Even China is tackling climate change, while US takes a back seat

Even China is tackling climate change, while US takes a back seat

Less than a decade ago, China appeared to be the biggest barrier to tackling global environmental issues like climate change, steadfastly refusing to compromise economic growth for the sake of environmental protection. In 2009, while the Obama administration pledged to “renew our leadership in international climate negotiations,” leading Chinese energy experts labeled United Nations-sponsored climate talks a “conspiracy by developed nations” to undermine its development. 

But in the intervening years, Beijing and Washington have undergone a complete role reversal. In recent weeks, China has made clear its leaders are willing to let environmental considerations drive its economic development policy, rather than the other way around. Despite being the world’s largest car market, China has announced its intention to phase out non-electric vehicles, and to impose crushing taxes on polluting companies despite slowing growth.

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During the same period, the U.S. has pledged to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change and to repeal the Clean Power Plan, its primary tool to combat global warming, citing a need to boost economic growth. Why has the "green divide" between U.S. and China grown so wide — and, more importantly, who’s on the right side?

 

In fairness, neither country has consistently put the planet ahead of its own prosperity. The U.S. slow-rolled global climate talks until about a decade ago, and China continues to rate poorly on most measures of environmental protection. But make no mistake — the U.S. and Chinese governments' diametrically opposed approaches to energy and the environment represent very different bets on what will drive peace and prosperity in the 21st century. One country will be proved right, and the other wrong. 

For the Trump administration, the bet is clear: a less globalized world will favor energy security built on fossil fuels.

Beijing’s vision is more complex, and longer-term. It sees a more interconnected world where environmental sustainability is crucial to maintaining political support, global stability and economic growth.

The stakes of these opposite bets couldn’t be higher.

Up to $48 trillion will be invested in energy infrastructure alone by 2035, making it critical to know whether the future lies more in solar than in coal. Whether the U.S. or Chinese bets pay off depends on three factors.

The first and most important factor, which Washington and Beijing see very differently, is how much future growth will be powered by clean technologies like renewable energy and electric vehicles.

China has bet heavily that it will. The country has invested over twice as much as the U.S. in renewable energy, betting that rapid global growth will drive continued export sales. The value of Chinese solar energy exports increased 26-fold to $32 billion in just five years, and accounted for 3 percent of total export value as early as 2010. Such rapid growth relies heavily on government policy support and subsidies, which likely aren’t sustainable. But for now, China’s bet on green-powered growth is paying off handsomely. 

The second factor concerns public opinion on environmental issues. China, which has long feared that pollution might stoke mass discontent, has adopted ever-more stringent environmental measures, including making the promotion of local officials contingent on meeting environmental quality standards.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has promised to maintain “the highest standard of environmental protection,” but has proposed to do so while reducing environmental protection budgets and slashing regulations. Given the strong public reaction to environmental disasters like the Flint water crisis and the California wildfires, which have been linked to climate change, the Trump administration’s long bet on avoiding future eco-crises looks risky. 

But perhaps nowhere is the U.S.-China green divide wider than on the third factor, the extent to which climate change and other environmental issues will impact global stability. While Beijing termed climate change a “root cause of instability” in a joint statement with the European Union this past June, President Trump issued an executive order in March specifically revoking a landmark Obama administration report warning that climate change would further destabilize fragile regions like the Middle East and reduce military readiness.

This change in direction looks like another risky bet, given that a widely-cited recent study concluded that climate change played a key role in stoking Syria’s civil war, which Trump has cited as one of his most pressing foreign policy concerns. 

So who stands on the right side of the great green divide? In the 21st century, energy and environmental policy isn’t simply about protecting the planet, but also making the right bets on the future of economic growth, politics and security. For the time being, at least, the deck looks stacked in China’s favor. Indeed, if it continues on its current course, the U.S. might even find itself out of the game. And with the stakes so high, Beijing might just run the table. 

Scott Moore is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.