Caixin
Nov 24, 2016 05:27 PM
ENVIRONMENT

Closer Look: China Emerges as Global Climate Change Leader after Trump Victory

(Marrakech, Morocco) — On Nov. 7, two days before the U.S. presidential election, diplomats and climate change experts from around world gathered in the Moroccan city of Marrakech to hash out commitments and chart the way forward to slow down global warming. At the time they did not have any premonition that a climate skeptic, who has described global warming as "a hoax created by China," would be elected president of the United States.

Negotiators were upbeat because three days earlier, on Nov. 4, the Paris climate agreement, which aims to control global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, had come into effect, and a global consensus on climate action finally seemed within reach.

But the surprise election of Donald Trump to the White House left the delegates shellshocked. They were suddenly faced with the very real possibility that the U.S. president-elect would make good on his campaign promise to pull the world's largest economy and second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases out of the climate pact.

Amid the uncertainty, an unlikely voice emerged to offer reassurance to the global community. Once the black sheep of the global climate change movement, China is now slowly emerging as one of its potential future leaders.

"As we speculate about what the United States might do, I hope the international community understands that China's position will not change," the Chinese delegation's deputy head, Gou Haibo, told conference attendees. Chinese delegates repeated the promise that changes in U.S. policy will not hinder China's transition to a low-carbon economy.

An emerging leader

China's smog-choked cities and sky-high carbon emissions have long tarnished its reputation. Activists had long criticized it for putting short-term economic gain ahead of long-term environmental consequences.

China is still the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. But the country sees developing clean-energy technology as the solution to its economic and environmental woes and is aggressively pushing to become a leader in the field. Last year alone, China invested over $100 billion in renewable energy technology.

And it has already started to export its expertise within the developing world. Since 2011, China has spent 580 million yuan ($84.2 million) on energy-efficiency projects in other developing countries.

China has also launched a pilot carbon-trading program and plans to expand it nationwide next year. Xie Zhenhua, China's special representative for climate change affairs, said 120 million tons of carbon dioxide worth 3.2 billion yuan had already been traded as part of the pilot. Once the whole country is part of the program, China will become the world's largest carbon-trading market.

Trump's dismissal of green energy — he has said he plans to develop oil and gas resources and supports coal as the primary source of energy — means that China is now poised to play an even larger role in renewable-energy technology and global climate-change policy.

Chai Qimin, head of the international department at China's National Development and Reform Commission's Climate Strategy Center, told Caixin: "If the U.S. backs out of the Paris agreement, the clean-energy market will also be affected."

Profits at renewable-energy companies like Tesla Motors are not very strong and rely on tax cuts, subsidies and carbon trading. Once these policies change, capital inflows will decrease, Chai said. A hostile policy environment in the U.S. could end up stifling the growth of American companies, giving their Chinese competitors more room to grow.

But while China's technology and capabilities are growing, it still lags behind developed countries and expects the U.S. to continue to play a leading role in the near future, Chinese deputy delegation head Liu Zhenmin said at the conference.

Trump's business sense

The global climate change community is hoping they can appeal to Trump's business sense as a way to bring him to their side.

In an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday, Trump said "we're going to look very carefully" at the Paris agreement and that he will keep an "open mind," but added that it "depends on how much it's going to cost our companies."

While it takes four years for signatories to withdraw from the agreement, Trump could remove the United States from the agreement's overarching United Nations Framework on Climate Change in just one year. He could also simply refuse to provide funding. As part of the agreement, the U.S. has pledged $3 billion to a U.N climate fund to help developing nations deal with global warming. But so far, only $500 million has been doled out by the Obama administration.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hoped Trump could be persuaded to uphold the agreement, noting that the "global business community is now fully on board and moving forward to de-carbonize and lessen their carbon footprint." More than 360 companies, including multinationals such as DuPont, Hilton, Nike, Starbucks and Unilever, attended the climate conference and urged U.S. President Barack Obama and Trump to continue to support the Paris agreement.

Chinese representatives also remained optimistic that Trump's pragmatism will prevail.

Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Strategy Research and International Cooperation Center for Climate Change, believes Trump will not take lightly the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. Failing to invest in renewable-energy sources will greatly damage America's competitiveness internationally, he added. "In 20 to 30 years, when many countries will have already successfully switched over to renewable-energy sources, the U.S. will still be stuck with carbon."

Other delegates similarly reminded the U.S. of its responsibility to address climate change and hoped cooperation could continue despite the change in leadership.

"U.S.-China cooperation on climate change should be very pragmatic," said Lu Xinming, deputy director of the Climate Division of the National Development and Reform Commission, adding that "as the largest developed country, the United States should of course understand its responsibility and obligations."

Contact editor Poornima Weerasekara (poornima@caixin.com)

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