters of the first Trump-Xi summit with an agenda topic understood to be dead on arrival. There was also plenty to cover — tensions in the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula, disagreements on bilateral trade and presidential relationship-building.

Those calling on China to pressure the U.S. on climate may get a hearing eventually, but it was not to be this past week.

The most optimistic climate scenario in the age of Trump sees America as a relatively benign free-rider in international arenas, with non-political forces continuing to drive emissions reductions at home.

Internationally, Trump sees a transactional world of winners and losers and is ready to remove the U.S. from collective efforts to address global challenges where he fails to see a material American angle. As the ultimate global commons challenge, climate change clearly fits this bill.

But there is a difference between apathetic freeriding and actively undermining international processes, and China can play a role in ensuring that the U.S. does not fully derail U.N.-led climate negotiations.

Domestically, Trump’s executive edicts will not immediately reverse America’s energy and emissions course. The global clean energy market — estimated to grow to nearly $6 trillion by 2030 — presents strategic opportunities in the U.S., and the American shale gas production boom continues to make coal development less attractive.

Over 600 American businesses and investors, including major multinationals, signed an open letter to then President-elect Trump and Congress imploring them to protect low-carbon policies, continue U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement and invest in a low-carbon economy.  

U.S. competitiveness in emerging energy sectors will likewise keep the country engaged in sectors that lead to lower emissions — even if this is not the stated goal. China is planning to invest $360 billion in renewable energy through 2020, creating 13 million jobs. If the U.S. recedes from the energy sources of tomorrow in favor of those of the past, China and other countries will reap the benefits in labor opportunities and profits. 

Trump’s presidency will be important for the U.S.' efforts to reach its Paris commitments, but it's not the final word. Even in the worst case scenario from an environmental perspective — U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — the arc toward sustainable development will continue in many of the most populous and economically-dynamic parts of the country.

Meanwhile, states and other key stakeholders will challenge the federal rollback of environmental and climate regulation in courts. 

For China, leaders know that addressing the climate challenge necessitates having the U.S. onboard. But they likewise recognize the importance of facing their domestic environmental challenges regardless of who governs in Washington.

That goal is leading to China’s more progressive climate agenda. Whatever role Trump may play in this equation, it was not decided in Florida.  

 

Jackson Ewing, Ph.D., is director of Asian Sustainability at the Asia Society Policy Institute, which tackles major policy challenges confronting the Asia-Pacific in security, prosperity, sustainability and the development of common norms and values for the region.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.