One of China’s foremost environmental analysts recently explained to me that while for many years climate change was characterized as a western conspiracy to hold China back, it all changed around 2012. Overcoming China’s testiness about western imperialist designs and bringing China into the international climate tent may in future be seen as one of President Obama’s lasting legacies.
When President Xi Jinping took charge in late 2012 he soon launched an ‘energy revolution’. He took up the call for an ‘ecological civilization’ and sent a message that coal would no longer be favoured.
Provincial governments, which had resisted Beijing’s dictats to reduce coal use, began to be brought into line. As Xi accumulated more power, by marginalizing his enemies or having them arrested for corruption, it became increasingly risky to mess with Beijing. But the provinces too are shifting away from their GDP obsession to a greater emphasis on quality of life.
The first phase of China’s national carbon market is expected to get under way this year. The Paris agreement and Xi’s constructive role in it greatly enhanced the influence of China’s environment ministry in bureaucratic tussles. Paris is now a powerful card to play, and incorporating environmental governance into policy has become the ‘new normal’.
Coal use has now topped out in China, and total emissions are expected to peak around 2022-23, well ahead of the committed date of 2030 under the Paris Agreement. Unlike the United States, China takes its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris accord very seriously.
China’s carbon cuts
Beijing has a number of motives for taking an aggressive approach to carbon emissions. The headline one is social discontent due to appalling air pollution in the cities. Instead of closing coal-fired power stations, pollution levels could have been cut sharply by fitting scrubbers to them (as is done in the west), leaving carbon emissions untouched. But there are other reasons for cutting coal consumption.
One is to undermine the power base of some of the most corrupt officials in the country, the bosses of the coal and electricity sectors. Unlike most of China’s leaders, Xi is no a technocrat, which helps.
Beyond these domestic goals, the Party’s leadership can see a larger global dimension. Hastening China’s transition to low-carbon energy promises to give China ascendancy in the emerging renewable energy industries, industries set for massive expansion over the next decades as coal and oil combustion declines. Vast opportunities are available for the nation that manages to take the lead, and China is well on the way to doing so.
This is why Trump’s decision is not just a serious set-back to global efforts to limit emissions but also damages US economic prospects. When US companies find they must go to China to buy their energy generation equipment they will understand that ‘America first’ means America loses. Some of them can see it already.
A new world leader
At the highest level of strategy, Trump’s decision to ditch the Paris agreement presents Beijing with a golden opportunity to take on the mantle of global leadership. China has been slowly and systematically pursuing that role over some years by, for example, expanding its role in UN peace-keeping efforts.
And it has been presenting itself as the new champion of global economic integration. President Xi’s speech at Davos in January, where he condemned protectionism and lauded the benefits of free trade and investment flows, was timed to contrast with the Trumpian retreat.
The United States abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which through more trade and investment would have strengthened US ties to East and Southeast Asia, left a hole for China to step into. The grand One Belt, One Road initiative is a pitch for global economic leadership that will grow as the United States shrinks into itself.
Climate change presents China with the opportunity to acquire new legitimacy and respect as a world leader, offsetting the damage from its aggression in the South China Sea and escalating repression at home.
Some analysts say that China is not yet ready to become the global leader, and displays a certain reluctance to seize the mantle. But faced with indecision and disorder in the west the Party leadership has often had to decide to grab a chance while it is there, or bide its time and take the risk that it will be much harder later.
US withdrawal from global climate change leadership may be too good an opportunity to let pass. And there could be no better way for Beijing to demonstrate its claimed commitment to a peaceful and prosperous world than by directing the billions of dollars promised under the One Belt, One Road Initiative into low-carbon energy systems in developing countries. Developed countries too may find the lure of Chinese lucre too strong to resist and end up with energy infrastructures stamped ‘Made in China’.
In the early 15th century the Ming Dynasty in China undertook a series of expensive oceangoing expeditions called the Treasure Voyages. Despite the voyages’ success, elements of the elite opposed them. “These voyages are bad, very bad,” we can imagine them tweeting. “They are a bad deal for China.” Eventually these inward-looking, isolationist leaders gained enough power to prevent future voyages.
But this was an own goal. The parochial elites who killed off the Treasure Voyages could stop Chinese maritime innovation, but they could do nothing to prevent it elsewhere. Decades later, European sailors mastered the art of sailing vast distances across the ocean, and created fortunes and empires on the back of that technology (for better or worse). It is hard to see how China’s strategic interests were served by abandoning a field in which they led.
There are some striking parallels in the Trump administration’s decision to renege on the Paris climate agreement. It has been cast as a move to protect America, but in the long run it won’t derail the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy, and instead the US will find itself lagging, not leading.
Trump’s repudiation of the Paris deal is regrettable for at least three reasons. First, because the US is a technological leader whose entrepreneurs are extremely well placed to lead the global low-carbon transition; second, because America’s abdication of climate leadership weakens the global order and sends a wink and a nod to other fossil-fuelled recalcitrants like Saudi Arabia and Russia; and finally because having the world’s second-highest emitter outside the agreement is a clear negative.
That said, US flip-flopping on climate is nothing new. The nation played a strong role in shaping the Kyoto Protocol, only to fail to ratify it. And while that did not help matters, it did not derail international efforts to combat climate change. In fact, the momentum behind climate-friendly initiatives has grown several-fold since the early 2000s.
Viewed in the long run, the latest US defection changes little. Any conceivable future Democrat administration will rejoin the Paris Agreement. But more importantly, the transition to a low-carbon future is not dependent on the actions of a single player.
The criteria for successful climate change policy are hard to achieve but easy to describe: success will come when non-emitting technologies economically outcompete fossil fuels, pretty much everywhere in the world, in the main half-dozen or so sectors that matter.
Beating the ‘free-rider’ issue
A stable climate is what we call a “public good”, similar to fresh air or clean water. The US political scientist Scott Barrett has pointed out that climate change is an “aggregate efforts public good”, in the sense that everybody has to chip in to solve the problem of safeguarding the climate for everyone.
“Aggregate efforts” public goods are especially hard to preserve, because there is a strong incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others, as the US now seeks to do.
But technology can transform this situation, turning an aggregate efforts public good into a “best-shot public good”. This is a situation in which one player playing well can determine the whole outcome, and as such is a much easier problem to solve.
We have seen technology play this role before, in other global environmental issues. The ozone hole looked like a hard problem, but became an easy one once an inexpensive, effective technological fix became available in the form of other gases to use in place of ozone-harming CFCs (ironically, however, the solution exacerbated global warming).
Something similar happened with acid rain, caused by a handful of industrial pollutants. Dealing with carbon dioxide emissions is harder in view of the number of sources, but breakthroughs in five or six sectors could make a massive dent in emissions.
Technology trumps politics
This suggests that solving climate change relies far more heavily on technological innovation and successful entrepreneurship than it does on any single government. Policies in specific jurisdictions can speed climate policy up or slow it down, but as long as no single government can kill the spirit of entrepreneurship, then no country’s actions can alter the long-run outcome.
This is why German climatologist John Schellnhuber is right to say that “if the US really chooses to leave the Paris agreement, the world will move on with building a clean and secure future”.
The low-carbon race is still on, and the main effect of Trump’s decision is to put US innovators at a disadvantage relative to their international competitors.
We have seen these technological races before, and we have seen what recalcitrance and isolationism can do. Just ask the Ming Dynasty, who ceded their maritime leadership and in doing so let Europe reap the spoils of colonialism for half a millennium.
Similarly, the Trump administration can ignore basic physics if it likes, although this is electorally unsustainable – young Americans can see that it is in their own interest to support climate policy. Democracies are imperfect, but over time they have the ability to self-correct.
Developing polices that regulate the release of environmentally damaging gases is important. Pricing carbon is important. But government policy is not everything. Ultimately, this problem will be solved mainly by technology, because the way out of the jam is by finding new, inexpensive ways for humans to flourish without harming the planet.
President Donald Trump’s announcement overnight that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement comes as no surprise. After all, this is the man who famously claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese.
While it will take around four years for the US to withdraw, the prospect is complicated by Trump’s claim that he wants to renegotiate the agreement – a proposal that European leaders were quick to dismiss. But the question now is who will lead global climate action in the US’ absence?
As I have previously argued on The Conversation, there are good reasons for China and Europe to come together and form a powerful bloc to lead international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
China is now the world’s number-one energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter, and should it combine forces with Europe it has the potential to lead the world and prevent other nations from following the US down the path of inaction.
There are very early signs that this may be happening. Reports this week indicate that Beijing and Brussels have already agreed on measures to accelerate action on climate change, in line with Paris climate agreement.
According to a statement to be released today, China and Europe have agreed to forge ahead and lead a clean energy transition.
While it is too early to predict how Chinese and European leadership will manifest in practice, in the face of American obstruction they are arguably the world’s best hope, if not its only hope.
Decades of destruction
Trump’s announcement only reaffirms his antipathy towards climate action, and that of his Republican Party, which for decades has led attempts to scuttle efforts to reduce emissions at home and abroad. Let’s not forget that it was President George W. Bush who walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.
In just the few short months of his incumbency so far, Trump has halted a series of initiatives executed by President Barack Obama to address climate change. These include taking steps to:
Repeal the clean power plan
Lift the freeze on new coal leases on federal lands
End restrictions on oil drilling in Arctic waters
Reverse the previous decision against the Keystone XL pipeline
Review marine sanctuaries for possible oil and natural gas drilling.
And the list goes on.
This remains the real problem, regardless of whether the US is inside the Paris climate agreement or outside it. As the planet’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, what the US does domestically on climate change matters a great deal.
As a result, if China and Europe are to lead the world in the US’ absence, not only will they have to ensure that other nations, such as Australia, do not follow the US – and some members of the government hope they do – but they are also going to have to think creatively about measures that could force the US to act differently at home. For example, some leaders have already mooted introducing a carbon tax on US imports, though such proposals remain complicated.
In the meantime, while these political battles play out around the world, climate scientists are left to count the rising cost of inaction, be it the bleaching of coral reefs or increasing droughts, fires and floods.
If only it were all a hoax.