With U.S. President Donald Trump seemingly determined to walk away from his country’s leadership position on global climate action, China has three main reasons to step up and fill the gap, writes Li Shuo, Beijing-based senior climate policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia, in a post for The Guardian.
“Twenty years ago, climate change was believed by many in Beijing to be a conspiracy cooked up by the western world to contain China’s development,” Shuo writes. “The election of Donald Trump, who, labelling climate change a ‘hoax’ created by China, has reversed the conspiracy, casts a dark shadow on the prospect of future international climate cooperation. But for China, now could be a moment of opportunity.”
Shuo says China’s action over the next four years will be motivated by a shifting cost-benefit calculus around climate change, the country’s increasing sense of global responsibility, and the Beijing leadership’s own growing ownership of the climate challenge and its solutions.
“For a long time, environmental protection was positioned on the opposite side of economic prosperity—the pursuit of one could only sacrifice the other,” he writes. “In China, this binary has fallen apart, as the enormous health impacts of air pollution have galvanized both political and public opinion against polluting industry, and as the booming clean energy industry shows the possibility to make both environmentally and economically sound investments.”
China’s sense of global responsibility, meanwhile, was reflected in President Xi Jinping’s landmark speeches to the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, and at a separate event in Geneva. “In the run up to the Paris conference, it managed to forge consensus on the most difficult political questions with other key players ahead of time,” Shuo notes. As well, “China has started to implement its own south-south cooperation scheme, aimed at helping other developing countries to pursue climate action. China is slowly but surely redefining its international responsibilities and shifting to a more active and cooperation-oriented climate diplomacy.”
And at home, the Chinese leadership’s direct engagement with the Obama administration has “not only familiarized them with the technicality and politics of climate change, but also allowed them to see the strategic value it can generate. With Xi soon entering his second five-year tenure, he might well take a leaf out of the outgoing U.S. president’s book and try to secure climate action as one of his political legacies. This could mean further investment in and greater leadership on climate action.”
What China needs now is a comprehensive climate strategy “that takes into account but is not dependent on the U.S.-China relationship,” Shuo writes. “The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt, One Road initiative both demonstrate that, when the issue is given political priority, China is not only able to participate in international diplomacy, but can also actively lead.”