China claims climate ‘vision’ after Trump withdrawal

June 05, 2017 13:09
US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out from the Paris agreement on climate change is prompting China and the European Union to work more closely with each other. Photo: Reuters

The annual summit meeting of China and the European Union in Brussels last Friday was overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change.

The European Union and China responded by reaffirming their commitment to implementing the 2015 Paris agreement, which has been signed by 195 countries.

In a list of “outcomes” of the summit, the two sides “reaffirmed the importance of addressing climate change and their commitment to “step up cooperation to promote its implementation”.

Trump, by his action, has turned climate change into an issue that unites China and the EU against the US. Previously, the US and the EU were on the same side and the US managed to talk China into recognizing the necessity of championing this cause.

This is only the latest step Trump has taken to distance the US from its European allies. While visiting the NATO headquarters, he refused to affirm the mutual-defense provision of the alliance.

Trump’s “America First” policy is leading to rifts with US allies in Europe and in Asia. It is not good for the US. But it is turning out very well for China.

The day after Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, an editorial in the official China Daily newspaper recalled that Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping “played a decisive role in negotiating the Paris agreement”.

Now, with the US having reversed its position, the editorial depicted the climate accord as “Xi’s vision”.

“The rest of the world,” the editorial said, “including China, which is committed to realizing Xi’s vision of jointly building and protecting our shared home, have come together to express their united resolve to do even more to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

This strengthens Xi’s position domestically months before a key party congress to determine the country’s leadership for the next five years; more importantly, it bolsters China’s claim to global leadership now that the US has left the field.

Trump’s decision is based on erroneous assumptions and information. In explaining the withdrawal, he said: “China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So, we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement.”

However, the fact-checking PolitiFact website points out that under the Paris agreement, “each country publicly declares how much it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and what it will do to get there. In that sense, the agreement doesn’t allow or disallow specific actions, like building plants.”

Moreover, while China is still building coal-fired plants, it is taking dramatic steps to ensure that its plants are the most advanced in the world.

According to a recent study by the Center for American Progress, a comparison of the top 100 most efficient coal plants in China and in the US showed that 90 of the 100 Chinese plants are ultra-supercritical, or at the most efficient level, while only one of the 100 US plants met those criteria.

In fact, unless the US raises its standards, by 2020, “every Chinese coal plant will be more efficient than every US coal plant”.

Actually, nature favors the US, which has a plentiful supply of natural gas and so can shift easily to the less polluting fuel, while China doesn’t have that choice and so must focus on cleaner coal plants and shifting to renewable resources such as wind and solar energy.

“China used to build two coal plants every week,” writes Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now, every hour, China erects another wind turbine and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field, according to Greenpeace estimates. The country now leads the world in wind and solar power capacity, and Trump has opened the door for China to capture an increasing share of this fast growing world market.”

So while the US is much better endowed with natural resources than China, it isn’t making use of what it has to prepare it for the economy of the future. Rather, under Trump, it is marching steadily backward into the past, reopening coal mines.

Meanwhile, the EU, having been pushed away by the US, has little choice but to work more closely with China. As Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, told Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, “Today, we are stepping up our cooperation on climate change with China, which means that today China and Europe have demonstrated solidarity with future generations and responsibility for the whole planet.”

It is a sad day for the US, and for the world.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.