What you need to know
President Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark agreement gives China a chance to lead the fight against climate change — if it is ready to do so.
He finally did it, then. President Trump has decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. By the provisions of Article 28, signatory states are entitled to disband from the pact as early as 2019, with official withdrawal taking effect a year after that. Given this timeline, unless the U.S. renegotiates its position, it will not be participating in efforts to combat global climate change for the foreseeable future.
Of course, the fact that the U.S. government will not be leading the fight against climate change does not mean the country will not be involved at all. State governments and private sector, I am sure, have their own plans for reducing emissions. The questions China has to answer now, though, are twofold: Will the U.S. decision impact China’s stance on climate issues? And what course of action should China adopt in response to climate change?
We can evaluate the consequences of Trump’s decision on China from two angles. The first concerns the impact it will have on China’s society and economy, while the second concerns whether it will affect China’s own climate policy.
The fallout from an American withdrawal will primarily be felt in the field of climate cooperation between the U.S. and China. The two countries have established reassuringly close exchanges and partnerships on the matter of climate change, and have maintained good lines of communication on issues such as new energy, green technology, and market mechanisms. This cooperation has had a positive effect on climate-based investment and trade.
From an economic perspective, at least in the short term, the U.S.’s decision is unlikely to directly influence the decision-making process of market actors. However, if the U.S. continues to isolate itself from the climate market, or if it reduces subsidies and other support measures, then, in the long run, its decision will have an adverse impact on humankind’s collective effort to reduce global warming.
Trump’s decision will inevitably influence China’s own stance on climate change, but the impact will be highly limited because China needs to control global warming for its own reasons: namely, its worsening domestic environmental situation, and the need to maintain economic and political stability.
In other words, managing resources and the environment has already become a crucial component of Chinese policy. Green development efforts are lent additional significance by the important role they play in maintaining overall stability. By taking steps to combat climate change and participate in international efforts to manage the situation, China can also help solve its own internal environmental problems.
A country’s economy is closely intertwined with its overall resources and environment. Without taking steps to resolve structural problems in the economy itself, it will be difficult to achieve real environmental or resource gains. Climate change will force the domestic economy to adopt a less coal-intensive and a more sustainable, eco-friendly approach to development. Politically, the primary benefits of combating climate change are felt on the international stage, as this gives China the chance to show it is both willing and able to contribute to the broader international community. However, this does not mean China will try and replace developed nations as a climate leader; rather, it will make a contribution befitting its own status.
Given the abovementioned factors, a shift in American policy will probably not materially alter China’s environmental, economic, and political calculus. An active approach to dealing with climate change is likely to be a major component of Chinese policy in the mid to long term.
So how will China proceed in its efforts to combat climate change? Will it retreat from its current stance, or take on an even more active role in the fight?
China will not move away from any of its current climate policies and will continue to honor its commitments. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is a direct test of China’s resolve. It questions whether China will step forward to fill the climate leadership vacuum that Trump has left behind. But to answer this question, we first must establish whether China is even capable of filling the role of the world’s climate leader.
With leadership comes responsibility. In pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the U.S. is saying that it rejects its share of the burden. The real reason for European opposition to the American withdrawal lies in the EU’s desire to maintain its climate alliance with the U.S., with whom it shares the yoke of dealing with climate change. But China’s motivation for tackling climate change is different: In essence, we need to solve our own domestic environmental and economic problems, not make highly visible commitments to the international community.
For this reason, I say that China is neither ready nor willing, to fulfill the role of the world’s foremost leader on climate change. As a new game of diplomatic chess begins in earnest, we should maintain an internal strategic focus rather than get carried away by aspirational fantasies of being a climate change kingpin.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
TNL Editor: Olivia Yang