The economic and environmental cost of pollution will drive Beijing’s policies regardless of what Donald Trump does
January 20, 2017 — Twenty years ago, climate change was believed by many in Beijing to be a conspiracy cooked up by the western world to contain China’s development.
Since then, China has performed an about-turn, not only recognising climate change as a major global challenge but also, ahead of Davos this week, vowing to lead the world’s effort in combating it.
The election of Donald Trump, who, labelling climate change a “hoax” created by China, has reversed the conspiracy, casts a dark shadow on the prospect of future international climate cooperation. But for China, now could be a moment of opportunity.
Since the catastrophic Copenhagen failure in 2009, China has anchored climate actions at the core of its political agenda. There are three main reasons for this, and over the next four years, they will be the drivers that will propel China’s climate action forward regardless of the political situation in the US.
First, the calculus of cost and benefit has shifted.
For a long time, environmental protection was positioned on the opposite side of economic prosperity – the pursuit of one could only sacrifice the other. In China, this binary has fallen apart, as the enormous health impacts of air pollution have galvanised both political and public opinion against polluting industry, and as the booming clean energy industry shows the possibility to make both environmentally and economically sound investments.
Second, China feels an increased – and increasing – sense of global responsibility, as displayed in phrase after phrase of Xi Jinping’s speeches in Davos and Geneva this week. Beijing was quick to learn from its mistakes in Copenhagen. In the run up to the Paris conference, it managed to forge consensus on the most difficult political questions with other key players ahead of time.
Many of these political breakthroughs, such as on common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and the issue of transparency, will require China to move beyond its previous positions and take more ambitious action. In addition, China has started to implement its own south-south cooperation scheme, aimed at helping other developing countries to pursue climate action. China is slowly but surely re-defining its international responsibilities and shifting to a more active and cooperation oriented climate diplomacy.
Third, China’s leaders have started to take ownership of combating climate change.
This new dynamic could bear promising prospects over the next few years. US-China cooperation on climate in the Obama era helped to elevate climate change to the very top of the Chinese leadership’s agenda. This has ensured the unprecedented direct engagement of the Chinese leaders for multiple years, and not only familiarised them with the technicality and politics of climate change, but also allowed them to see the strategic value it can generate.
With Xi soon entering his second five-year tenure, he might well take a leaf out of the outgoing US president’s book and try to secure climate action as one of his political legacies. This could mean further investment in and greater leadership on climate action.
These three reasons, coupled with the fundamental trend of China’s economic transition and the associated coal consumption decline, present a real opportunity for China to project further international leadership on climate change.
What China urgently needs now is a comprehensive strategy that sets climate change as a diplomatic priority. For the past years, China’s policy circle primarily considered climate change through the lens of managing US-China relations and as an issue subordinate to the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
As the political winds shift in Washington, climate change now deserves an independent strategy that takes into account but is not dependent on the US-China relationship. Chinese leaders should be confident in such an approach and not underestimate the country’s potential for global leadership. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt, One Road initiative both demonstrate that, when the issue is given political priority, China is not only able to participate in international diplomacy, but can also actively lead.
None of these is to say China should step in for the US. Climate change is a crisis larger than any single country. And it is neither feasible nor fair to expect other countries to fill the hole left by the US. But for China, if what it takes to move from a climate villain to a reluctant leader is the short five years of the first half of this decade, it is not completely unreasonable to expect the country to become a true leader by the end of this decade.
As Trump drops Obama’s legacy, Xi might well establish one of his own.