China Likely to Fill Some, But Not All, of U.S. Climate Vacuum

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By Dean Scott

Those looking for a silver lining on climate change after the November election offered a ready answer for what a Trump administration retreat would bring: China rushing into the breach to fill the vacuum of climate leadership.

But is China—which a decade ago overtook the U.S. as the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter—really about to be the global climate savior?

China analysts along with former UN officials and climate negotiators say the answer—for a country that had to be prodded for decades to sign on to a global climate deal—is more nuanced.

China has boasted that it will remain in the Paris climate pact even if President Donald Trump ultimately makes good on his campaign vow to withdraw from the accord.

But a Trump retreat from the pact would sideline China’s toughest adversary at the negotiating table—just as crucial talks are getting underway to implement the 2015 Paris deal. Those include transparency and verification requirements to ensure that the nearly 200 nations that signed on to the Paris Agreement make measurable progress on their climate actions; China has traditionally pushed for weaker accounting measures citing concerns over its sovereignty.

A U.S. vacuum on those issues, one that leaves China alone at the head of the table, is likely to result in weaker transparency rules, not stronger ones, according to several former State Department climate negotiators.

On the other hand, China has made more progress than expected just a few years ago on several key climate indicators, including cutting the carbon intensity of its economy and outstripping every other nation in renewable energy investment.

Some analysts now say China may be ready as early as 2020 to grab headlines by strengthening its current climate pledge, which is to peak it carbon emissions by 2030 or sooner, after which they would presumably decline.

What would a stronger pledge look like? It might, analysts say, offer to peak emissions well before 2030, and perhaps within the coming decade.

Already, Trump Undercut Pledge

Trump isn’t expected to decide whether the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris deal at least until June. The White House says a decision—originally slated to be made before he and other leaders meet at the May 26-27 Group of Seven summit in Italy—won’t be made until after the meeting.

Of the nearly 200 nations that signed onto the Paris Agreement in December 2015, 145 already have ratified or otherwise formally joined the pact. If the U.S. withdraws, it will join only two nations—Syria and Nicaragua—that are not in the deal.

But early indications are that Trump’s rollback of Obama administration climate actions—including a move to rescind power plant carbon pollution limits—would almost guarantee the U.S. won’t hit the pledge it made toward the Paris pact: to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

Although Obama’s policies also would likely have produced in the rosiest scenario a 22.6 percent to 24.9 percent reduction, Trump’s actions targeting those policies would result in only a 10.2 percent to 12.6 percent reduction from 2005 levels, according to a May 1 analysis by Resources for the Future analyst Marc Hafstead.

An Unlikely Global Leader?

Whether China is ready to fill a leadership vacuum on climate is a complex question given it was largely prodded to embrace the Paris deal at the urging of the Obama administration, according to Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Now, China might think that they can become a more significant global player, which has not always been something that they’ve been that concerned about in the past,” Cardin told Bloomberg BNA. “And they may try to fill that” gap in leadership, he said.

But Cardin cautioned against what some see as China grabbing the climate battle flag from a retreating Trump administration. China has a fairly consistent approach on foreign policy that tends to project its power and influence more subtly—and has tended to shy away from being seen as a leader, particularly in global agreements, Cardin said.

Assuming more of a leadership role would conflict with one of China’s most consistent arguments against it taking on more dramatic climate action: that its obligations are more in line with other rapidly developing nations such as India and Brazil, Cardin said.

“They are a country with continuing and growing energy needs and they know they have to meet that need,” Cardin said. “But they have little interest in global responsibility or joining global efforts,” Cardin said. “That’s not in their DNA.”

China Clean Energy Progress

China, at least by some measures, has reason to tout its climate leadership: it has been the world’s the top clean energy investor since 2012 and its renewable energy industries provided roughly 3.5 million jobs in 2015, exceeding even the 2.6 million employed in the country’s oil and gas sector, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

By contrast, the U.S. employs less than one million in renewable energy jobs, according to the World Resources Institute.

China also has been unwavering in its support of the Paris pact since Trump’s election. China President Xi Jinping vowed only days before Trump’s January inauguration that China will “continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations” under the climate accord, adding that “all signatories should stick to it instead of walking away.”

Xi continues to back the pact in talks with other world leaders, including a call to newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron on May 9. Xi said the two nations should work together to “protect the achievements of global governance, including the Paris Agreement,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported.

Zhang Jun, director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s International Economics Department, wrote that China has shown a “strong sense of responsibility” on multiple fronts to combat climate change. In an April 19 article published by the ministry, he noted that Xi put the issue front and center as China hosted its first-ever Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China in September 2016 and worked to ensure the U.S. and China would join the Paris deal during the G-20 summit.

A Battle for Public Opinion

The Paris Agreement entered into force Nov. 4, 2016, as the first global climate deal to include actions by developed and developing nations alike. It includes a goal set by the nearly 200 nations to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the pre-industrial era and pursue efforts to hold the line at a 1.5 degree Celsius increase (2.7 F) this century.

A few climate advocates have begun to question whether there is much value in keeping the U.S. in the Paris deal when it is clearly undercutting its own climate actions, but most environmental groups argue for staying in the pact. Trump advisers are divided on the issue with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others arguing the U.S. should stay at the table; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt counters that staying in the deal could complicate his legal case for rolling back the EPA power plant carbon limits.

“At this point it’s a battle for public opinion,” one top adviser to Pruitt told Bloomberg BNA May 10, with leading U.S. companies including Apple, DuPont, Google, and Microsoft pushing Trump to stay in the deal. “It’s the war of the op-eds,” the Pruitt adviser said, suggesting that administration voices wanting the U.S. out of the deal seemed to have more momentum in recent days. But the final decision “will be a close one,” the adviser said.

Don’t Expect China to Foot the Bill

But is China, which overtook the U.S. as the world’s top emitter nearly a decade ago and today emits nearly double the U.S. total, really prepared to fill the vacuum, and for how long? There is little expectation, for example, that China will step in to foot the bill for what could be a gaping hole in U.S. climate finance, with Trump already zeroing out international climate aid. That includes Obama’s pledge of $3 billion over four years to a new UN Green Climate Fund to assist developing countries fulfill their climate ambitions.

Obama was only able to make a total of $1 billion in payments before Trump took office.

“I don’t think they’re prepared to say they’ll replace the U.S. or step into the kind of role” of filling the climate funding gap, according to Alden Meyer, who tracks the UN climate talks as director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Some of the Chinese I’ve talked to are even resentful that they’re being asked to do that,” Meyer said, given that the U.S. remains the world’s largest historical emitter, having pumped more emissions into the atmosphere over the last hundred years or so than any other single nation.

But China has always preferred supporting its own climate finance instruments, including its South-South Climate Cooperation Fund, to which Xi pledged $3.1 billion in 2015.

It also backs the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which opened its doors in Beijing in 2016. The AIB recently awarded its first loan to India—a total of $160 million—to the state of Andhra Pradesh to improve power distribution and transmission along India’s southeastern coast.

Meyer and others closely watching China for signs of its continued climate commitment in the face of possible U.S. withdrawal said they’ll also be monitoring the upcoming Asian infrastructure forum, known as the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. The May 14-15 meeting is meant to advance a key foreign policy priority for Xi: to invest billions in new roads and other infrastructure to improve access for Chinese firms.

The Long View on U.S. Pledges

Christiana Figueres, who oversaw six years of UN climate summits in the run-up to the Paris deal, said she is bullish on China’s climate actions going forward.

China takes the long view, Figueres told Bloomberg BNA: it has watched U.S. commitment to international climate action ebb and flow, from 2001 when President George W. Bush essentially withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol, to Obama’s return to the UN climate talks, to Trump’s reversal of some of Obama climate actions.

China “established this direction years ago and they’re not going to change [it] just because the United States government—which they know is a government that comes in and out,” often reversing the climate policy of the previous administration, the former head of the UN climate secretariat said.

William Cline, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, agreed. “The Chinese tend to take the long view, and they would calculate that this administration is not going to last forever,” Cline told Bloomberg BNA. “There will be a time when the U.S. thinks this is our most serious problem—as the previous president [Obama] did,” Cline said.

Figueres said the broader impact of the Paris pact—beyond the specific actions countries pledged on climate—was to reassure energy investors that the world’s nations were pivoting toward low-carbon energy, just as renewable sources are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels.

“That is the huge difference from where we were 10 years ago, where it was really necessary for the U.S. and China to reach an agreement with each other because actions on climate change was perceived as a huge cost,” Figueres said.

Assessing China’s Climate Progress

Analysts who closely track China’s climate and energy actions, such as Ranping Song of the World Resources Institute, say China gets too little credit for redoubling efforts to cut its carbon intensity, a measurement of carbon dioxide emission per unit of gross domestic product.

China’s initial carbon intensity pledge, unveiled by China Premier Wen Jiabao just before the 2009 Copenhagen UN climate summit, was to cut carbon intensity 40 percent to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

While its 2014 pledge to peak emissions before 2030 was seen as significant concession—China had previously resisted taking on any such commitments to reduce its overall emissions—it also further strengthened its 2009 carbon intensity in the run-up to the 2015 Paris talks. China’s revised pledge is a carbon intensity reduction of 60 percent to 65 percent by 2030. Its Paris pledge also calls for getting one-fifth of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by that date.

Song, the WRI analyst, said those actions, taken together with flattening coal consumption and closures of long-planned power plants, “are very concrete indicators that China is taking action in real time” on climate. “Those are not targets—those are achievements,” he said.

China earlier this year announced it would stop building 103 coal-fired power plants, most only planned but some already under construction, and its coal consumption has flattened, after likely peaking in 2013.

China’s carbon dioxide emissions declined 1 percent last year consistent with the nation’s declining coal demand, according to an International Energy Agency report in March.

“There were several reasons for this trend: an increasing share of renewables, nuclear and natural gas in the power sector, but also a switch from coal to gas in the industrial and buildings sector that was driven in large part by government policies combating air pollution,” the report said.

A Beachhead Until the U.S. Returns

For climate negotiators who spent years during the Obama administration prodding China and other countries toward the 2015 deal, there is still hope local and state governments and corporations can chip away at emissions to help keep the U.S. on track toward its Paris pledge.

Taken together, those efforts “are not going to make up for what the Trump administration does federally” to rollback domestic climate policy, according to Andrew Light, a former State Department climate negotiator.

“But it does give us this beachhead—it allow us to put on a platform in a way that can be immediately launched, either at a time that this administration comes around or we get a new administration, Republican or Democratic, willing to do something on this,” Light said.

“I think that eventually happens,” Light said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at DScott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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