China likely to lead climate initiatives as Trump quits global pact

LAUNCESTON, 2 June 2017: 

It’s not hard to imagine Chinese president Xi Jinping having a wry smile at both the decision by Donald Trump to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord and the global reaction.

While Trump’s decision had been expected, it does confirm that world leadership on efforts to limit global climate change will now shift to Asia, and China in particular.

Xi is now free to accept the mantle of global leadership on climate action, which will give him an opportunity to advance China’s interests across the world at a time when Trump’s actions are likely to cost the US influence and allies.

The best part for Xi is that this hasn’t cost him anything, Trump has done the damage to the US all by himself, and is most likely unaware or uncaring of the likely consequences, which go well beyond the blow to the image of the US as a global leader.

It’s been a good past few weeks for Xi, given the successful hosting of a regional summit in Beijing to promote the “belt and road” initiative that ended on May 15 with pledges by China to spend as much as US$800 billion on projects aimed at boosting trade and development across Asia, Africa and into Europe.

China, the world’s largest polluter, was also quick to state it remained committed to the 2015 Paris agreement – which aims to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than two degrees centigrade by the end of the century.

“China will stand by its responsibilities on climate change,” premier Li Keqiang said yesterday after meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel and before flying on to Brussels for meetings with EU officials that will include how to keep the Paris agreement going without US participation.

While China has moved quickly to step into the leadership role vacated by Trump, it’s likely Xi will be looking for more than just increased prestige and prominence in international affairs.

China will most likely be seeking to attract more investment into renewable energy technology and manufacturing, building up a sector of its economy that is already experiencing rapid growth.

The opportunities for China are immense, as it can step into the US role of providing technology and equipment transfer to developing nations to help them meet their commitments under the Paris agreement.

China has committed to plough 2.5 trillion yuan into renewable power generation by 2020, as the world’s largest energy market continues to shift away from dirty coal power towards cleaner fuels.

The investment will create over 13 million jobs in the sector, the National Energy Administration said on Jan. 5 in a document that lays out its plan to develop the nation’s energy sector during the five-year 2016 to 2020 period.

No doubt China will also seek to export renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, and this process may well be helped by the country’s strong stance in favour of the global climate accord.

It’s also likely that China will join European countries in rejecting Trump’s efforts to negotiate a better deal.

The countries that remain committed to the 195-nation Paris agreement have little incentive to give a better deal to the US, the world’s second-biggest polluter.

Rather it’s more likely that they may seek to impose carbon-related tariffs on US goods if these are deemed to be enjoying an unfair advantage because they are produced in an economy free of carbon restraints.

It’s difficult to see how Trump’s decision to exit the Paris deal is anything other than an own goal.

It’s highly improbable that this will lead to more manufacturing jobs in the US – it may instead actually encourage renewable energy pioneers to look at establishing facilities in countries with more progressive views.

It’s also unlikely to revive the US coal industry, which will remain under pressure from cheaper natural gas and the increasing cost-competitiveness of renewables.

It’s a massive blow to US prestige, and one that will likely filter down to US companies that do business globally, making it harder for them to win business.

It also shows that Trump has little regard for his country’s international reputation and that he remains under the spell of climate change deniers and nationalists with limited grasp of science or the economic implications.

Trump’s actions also fly in the face of the wishes of many US companies, including those that are supposed to be beneficiaries of the withdrawal, such as Exxon Mobil.

The maelstrom of criticism Trump is getting for abandoning the global climate pact is unlikely to dissuade him, or convince the section of his support base that fervently believe it is the correct course of action.

Much like the British vote to leave the EU, the true costs of Trump’s decision will only become apparent once it is too late.

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