Can China Really Lead the World on Climate?

by Isabel Hilton / June 8, 2017/ ChinaFile

On Wednesday, the governor of California, Jerry Brown, found himself, not for the first time, with more in common with Chinese President Xi Jinping than with the president of his own nation, Donald Trump. Just days after President Trump announced that the United States would not fulfill its commitments under the Paris Agreement, Governor Brown was widely celebrated in Chinese media for saying the opposite. It was a notable declaration of independence for California’s climate policy. The occasion—a clean energy meeting in Beijing—was one of many that have showcased China’s bid for climate leadership. As Donald Trump turns his back on the global effort, how far will China step forward?

In January, a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In it, he presented China as a reliable, sober, and responsible international player, a country that stood by its commitments. He did not have to mention the United States for his audience to understand—and welcome—his message.

The decline of U.S. influence has been precipitous since then and has created a historic opportunity for China to enhance its global image. In contrast to Xi’s performance, the U.S. president’s behavior on his recent visit to Europe was widely perceived as clumsy, verging at times on boorish, and his understanding of international affairs as incomplete. He ignored the entreaties of G7 leaders for the U.S. to remain in the Paris Accord; he refused to re-affirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5of the NATO Treaty; and he seemed determined to offend Germany, an ally led by a politician with a deep commitment to the values of the international order that the U.S. has built over the past 70 years.

A week later, the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang came calling. He received a warm welcome in Germany and at the EU-China Summit in Brussels June 1 and 2, and put his name to a strong joint statement of commitment to the Paris Agreement, promising enhanced climate cooperation between Europe and China.

Climate change, the statement acknowledged, was a security threat—a proposition that China had firmly opposed in April 2007 when the U.K. presidency introduced it as a subject of debate in the U.N. Security Council. Europe and China pledged to cooperate to fight climate change, and to honor their financial commitments to poorer countries, including the much-discussed promise of $100 billion a year in climate related finance by 2020.

In contrast, Donald Trump’s insults to his allies had continued even after his return to the United States. As the German magazine Der Spiegel put it, his speech in the Rose Garden repudiating the Paris Accord “was packed with make-believe numbers from controversial or disproven studies. It was hypocritical and dishonest.”

Although Europe took some comfort in the speed with which Trump’s speech was repudiated by the mayor of Pittsburgh, along with a chorus of business leaders, city mayors, and state governors, and in Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that business and political leaders had pledged to meet the nation’s Paris commitments, the issue of climate leadership lay on the table. The question that Trump’s announcement forced the U.S.’s disappointed allies to consider is, to what degree can or will China fill the vacuum?

It is important to get the question in proportion. The U.S. makes a claim of leadership on global climate policy, but its national targets are comparatively soft and its history of engagement in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change effort patchy, to put it kindly. President Clinton signed up to the Kyoto Accord in 1997, but the U.S. Senate refused to ratify it, claiming, as Trump did in his Rose Garden speech, that it would damage the U.S. economy. Seasoned climate diplomats recall that the U.S. has routinely applied the brakes in climate negotiations, watering down pledges and weakening ambition, behavior that others have accommodated in order to keep the U.S.—for most of this history the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases—at the table. Read more…

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