If the Trump Administration Abandons Climate, Will China Take Global Leadership?

December 13, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump committed his first major personnel act on climate Wednesday, picking Scott Pruitt—Oklahoma Attorney General, climate change denier, and oil industry ally—to head the Environmental Protection Agency. If Pruitt is confirmed, he’ll be responsible for looking out for all Americans, not just for narrow oil interests. Maybe he’ll be persuaded to take a more forward-looking stance on climate by the Americans already grappling with sea level rise in Alaska, Florida, and Louisiana. But if that doesn’t concern him, perhaps the United States losing international goodwill and influence to an ascendant China will.

For anyone hoping to see Trump listen to Al Gore on climate instead of Myron Ebell, the appointment of Pruitt was a rude awakening. The Pruitt pick looks to be just the first of many troublesome acts on climate by the Trump administration. The president-elect is reportedly looking to fill other key cabinet posts with climate change deniers and oil industry allies: Cathy McMorris Rodgers for Interior, and former Texas governor Rick Perry for Energy, where the Trump transition team is reportedly compiling a list of civil servants who attended climate meetings under the current administration. Just today the transition team announced that the president-elect has picked ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

As environmental groups gear up to defend hard-won US federal government gains on climate, many people are starting to look elsewhere for signs of hope and progress. My colleague Frances Seymour sees climate policy advances shifting to states. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg finds hope in cities. Some commentators take solace in market movement toward renewable energy, driven by ongoing technological advances and falling costs. I’ve been buoyed by a rapid-fire string of announcements by governments planning to completely phase out coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel—France (by 2023) and Finland, Canada, and Alberta (by 2030). These declarations follow on the heels of a similar announcement last year by the UK (by 2025).

But perhaps the greatest potential source of hope is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, China. As unlikely as it would have seemed just a few years ago, China has been making great strides on climate and air quality in recent years. It is rapidly shifting its power generation from coal to natural gas, and growing renewable energy. China has also been installing cleaning devices in power plants and rolling out vehicle emission regulations.

In a country where air pollution is responsible for more than one million early deaths a year, the shift toward cleaner energy and transportation is paying dividends. A recent study found that China’s nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution from power plants has fallen by more than half since its peak in 2011, reducing overall NO2 concentrations by one-third. Climate is a co-benefit—China’s carbon dioxide emissions have been falling since 2013 or 2014, well in advance of a 2030 target.

Whether China can maintain and expand upon these tentative environmental gains is uncertain. Even as China rolls out the policies above, it may or may not be continuing to build coal plants, and it may or may not be experiencing a resurgence in coal mining. Whether China can keep cutting emissions will depend in part on the success of its incipient carbon market, its forest restoration programs, and other innovative environmental programs called “eco-compensation”—the subject of a conference I recently attended in Kunming, China, and the subject of a companion blog, China’s Eco-Compensation Programs for Improving Environmental Quality.

If China is able to follow through on its domestic emissions reductions, what might this mean for international climate efforts? The 2015 Paris climate agreement was structured as a “bottom up” agreement in which all countries’ contributions are voluntary. There were always going to be leaders and laggards, and the main international mechanism to spur greater action was always going to be peer pressure—lauding the leaders, and shaming the laggards.

There’s no question that it would be better to have both the US and China as lauded leaders, working together for climate solutions, financing international efforts, and using their collective diplomatic muscle to bring vacillating nations on board. However, Candidate Trump pledged to “cancel” the Paris agreement, and President-elect Trump is reportedly exploring avenues for withdrawing the United States from the agreement. In contrast, a senior official at the conference I attended in Kunming confidently declared China’s commitments to decrease emissions a “solemn promise to the rest of the world.” 

If Trump and his cabinet back the US away from its commitment to reduce emissions, the climate would be harmed both directly and by any corresponding slackening of efforts by other nations. Progress in national climate policies and progress in international climate negotiations are mutually reinforcing, as described in Frances Seymour’s and my new book Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change.

At the same time, the US would be handing a diplomatic gift to China. China is well-placed to fill a US-shaped hole in international climate leadership, together with Europe and other high-ambition nations. In doing so it would earn the goodwill of many nations, and the influence that comes along with that. When countries threatened by climate change consider trade and investment partners, they’ll look more favorably on a country that joins them in a common effort to fight climate change than one that shirks its commitments and makes the problem worse.

There are parallels here. If Washington abandons the Trans Pacific Partnership, Beijing stands ready to write trade rules for Asia. As the US has grown increasingly indifferent to multilateral development banks, China has launched the rival Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Could the Paris climate agreement become one more international institution where the US cedes leadership to China?

As a CGD colleague recently said to me, “who would have guessed we’d be pinning our hopes on China to lead us out of an environmental crisis.” Yet just as on trade and multilateral development banking, the results of a China-led climate effort might not always be to America’s liking—China could deprioritize transparency, for example. But, if we Americans give up our seat at the table, we will be in no position to complain about where China takes the agenda.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.