Why Donald Trump Is Wrong About Climate and China

Donald Trump is all wrong about climate change. Not only does he risk becoming the only world leader who fails to understand that dangerous climate change is the central environmental challenge of our time. He also risks negating U.S. leadership on climate change at a time when the global community has reached consensus on the need to address this crisis. 

Trump is also wrong when he claims that all action to protect the climate is “done for the benefit of China, because China does not do anything to help climate change.” He is wrong to think that being part of an international climate agreement would give China an unfair advantage over the U.S. in manufacturing. And he is wrong to believe that withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will make America great again.

China was responsible for over one-quarter of the world’s carbon emissions in 2014—more than the U.S. and the European Union combined. It accounts for 33-40 percent of the carbon emissions gap between current trends and a 2 degree Celsius pathway. Yet China is moving to cut its CO2 emissions much faster than anyone expected, and is now on a path to achieving its Paris climate commitments, including peaking its CO2 emissions, well before its 2030 goal. China is on track to cutting its CO2 emissions by 0.5% this year as it burns less coal, building on a 0.7% reduction last year, and contributing to a global slowdown in CO2 emissions growth.

In fact, as I described in detail here, China is emerging as a global climate leader, taking the number one spot in global renewables investment for the past few years. In 2015 alone, China invested $102 billion in renewables, more than the U.S. and EU combined, and installed half of new wind power capacity globally and 1/3 of new solar capacity. Realizing the benefits of actively adapting to the new low carbon economy, China is committing to move ahead regardless of what the U.S. does.

Contrary to Trump’s assertions, China is not waiting until 2030 before taking climate action. In September and October of this year, for example, China cancelled dozens of coal plants already under construction with a combined capacity greater than the UK’s entire coal fleet, in order to avoid building coal power capacity that would become stranded, unused assets given increasingly cheap renewables. It has set a national coal consumption target of 4.2 billion tons for 2020, about the same as its coal consumption in 2013, and its coal consumption has actually fallen for the past two years, with 2016 likely to continue the trend.

China’s 13th Five Year Plans (2016-2020) for power sector development and greenhouse gas emissions control, announced recently, call for increasing wind and solar power to 210 GW and 110 GW respectively, achieving sales of five million new electric vehicles, establishing a national carbon market to price carbon, and developing 100 pilot low-carbon cities (from the current 40) by 2020. China will also reduce its CO2 emissions per unit GDP by 18 percent below 2015 levels by 2020 and seek to meet new energy demand with low-carbon energy sources, as it has been doing for the past several years.

Trump’s concern that the Paris Agreement would give China an unfair advantage over the U.S. in manufacturing is groundless. Much of the light industry in China is already shifting to countries with lower labor costs, such as Vietnam. And China is moving away from heavy industry as fast as it can in order to make a long-term transition towards a low carbon, service-based economy. China is shutting down excess industrial capacity and working to reduce CO2 emissions in the iron and steel, chemical, and building materials industries, which will all be included in the national carbon trading system to be launched next year. The country’s overall 2020 target for industry is to decrease CO2 emissions per unit of industrial value added by 22 percent below 2015 levels.

China’s transition to a low carbon economy is neither easy nor painless. As described in an excellent analysis in Vox entitled The Real War on Coal is Happening in China Right Now, “the government’s crackdown on excess steel and mining capacity is already expected to lay off some 1.8 million workers, a whopping 15 percent of the workforce. Officials in various coal plants have been fretting about strikes and protests over the job losses.” 

But China recognizes that transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy will ensure its long-term economic development by creating jobs in new industries like renewables, EVs and efficiency, combat its relentless pollution, and protect China from the devastating impacts of climate change on its food security, human health, cities and infrastructure. And rather than denying the reality of climate change and continuing to expand fossil fuel use, as Trump and the Republicans seek to do, China has pledged to set aside $15.8 billion for job retraining and other support for workers, and to “ensure that future job growth in other sectors will help absorb losses in the declining coal and steel sectors.”

Much of that job growth is already coming in the clean energy sector. China is the world’s undisputed leader in green jobs, driven by unprecedented growth in the solar and wind industries: 3.5 million people now work in the renewable energy sector in China, while 769,000 work in the renewables sector in the United States. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that China’s energy, transportation and forestry sectors could provide at least 4.5 million green jobs in 2020. China’s leadership in renewable energy technology, revenue, and jobs will only accelerate if the U.S. were to pull back on its climate commitments. In fact, at least one commentator has called Trump’s climate denial “a gift to China’s green industry.”  

That’s not the only gift that Trump would give to China if he abandons the Paris Agreement. Relinquishing America’s international leadership role on climate change would open the door for China to become the world’s de facto climate leader, diminishing U.S. influence and enhancing China’s across multiple issues. As Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and a senior Chinese climate negotiator, told Reuters:

If Trump abandons efforts to implement the Paris agreement, "China's influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China's global standing, power and leadership.”

Trump’s actions could also lead China and the European Union to respond with climate-focused trade measures, such as imposing a carbon price on imports of high-carbon products, i.e., a carbon tariff border adjustment, from the U.S. and others.

China’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, told Reuters that causing the U.S. to leave the Paris Agreement or fail to live up to its commitments would be a mistake for Donald Trump:

I believe a wise political leader should take policy stances that conform with global trends [towards balancing economic protection and environmental growth]… If they resist this trend, I don't think they'll win the support of their people, and their country's economic and social progress will also be affected.

The Paris Agreement will survive Donald Trump. But withdrawing the U.S. from this critically needed international agreement—a difficult and lengthy process in any case—would turn America into an international climate pariah, weaken our economy, adversely affect the health and livelihoods of millions of Americans, and jeopardize the future of our planet.

If Donald Trump truly wants to make America great again, he will embrace a low-carbon future based on 21st century low carbon clean technology and innovations. To do otherwise would be to turn his back on our children and future generations. We cannot afford to let that happen.

This blog was coauthored with NRDC China Climate and Energy Policy Director Alvin Lin.

About the Authors

Barbara Finamore

Senior Attorney and Asia Director, China program

Alvin Lin

Climate and Energy Policy Director, China program
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The question now is whether President-Elect Donald Trump will govern less divisively than he campaigned. On climate change, there’s every reason for deep concern. Candidate Trump said he wants to “cancel” the historic Paris Climate Agreement; his transition team features a fanatical climate denier and energy lobbyists, and the transition website quickly recycled verbatim a campaign speech pledging to scrap the Clean Power Plan and the entire Climate Action Plan. Is there hope that Trump could take a fresh look before executing his climate campaign agenda? I would not put much faith in appeals over the fate of the earth. But there are two quite self-interested political reasons that members of his inner circle, seasoned hands he’s interviewing for top jobs, or cooler heads in Congress, might urge him to pause before pushing that button.

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