Sep 05, 2018 04:25 PM

Opinion: U.S. Climate Politics Create Opening for Chinese Leadership

Global climate governance has fallen victim to United States President Donald Trump’s false claim that climate change is a “hoax.” On June 1, 2017, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The world startled. Since then, the U.S. climate policy has been on a slippery slope toward a crisis.

With climate deniers filling the cabinet, the Trump administration is hopeless in the climate issue. Obama’s climate legacy has largely been wiped out. Most notably, Trump called reviews and rollbacks of Clean Power Plan (CPP) and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, two staples of the U.S. climate policy.

Many have turned to the 2018 midterm elections for a new hope. An early sign is the upset victory of Democratic candidate Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. This is widely regarded as the bellwether of the return of Democrats because Trump won the district by a margin of 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election. Although the case cannot be over interpreted, the voters are shifting left not only in swing states such as Pennsylvania but also in many other states.

Climate change will be an important factor in voter decision-making. The Trump administration’s hostile attitude toward climate change will likely galvanize support for more climate friendly candidates. The increased voting rate of environmentalists will favor Democrats and moderate Republicans who are more sympathetic with climate change issues.

If Democrats gain control of either the Senate or the House in the midterms, U.S. climate policy might have a chance to bottom out. With checks and balances restored in Congress, Trump’s agenda of rolling back more environmental and climate policies will be slowed or even stopped.

The drama of the U.S. climate politics has generated a profound implication on the global climate governance, particularly on China-U.S. climate collaboration. In the Annenberg meeting between President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013, China and the U.S. jointly broke the deadlock in climate talks. The leadership of both countries culminated in the historical Paris Agreement, in which almost every single country in the world signed up to some commitment to address the challenge of global warming.

Now that the U.S. has jumped ship, should China take over global climate leadership?

The short answer is yes, but climate leadership needs to be appropriately defined.

China is gearing up to play a more active role in global affairs. Climate change is arguably the most serious challenge to the mankind in this century. Taking a leading role in combatting global warming is therefore a natural way for China to appear at the center of the global stage.

China should focus its climate leadership on defending the multilateral process in climate talks and moving the climate agenda forward. It does not necessarily imply that China should take more aggressive targets. Given the rollback of the U.S. in climate commitment, China’s leadership is best demonstrated by sticking to its pledge in the Paris Agreement, that is, peaking carbon emissions around 2030.

China’s climate leadership should take into account the following two aspects.

First, climate action can be aligned with environmental and economic priorities. For one thing, reducing carbon emissions can also help improve local and regional air quality. Since climate policy will be consolidated into the new Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the co-control of local and global pollutants can be harmonized. For another, China has gradually gained a comparative advantage in low-carbon industries. Climate policy will strengthen China’s booming clean energy industry.

Second, market-based instruments, such as emission trading programs, can bolster China’s climate ambition. Emission trading programs curb carbon emissions while minimizing the cost of abatement. In addition, putting a price on carbon contributes to China’s supply-side structural reform by helping reduce excess capacities in dirty industries. The success of the national emission trading program will give China the confidence to take on climate leadership.

Climate change played an important role in the China-U.S. relationship during the Obama era. Although the U.S. stepped back at the federal level, many U.S. states and corporations remain committed to fighting climate change. The market is an important driving force for the U.S. to continue its trend of decarburization. In addition, based on the most recent Gallup poll, 66% of Americans believe global warming is occurring and 64% believe it is caused by human activities. All these suggest that the U.S. will eventually return to the climate negotiation table.

No matter whether the U.S. is part of the game, China should prepare to take a leading role in global climate governance. Well-designed climate policy can benefit China, both environmentally and economically. This is also a historic opportunity for China to build its soft power on an important global issue.

Junjie Zhang is the director of the Environmental Research Center at Duke Kunshan University.

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