Op-Ed: Through climate change denial, we’re ceding global leadership to China

The Chinese city of Shenzhen has won awards for its efforts to tackle climate change.
(Brent Ng / Associated Press)

Remember when China was the climate-action outcast, the obstacle standing in the way of progress in the global fight against a warming planet? What a difference a few years — and an election — can make.

Over the past few weeks, world leaders, delegates to the climate change conference in Marrakech and activists everywhere have expressed alarm that, as president, Donald Trump might actually realize his “America First Energy Plan.” Any one of the proposals would set back the environmental movement — withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, abandoning President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions, reviving the coal industry, opening up more public land to oil and gas drilling, dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency — but together they conjure up dystopian dread. If President Trump follows through with candidate Trump’s promises, it will be all but impossible to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

China, of course, was no more prepared for the results of the American election than the U.S. But it has been quick to size up the environmental implications of a Trump victory, and officials in Beijing are contriving to cast China in a fresh role, to project the country as a — perhaps the — global leader on climate change.

China is betting that clean energy and green technology will be what powers the global economy of the 21st century.

During the Marrakech talks, the official Xinhua News agency stated, “China is playing an active role in negotiation and global governance on climate change. Self-motivated and willing to work with others to save the planet, China has taken steps, including billions of dollars of investment, to tackle climate change and provide new-energy technology.” No need to make the contrast with the U.S. more explicit.

Lost on much of the world is that even as a soupy smog blankets its skies, China has been going green and clean with a vengeance in recent years. As the environmental and health consequences of fossil fuel emissions have become more widely understood, Beijing has bolstered its efforts to curb coal consumption and vehicle exhaust.

In 2015, China invested $111 billion in renewable energy — more than any other country in the world and, indeed, more than the U.S. ($44 billion), Japan ($36.2 billion) and the United Kingdom ($22.2 billion) combined. In the same year, it led the world in installed wind power, solar power and hydropower (with a total renewable capacity of 500 gigawatts, compared with 220 gigawatts in the U.S.). China today is the world’s leading manufacturer — and exporter — of both wind turbines and solar panels. And, next year, Beijing will inaugurate a nationwide carbon-emissions trading program.


In an effort to wean the Chinese public from fossil-fuel-powered transportation, the state provides hefty subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles (up to $16,000 for a unit). China’s high-speed rail system, at some 12,000 miles already the longest in the world, will add 7,000 additional miles by 2020. Also by 2020, the Ministry of Transport plans to add 200,000 “new-energy” buses and 100,00 new-energy taxis to the nation’s streets.

For China, going greener and cleaner has been driven in considerable part by environmental necessity. But at least as important, China is betting that clean energy and green technology will be what powers the global economy of the 21st century.

Already in 2010, then-U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu alerted Americans to what is at stake: “From wind power to nuclear reactors to high-speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead. Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate.”

If China is right, if Chu is right, to renege on the Paris agreement, to expand oil and gas drilling, to rebuild the coal industry, to cancel federal funding for research and development of new, cleaner forms of energy — as Trump has proposed — not only will cede global leadership on climate change to China but also undermine American leadership of the global economy.

Finally, if Trump’s proposals surrender the leading role played by the U.S. on climate change and in the global economy, they threaten to diminish its moral influence in the world as well.

Developing countries are counting on the U.N.-sponsored Green Climate Fund to assist them in their efforts to combat the ill effects of climate change. Of the $3 billion the U.S. has pledged to the fund, only $500 million has been paid out. Trump’s “America First Energy Plan” proposes “to stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs,” suggesting that developing countries may be waiting a long time to get the remaining $2.5 billion. So much for America’s word.

In Beijing last week, the government reaffirmed its commitment to set up a $2.9 billion fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change. “China is surprising us daily. Whatever they’ve promised, they’re delivering,” Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, chairman of the Least Developed Countries Committee, said in Marrakech.

As 2017 approaches, China is poised to assume global leadership on climate change, and the U.S. is poised to become the new climate-action outcast. In Marrakech for the climate talks, Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environmental Program, spoke right to the point: “It’s a new world order.”


Daniel K. Gardner is a professor of Chinese history at Smith College and author of the forthcoming book “Environmental Pollution in China: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

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