China Poised To Fill the Emerging Climate Leadership Vacuum

Spearhead Analysis – 15.05.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

President Trump has launched an all-out assault on Obama’s climate change policies. While the Obama administration worked closely with China to cultivate a global movement to tackle climate change, the new government is committed to abandon all multilateral diplomacy efforts, and fight to impede local climate efforts. The US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change in 2014 first signaled the return of the G2 leadership. More interestingly, China’s own climate initiatives were realized under close cooperation with the US. The hard-fought 2015 Paris Agreement was once crafted with the participation of the country’s diplomats.  

But a lot has changed since then.

President Trump has ceded America’s diplomatic climate leadership position that Obama cultivated during his two terms in office. Significant steps have been taken by the new Trump administration to roll back Obama’s climate legacy. In March of this year Trump inked an executive order undoing Obama’s ‘Clean Power Plan’.

The People’s Climate March was held in 300 cities across America to protest against the new administration’s position on climate change.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed most of the information on climate change from its website, explaining in a press release that it is being updated to “reflect the approach of the new leadership”.

Unfortunately for Trump, whatever the approach of the new leadership, the real impact of climate change will itself will be a lot harder to eliminate.

Trump does not stand alone in his skepticism on climate change. He is backed by the Republican Party in America. However, he is known for have taken his position on the matter to astounding levels, once tweeting, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”

Unlike in 2008 during the financial crises when China rejected the formation of the G2, this time around China is more than willing to take the lead as the Trump administration appears closer than ever to quitting the G2 and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Just three months into Trump’s tenure, Beijing is preparing to take up the global climate leadership position—with or without the US.       

Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Donald Trump to keep the US in the “hard won” Paris agreement during a Davos speech in which he presented the Chinese defense for climate cooperation with the world’s largest polluter.

The following UN speech had China’s UN representative make a detailed pitch for global leadership as Chinese representatives outlined the country’s climate leadership campaign.

Delivered by Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador to the UN in New York, the speech highlighted Beijing’s support for the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement.  It was said that China’s emissions would peak by 2030, which was a huge leap from China’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).

In an additional show of multilateral diplomacy Liu also offered “China’s proposals” to participating countries, which would contain recommendations for individual countries to be able to bridge their conflicting positions on some of the more complex issues at this year’s UN climate negotiations.

In 2011, China’s ‘Airpocalypse’ or smog season, was a breaking point for the nation. Toxic air caused flights to be canceled. Children were hospitalized and the need for China to improve its domestic climate policies was never more pronounced.

China has made several important efforts to correct its position since then.

The country is still battling with choking levels of smog. It is still the largest carbon emitter on the planet and Chinese companies are even now investing in coal power plants overseas. But there are also positives to consider. The carbon emissions from China’s energy sector stalled last year for the third year running — coal use fell again and solar deployment nearly doubled. Approval of new coal-fired power plants dropped by 85 percent in 2016, as the country continues to invest in renewable energy at a record-breaking pace. 

Embracing the climate leadership position for China will involve progressively making drastic changes and finding innovative solutions for economic growth with a responsibility towards the environment. The desire for regional leadership will itself incentivize large-scale changes.

With one of the world’s climate leaders fleeing the table the responsibility has doubled. Conversations among Chinese policymakers are focused on how Beijing can maximize its diplomatic potential and lead by example in the current state. The nation is no longer divided on whether it should lead, but now is debating on ‘how best to’.