China Steps Up as Global Climate Leader

The world’s two foremost carbon giants are swapping traditional roles. The climate policies of the United States and China, together responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, are diverging.

The Trump administration has begun moving aggressively to slash fossil fuel regulations and dismantle its predecessor’s climate legacy. Meanwhile, the Chinese government announced it is scaling back its coal and steel capacity in an attempt to reduce fossil fuel consumption and meet its climate change commitments. This contrast signals broader trends. China is acting on well-founded self-interest by consolidating its lead in the lucrative global market for clean energy and by rebranding its role on the global stage. Conversely, the Trump administration is preoccupied with buoying a decaying industry and relinquishing a position of global leadership.

On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dismantle Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan, and withdraw from the 2015 UN Paris Agreement. Since the presidential inauguration, environmental regulation has become an early casualty in the new administration’s proclaimed effort to “deconstruct the administrative state.” Flanked by his new climate-skeptic EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, President Trump has signed executive orders approving the Keystone and XL pipelines, repealing the Clean Water Act, overturning regulation on discharge of coal mining waste, and rolling-back regulations on vehicle pollution.

“As China pursues self-interest through global climate leadership, the Trump administration pursues self-harm.”

More may come. The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts funding for EPA and NOAA by 25 and 17 percent respectively, gutting programs targeting climate change, water pollution, and air pollution. Trump’s closest advisors are reportedly debating whether to withdraw from the landmark 2015 UN Paris Agreement that binds nearly every country to curb climate change. Most recently, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt rejected basic climate facts, arguing he “would not agree that [CO2] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Additionally, Pruitt questioned his agency’s authority to regulate CO2 despite the 2007 Supreme Court decision giving it explicit instruction to do so.

Typically, such a reversal in climate action by Washington would be reciprocated by Beijing. However, it appears the Communist Party leadership is doubling down on their efforts to curb climate change. Shortly after Trump’s election victory, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin urged the United States to uphold its climate commitments. Speaking at COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, Zhenmin maintained that changes to U.S. climate policy “won’t affect Chinese commitment to support climate negotiations and also the implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

The recent divergence of climate policies marks a departure from the traditional bilateral relationship between the United States and China. In the past, the willingness of one country’s climate action was contingent on reciprocity by the other. Given that the United States and China are the two largest state emitters of carbon dioxide, this dynamic all too often hampered multilateral efforts to address the global challenge of climate change. This was evident as late as 2009, when the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference failed to culminate in a meaningful agreement, largely due to disagreements between China and the United States on the burden of responsibilities held by developed and developing nations.

Yet, under the Obama administration, the relationship evolved from competitive to cooperative. In November 2014, the two countries jointly announced their post-2020 Paris Agreement targets. The United States agreed to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China agreed to have its CO2 emissions peak in 2030 and to increase non-fossil fuel’s share of total energy production to 20 percent by 2030. The joint leadership taken by the two countries encouraged unprecedented multilateral cooperation and was essential in catalyzing the successful negotiation of the UN Paris Agreement the following year.

China’s decision not only to maintain but reaffirm its climate commitments despite the reversal of the United States reflects Beijing’s firm pursuit of self-interest. Domestically, vigorously scaling back coal and steel industries enables Beijing to rein in over-supply and curb the toxic air pollution that chokes its cities. The move comes at a particularly opportune moment, as slowing economic growth and falling demand for coal means China’s emissions may have already peaked in 2013, 17 years ahead of the 2030 target set in Paris.  

Internationally, the move also signals China’s aim of taking a commanding lead in the fast-growing and lucrative global market for clean-energy technology. According to the International Energy Agency, the renewables industry is expected to grow exponentially, resulting in millions of jobs and trillions of dollars of investment. By reducing coal’s share of the country’s total energy production and, in effect, encouraging domestic demand for renewable energy, China is cementing its place as the world’s largest producer of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, as well as the world’s largest green bond market.

The gains from capturing this growth play out on the global stage. Growing dominance in the clean-energy and green bond markets is bolstering China’s ability to foster and sustain diplomatic, financial, and trade ties worldwide. Beijing is also relishing the opportunity to shed its reputation as a laggard in the environmental arena, particularly after receiving blame for the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference. A meaningful embrace of global climate leadership by the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases gives China considerable diplomatic leverage and a potential claim to a moral high ground within the global community.

“The gains from capturing this growth play out on the global stage. Growing dominance in the clean-energy and green bond markets is bolstering China’s ability to foster and sustain diplomatic, financial, and trade ties worldwide.”

Such bold action in the climate arena and clean-energy markets does not only represent significant gains for China, but damaging opportunity costs for the United States. Although reversing the decline of the coal industry may curry favor with domestic supporters, President Trump’s narrow focus on the fossil fuel is both shortsighted and misguided. Contrary to Trump’s campaign rhetoric lambasting the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” market forces are the main culprit behind its fall. An abundance of cheap natural gas has made generating electricity from gas as cheap as generating it from coal. The decades-long fall in the price of renewables also plays a significant role.

Upholding the promise to revitalize the coal industry would require actively handicapping the these two more lucrative and environmentally-friendly alternatives. Such a move would be similar to abolishing the EPA and withdrawing from the UN Paris Agreement on the list of environmental deregulation efforts poised to get tied up in a lengthy and potentially unproductive legal and political battles.

On the global stage, stepping away from climate leadership is consistent with President Trump’s vision of an “America First,” unilateralist foreign policy. In his first speech to Congress, President Trump asserted, “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” There is precedence for U.S. unilateralism in global climate negotiations. Following the non-ratification and subsequent disapproval by the United States  of the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration drew widespread criticism from the international community, particularly from key allies in Europe and Japan. The move severely damaged the administration’s credibility on environmental issues and constrained later efforts to address multilateral environmental challenges.

If President Trump does uphold his campaign pledge to attempt to withdraw from the UN Paris agreement, a pact that binds nearly every country in the world, the damage to U.S. credibility will likely be far deeper and long-lasting. A retreat from global climate leadership severely restrains the United States’ broader diplomatic leverage, authority, and coalition-building ability.

For decades, U.S.-China climate action was strictly conditioned on mutual reciprocity, much to the dismay of the global community. This year, it is evident that the traditional mold has been shattered. China is doubling down on its climate action as the United States sharply reverses course. The former is doing so in firm pursuit of self-interest, the latter self-harm. China has much to gain by occupying the leadership role that United States is vacating. Yet, because it is responsible for a lion’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions, as the United States loses out, so too does the rest of the world.


Alex Laplaza is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar based in Lombok, Indonesia, researching water governance as a lens to examine climate change adaptation. Alex was previously a Critical Language Scholar and has prior work experience with Warwick Group Consultants LLC, the Environmental Law Institute, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He graduated from American University with a degree in international studies and a specialization in global environmental governance.

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