China castigated the “political selfishness” of Donald Trump’s climate and energy executive order and the European Union expressed “regret” at the Tuesday announcement as governments reacted to the launch of White House efforts to gut Obama-era action on climate change.
Trump is now looking ahead to a “very difficult” first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his “weekend White House” at Mar-a-Lago, according to news reports this morning.
The New York Times reiterated a theme that has been constant since the U.S. election in November—that after years in which the Obama administration “prodded, cajoled, and beseeched” China to step up on climate change, the roles are now reversed.
China has “set the direction they intend to go in the next five years,” said Barbara Finamore, senior lawyer and Asia director at the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s clear they intend to double down on bringing down their reliance on coal and increasing their use of renewable energy.”
She added that “China wants to take over the role of the U.S. as a climate leader, and they’ve baked it into their five-year plans.”
“Now, it remains to be seen by which other means the United States intends to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement,” said EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete. But “despite all the current geopolitical uncertainties, the world can count on Europe to maintain global leadership in the fight against climate change. We will stand by Paris, we will defend Paris, and we will implement Paris.”
But an editorial in China’s state-run Global Times warned Wednesday that “no matter how hard Beijing tries, it won’t be able to take on all the responsibilities that Washington refuses to take.” The paper added that “Western opinion should continue to pressure the Trump administration on climate change,” since “China will remain the world’s biggest developing country for a long time. How can it be expected to sacrifice its own development space for those developed western powerhouses?”
The Guardian cautions that Chinese leaders’ “rhetoric has often outpaced their commitments to curb emissions, and the country also consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined, although coal use has plateaued in recent years.” Even though the country has been quick off the mark after the U.S. election and since, saying that it’s ready to assume the sole mantle of global climate leadership, the limits to that position are now coming into focus.
“China is not the kind of leader in terms of climate change that will pull other countries along,” Lauri Myllyvirta, Beijing-based senior campaigner at Greenpeace, told The Guardian. “The Chinese government will only commit to targets it is very comfortable delivering, and it needs to work with other major countries. China won’t strike out on its own.”
Yet Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang also stated that “no matter how the climate policies of other countries change, as a responsible developing country, China’s determination, goals and policies to tackle climate change will not alter.”
In a post for Greentech Media, cleantech entrepreneur Jigar Shah declares himself “pretty tired of the U.S.-versus-China narrative,” noting that the trajectory of clean energy technology is beyond the point where the Trump administration can slow it down.
“Let’s be clear,” he writes. “The Trump budget document is nonsense, and the good people of Congress should not cut clean energy R&D and climate funding. That said, deployment is already happening at scale.” Solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear accounted for 100% of net new U.S. generating capacity last year, and “it is fully accepted by experts who study energy that the transformation of our energy system is already under way at scale.”
Which means renewable energy job creation, in particular, is not a zero-sum game that only one of the two countries can win, Shah writes.
Trump’s action Tuesday also kindled debate over whether the Paris agreement—on which his executive order was silent—is better off with the U.S. as a recalcitrant, obstructive participant, or with the new administration quitting the deal completely. “There will be some advantages for other countries and there will also be extraordinary disadvantages” if the U.S. withdraws, said former UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres. “It’s not a black and white scenario.”
Maldives Environment Minister Thoriq Ibrahim, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, said it would be in the United States’ own best interest to stay in the agreement. “The closer you look at it, the clearer it becomes that it also promotes important strategic, economic, and security benefits, as well,” he told Reuters.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said it would be best if Trump stuck with Paris, “but I don’t think it’s the end of the Paris agreement if the United States decides to leave.” And Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said he’d concluded the international dialogue would be better off without a big, influential country blocking progress, using the consensus-based process that he described as the agreement’s Achilles’ heel.
“It’s very difficult to have a negative giant in the room,” he said.