Why China rejects Trump's climate change position

As the two biggest producers of CO2 emissions and also the two economic powers most capable of mitigating the effects, cooperation between the US and China is vital to the success of the Paris agreement.

How Hwee Young/Reuters
President Obama shakes hands with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a joint ratification of the Paris climate change agreement ceremony ahead of the G20 Summit at the West Lake State Guest House in Hangzhou, China, Sept.3, 2016.

In a break from tradition, China has called on Donald Trump to uphold the Paris agreement after the Republican presidential nominee threatened to pull the United States out of the CO2 mitigation deal (backed by nearly 200 governments) that goes into effect Friday.

In accordance with the international goal to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the US has agreed to cuts its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China has promised to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. But in May, Mr. Trump threatened to "cancel" the Paris agreement, if he becomes president.

On Tuesday, when asked directly how China would work with the US if Mr. Trump were elected: “I don’t think ordinary people would agree if you were to reject that trend [of limiting carbon emissions],”  Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate negotiator, said in a news conference in Beijing, “I’m convinced, if it’s a wise leader – especially a political leader – he ought to know that all his policies should conform to the trends of global development,” reported The Wall Street Journal.

While Chinese leaders have not stated an explicit preference for either candidate, as French President Francois Hollande came close to doing in August, Mr. Xie’s comments still represents an unusual foray into a US election on the part of China.

"International efforts to influence a US election are relatively uncommon," Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., told The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Four years ago, about the only major international leader’s effort to try to shape the US election was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s efforts to support Mitt Romney. Romney lost and that has hurt Israel’s standing in Washington ever since. That’s why it is rare – no nation wants back the losing candidate and anger the winner."

But Trump’s comments about withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and boosting the nation’s coal sector may sound threatening to a newly environmentally conscious China and to the legitimacy of the international agreement.

As the two biggest producers of CO2 emissions and also the two economic powers most capable of mitigating the effects, cooperation between the US and China is considered vital to the success of the agreement.

Steven Leibo, professor of international history and politics and The Sage Colleges in Albany, N.Y., and associate in research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, tells the Monitor that the most important outcome of the Paris agreement was the pressure that 200 countries agreeing to environmentally conscious practices put on global markets.

"That symbolism is what really mattered," Professor Liebo says. "To have the United States emerge with a leadership like Donald Trump, and the large part of the Republican Party still in denial, puts that entire edifice in jeopardy and negates the most important part of what was accomplished in Paris, which was literally market signals that would build up far more momentum than the actual agreements in the agreements itself."

The US has a history of flip-flopping on climate change as presidents come in and out of office. Bill Clinton supported climate change mitigation at the Kyoto Protocol and then George W. Bush came into office and denied climate change for much of his presidency – which may make China, a country that has made up its mind about climate change and stuck with it, nervous.

"The Chinese have come to realize, and this is really only in the last decade, that their future is absolutely dependent in dealing with the various environmental issues that face them," says Leibo. "China 16 years ago was not ready to take part in this extraordinary planetary existential challenge, but they absolutely are now. They are deeply involved in trying to wean themselves off of fossil fuels and move toward a much more green saver energy production."

The US-China commitment toward curbing carbon emissions has also served to strengthen Sino-American relations at a time when they are otherwise relatively tense. Ryan Irwin, associate professor in the history department of SUNY Albany, tells the Monitor that without a shared project like climate change, these necessary relations could fray further.

"If we have a candidate that doesn’t even believe in climate change then you end up confronting issues like what is happening in the South China Sea because it is a vacuum, there here is nothing we can work constructively together on and you end up working on issues that divide the US and China right now," says Mr. Irwin.

Material from Reuters contributed to this report.

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