Trump’s victory may force climate leadership role onto China

China-US climate cooperation blossomed under Obama, but under Trump it’ll likely be China doing the pushing, writes Deborah Seligsohn.

Obama and Xi meeting in the Netherlands
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the US Ambassador's Residence in Amsterdam in 2014. The two leaders of the world's largest carbon emitting nations have worked together against climate change and paved the way for the Paris Agreement to enter into force. Image: U.S. Embassy The Hague, CC BY-ND 2.0

As we face the prospect of a very different US administration, with seemingly antithetical priorities on climate change, it is worth reflecting on what we have gained over the last eight years and what we risk losing.

Indeed, during the Obama administration the US and China have evolved from competitors and opponents in climate negotiations to vital partners that together helped form the consensus for the breakthrough Paris Agreement a year ago in December. 

Two critical meetings between Presidents Obama and Xi, in November of 2014 and September of 2015, resulted first in the 2014 joint announcement and then an even more coordinated joint statement in 2015. These set the stage for the world’s two largest carbon emitters to coordinate in pushing through an effective agreement in Paris.

The Paris Agreement, of course, was the result of many parties’ hard work, and the negotiating skill of the French Chair and the UNFCCC Secretariat, but without the shared commitment of the largest players in the room, the agreement would have been impossible.

Moreover, the two presidents went out of their way at the beginning of the meeting to demonstrate their commitment to cooperation and to make it clear (in a very unusual move for the Chinese with their protocol-laden system) that they were available for consultation with their respective delegations when the negotiations got down to the final difficult hours.

It wasn’t always this way. When President Obama came into office, expectations were high that the US would shift its position on climate change in ways that would lead both to greater US-China cooperation and to a global breakthrough agreement in Copenhagen in 2009, not quite 11 months after the new President took office. Even a few weeks before the Copenhagen meeting, prospects were promising as the two countries announced parallel emissions control targets just one day apart.

But the US was hamstrung by domestic politics with the President unable to gain approval for his favoured climate legislation, Waxman-Markey. Washington’s climate negotiators also did not understand the constraints Chinese negotiators were under at Copenhagen. They had little room to move from a position the State Council had approved prior to the meeting.

The net result was a series of very public, angry exchanges between the two delegations and bad blood that took years to recover from.

New era of diplomacy

But we need to hand it to both countries. The importance of climate change to both the US President and the Chinese leadership was never in doubt, and both sides worked hard over the years to repair the relationship. They were fortunate to already have a strong basis in bilateral cooperation on the very practical level; on everything from climate science to energy efficiency to renewable energy development that had begun in the first Clinton administration.

Perhaps ironically, despite the George W Bush administration’s repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol, the working level cooperation had continued, and in some areas, such as carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) and methane capture, even been strengthened. But the Obama administration came in with renewed energy and a real interest in building the relationship from high-level policy to joint technology development.

While both of President Obama’s Secretaries of State, Clinton and Kerry, were committed to the process that led to the Paris Agreement, with Clinton flying in early to try to salvage the relationship in Copenhagen, and Kerry, already a leader in the Senate on climate change, focusing on it as a top priority as Secretary, the early move was a deeper technology relationship.

China’s own position in the world had changed radically since 1992, when the process began, and Nobel Laureate and US Energy Secretary Steven Chu brought to the table a view much more focused on cooperative innovation. He found an equally interested partner in China’s technology-focused Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang, a former Audi executive. This led to a major joint initiative, the US-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC).

Originally three centres were planned in the first phase, focused on building efficiency, clean vehicles, and advanced coal technologies with CCUS. Each centre involves consortia of public and private partners from each country that work together on research projects of mutual interest. The CERCs have promoted clean energy innovation through specific joint research and development projects.

In the programme’s first five years the centres produced dozens of important research results, as well as running demonstration projects and launching 15 new products on the market. The two countries estimated that the outcome of this research would result in a reduction of 275 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2025.

As Secretary Chu was replaced by the equally research-oriented Secretary Ernest Moniz, the CERCs entered their second phase, adding a fourth track on energy and water in 2014, and a fifth on improving the energy efficiency of medium-duty to heavy-duty trucks in 2015.

The CERCs augmented robust programmes in everything from renewable energy to atmospheric science. They also helped integrate the many facets of Sino-US cooperation. Government-to-government cooperation had always been but one piece of the interaction between the two countries, given the size of the business and academic relationships between them.

Moreover, in recent years, non-governmental organisations have also played a large part. All of these spheres continue to have independent projects, but within the CERC they also work together.

Change at home

This robust interaction on practical projects provided the basis for improving the diplomatic relationship. While Copenhagen was a challenge, the world came together again the following year at Cancun to iron out that very preliminary agreement, and the two countries worked together with none of the rancour visible the previous year. Moreover, by 2011 in Durban, when the pathway to Paris was established, China and the US often found themselves on the same side in negotiations.

The domestic picture in each country was also changing. In particular, Chinese achievements under the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010) had become visible to all, and it was widely acknowledged that the Chinese were making significant strides in reducing energy intensity. Thus, what had been a major question at Copenhagen – could the Chinese honour their commitments – no longer was, at least among those who were well-informed.

At the same time, President Obama entered his second term in 2013 determined to make headway in controlling greenhouse gases, despite the failure of Congress to act. The result was the President’s Clean Power Plan, first unveiled in July 2014.

Americans have often questioned China’s ability to deliver but, in many ways, the US has been a much larger question mark, given the US withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and the many years it took to enact any federal emissions control programme.

Donald Trump has called climate change a “Chinese hoax”, a rather odd formulation especially since 20 years ago there were many in China who wondered if… climate change was a scheme by the West to keep the developing world from developing.

But President Obama persuaded President Xi of his commitment to the Clean Power Plan, and the two were able to agree on a joint announcement in November 2014. The joint announcement included the Clean Power Plan, as well as vehicle emissions controls and efficiency measures. It also marked the first time China made a public international commitment to peak carbon emissions by 2030.

The Joint Statement in September 2015 was considerably more ambitious. Not only did it include commitments to cutting emissions in each country, it also included the launch of a Chinese cap and trade programme in 2017, pledges of approximately US$3 billion (20 billion yuan) each for green finance, and specific commitments to working together to make the Paris meeting last December a success.

Obama’s legacy

President Obama’s legacy on climate change is hardly all that he had wished. He clearly wanted to see national legislation to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. He implemented a number of critical GHG controls through executive orders and administrative rule-making, and he succeeded in helping shepherd in a new international agreement.

Critical to the successful Paris Agreement was the level of trust and mutual understanding between the two largest emitters. The relationship changed over the course of the past eight years with US stakeholders coming to realise the enormous value of collaboration, and with the US in need of pressure from China to keep its commitments at least as much as China is from the US.

We now face the prospect of a radically rejectionist administration. Indeed, Donald Trump has called climate change a “Chinese hoax”, a rather odd formulation especially since 20 years ago there were many in China who wondered if the opposite wasn’t true – that climate change was a scheme by the West to keep the developing world from developing. This view is relatively rare in China today, but one still hears it elsewhere in the developing world.

The Chinese, though, seem to really understand the risk of climate impacts and the links between protecting the climate and addressing their terrible air pollution problems.

In recent weeks, both China’s Climate Minister Xie Zhenhua and one of his top advisors, Zou Ji, have publicly warned the US that it should not abrogate the Paris Agreement. Both were directly critical of Trump’s position.

Even before the Trump victory, it was becoming clear that the tables had turned to some extent; that the US, rather than China, might be the player that needs to be pushed in the international process. That will certainly be the case now. Not only is climate change no Chinese hoax, but Chinese seriousness may be our best hope.

Deborah Seligsohn is an environmental governance researcher at the University of California. This article was originally published by chinadialogue under a Creative Commons’ License.

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