President Donald Trump’s much-maligned decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement earlier this month provided emerging superpower China an opportunity to seize the global leadership mantle on climate change initiatives. But there’s reason to doubt the world’s most populous nation and leading carbon dioxide emitter can or will assume a position as global leader on climate change issues, said Fordham Law Professor Carl Minzner, an expert on Chinese law, in an interview this week.
In 2015 when China joined more than 190 nations, including the United States, in adopting the Paris Agreement, it led the world in money spent on renewable energy and had begun decreasing its coal consumption. Yet, while China has invested more than $78 billion on renewables in 2016, that actually marked a 32 percent decrease from the previous year. China has also continued investment in coal-to-chemical plants in the mainland, which would introduce monumental amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
China’s national actions are not yet consistent with limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, according to Climate Action Tracker. That projection does not take into account China’s hundreds of coal-fired power projects in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, detailed in a Global Environmental Institute paper released in May 2017.
“China faces a conundrum because, in order to keep economic growth at a level that it wants and in order to avoid mass unemployment, it is supporting a range of heavy industries, such as coal and iron,” Minzner said.
In the wake of Trump’s June 1 announcement on the Paris Agreement, Chinese officials met with leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and California Governor Jerry Brown, to discuss climate initiatives. Such meetings happen for a variety of reasons, Minzner explained.
Chinese President Ji Xinping’s meeting with Brown connected two massive economies interested in clean energy as an economic driver. Xi and former U.S. President Barack Obama’s cooperation on climate change offset disagreement in other areas such as trade and the South China Sea. Such climate talks also took some pressure off China for its human rights record—a matter that the Trump administration has downgraded in priority, Minzner said.
Meanwhile, China and Europe’s recent discussions provide mutual benefit. From China’s perspective, the potential of working with Europe allays some of Beijing’s ever-present concerns that international alliances will confront Beijing on any number of issues. For European leaders like Merkel, talks with China seek to apply pressure to the United States.
“The fact that Europe has an interest in climate and the Trump administration has turned its back on the subject gives China an opportunity for a convergence of interests,” Minzner said, noting it is important for Beijing to show its willingness to work with different people on different issues.
According to Minzner, Beijing officials are legitimately concerned about the damage sea level rise will cause coastal Chinese cities in the coming decades. Yet, that does not mean China will do its part to help the planet avoid the worst predicted impacts of climate change (i.e., coastal flooding, stronger storms, famine, drinking water shortages) or even provide cleaner air for residents of Beijing—if shutting down factories, mass layoffs, and economic slowdown are required.
“Internally, China is conflicted,” Minzner said.