CLIMATE CHANGE: CHINA TAKES THE LEAD
When President Donald Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement on June 1, he couldn’t resist a barb at the world’s biggest polluter. “China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. We can’t build plants, but they can,” Trump complained, though the Paris agreement has no such provisions. Every country can decide its intended nationally determined contribution to cutting emissions.
Trump also hit out at India, the third-biggest emitter (after the US, yet with emissions only a fifth of China’s) for supposedly receiving “billions and billions... in foreign aid” and planning to “double coal production”, while glossing over the fact that India, which is installing 100 GW of solar capacity by 2022, has in fact lowered its production of coal and will bank on renewables for 40 per cent of its energy needs by 2030. “What Trump said is not the reality,” retorted external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
Where does the US pullout leave the world? With India, China and Europe pledging they will stick to commitments, the treaty is safe. Indeed, in Beijing, it’s a widely held view that Trump’s move may pave the way for China to emerge as a leading voice in going green. In a sense, this shift is already under way. Despite Trump’s claim, the world’s biggest polluter is no longer building coal plants. In fact, China this year cancelled 103 coal projects. “While China cancels coal power plants, Trump cancels climate action,” says Li Shuo, who works for Greenpeace in Beijing and echoes a common sentiment in saying that the move “will only corner the US and present China with an opportunity to reap the economic benefits of America’s withdrawal”.
China is certainly positioning itself to be in the lead in emerging green industries. It already builds two-thirds of the world’s solar panels, around half of the world’s wind turbines and operates more nuclear reactors than any other country, with 37 in use and 20 in the works. Beijing still depends on
coal, which accounts for two-thirds of its energy needs. But coal production has fallen for the third straight year. Emissions will peak by 2030, by when renewables will account for 20 per cent of China’s energy needs.
China’s biggest compulsion in going green is not global ambition but domestic pressure, with rising public anger about air and water pollution. “This is also about social stability,” says Ma Jun, a leading Chinese environmentalist. “We’ve seen NIMBY [not in my backyard] protests for major projects. Local and central governments are concerned.”
Beijing also sees economic sense. This week, China hosted officials from around the world, including India’s environment minister Harsh Vardhan, for a clean energy meeting aimed at strengthening sharing of clean technology. There is concern that the US withdrawal may reduce global funding for green projects, as well as access to technology that China still needs.
Beijing, however, is going forward with a massive $360 billion investment in green energy by 2030, which it says will create 13 million jobs, even as it deals with the problem of laying off workers in steel and coal. As US comedian John Oliver put it this week, Trump is certainly fulfilling one campaign promise: “He is creating millions of jobs, just for the wrong country.”
CATCH THE RAYS A solar/ wind turbine plant in Hami, Xinjiang province