As US bows out of leading role on climate, China waits in the wings

President Trump's executive order rolls back a number of Obama-era climate change initiatives. Meanwhile, China is pushing ahead with its efforts to curb human-caused climate change.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
Workers load 'clean coal' promoted by the government at a factory in Qianan, in northern China's Hebei province, Dec. 30, 2016. China's government said Wednesday, March 29, 2017, it will stick to its promises to curb carbon emissions after President Trump eased US rules on fossil fuel use that were meant to control global warming.

On Wednesday, China re-affirmed that it plans to stick with its climate change commitments, even as the United States steps back on a number of climate initiatives.

President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday that reversed a number of Obama-era clean energy initiatives, fulfilling a campaign promise from a new administration that has expressed doubts about the human cause of global climate change. But while these doubts seem to be taking hold for at least some in the upper echelons of US politics, the vast majority of scientists around the world agree that carbon emissions from human-made sources, especially the burning of fossil fuels, are responsible for the warming of the Earth.

"As a responsible developing country, China's plan, determination and policy to tackle climate change is resolute," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said during a regular news briefing, the Associated Press reports.

While Mr. Lu didn't mention the US or its president directly in response to a question about the US executive order, he did say that Beijing would remain committed to the Paris agreement, a landmark global accord that outlines nations' commitments to prevent the rise of global to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F.) above pre-industrial levels.

The recent US executive order says nothing about the Paris agreement, though Mr. Trump promised to pull out of the accords on the campaign trail. Bill Hare, head of the Climate Analytics think tank, told Reuters that based on Trump's policies, US greenhouse emissions could stay at current levels by 2030. By comparison, from 2005 to 2015, US emissions fell by 11 percent.

Currently, China is the number one emitter of climate change-related greenhouse gases, though the country's use of coal and other environmentally harmful energy sources has been decreasing in recent years. Beijing had resisted the creation of national emission limits for decades, but in 2014, President Xi Jinping finally set a 2030 deadline to stop emissions from rising. As the Christian Science Monitor previously reported:

The United States and China became critical partners in the fight against global warming during the Obama administration, crucially joining last year to endorse the landmark Paris climate accord. But their paths have diverged since the Trump took over the White House in January.

Trump’s change in tack has provided China – the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases – the opportunity to lead on climate change by reducing its dependency on coal in favor of natural gas and renewable energy. (Coal consumption in the US has also declined, mainly because of a glut in the global steel market and cheap natural gas.)

Li Shuo, a climate policy analyst at Greenpeace East Asia, says Beijing has embraced its role as a leader on climate change as it works to shift its economy away from heavy industries toward more consumer-based growth.

“The fundamentals of the economy in China are very favorable for climate action,” Mr. Li says. “We’re now missing the diplomatic engine from Washington. China has a good opportunity to step up its game.”

While China is looking ahead economically by making the switch to greener energy sources, many critics say Trump's recent executive to revitalize the coal sector marks an economic step backward for the US, in addition to contributing to the problems associated with climate change.

"All around the world, wind power and solar power is becoming so cheap that it will be favored over fossil fuels," said Niklas Höhne, of the NewClimate Institute in Germany, according to Reuters.

If that assessment is accurate, China's investment in greener energy sources could pay off in a big way. The country is currently the leader in wind and hydroelectric energy generating capacity, and is No. 2 (behind Germany) in solar energy. Beijing plans to spend 2.5 trillion yuan ($360 billion) on renewable energy by the year 2020.

"No matter how other countries' policies on climate change, as a responsible large developing country China's resolve, aims and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change," said Lu, who encouraged all countries to "move with the times," Reuters reports.

This article contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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