Hazy Future for U.S.-China Climate and Energy Ties

In late 2009, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP 15) ended in disappointment after high-profile disagreements between the U.S. and China. In the years since then, both countries have made great strides towards closer cooperation on climate and energy issues, as highlighted by the U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change issued in March 2016. The statement is a remarkable turnaround in U.S.-China climate negotiations, and a significant bright spot in an increasingly tense bilateral relationship. With the landmark Paris Agreement now formally in force, a foundation has been laid for further cooperation on energy and climate matters. Additionally, with the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea stealing headlines over the past few years, cooperation on broader issues such as energy and climate change has served as a heartening indicator that both sides are willing to transcend zero-sum thinking in the international arena.

“This dialogue is a part of the US-China relationship that remains positive, in contrast to many other facets of the relationship. We need these positive elements to balance more contentious issues.” -Professor Mikkal Herberg

After the US Presidential election, however, the triumph of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans has cast a pall of uncertainty over many of these accomplishments. The election results give the incoming Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress the power to substantially roll back nearly a decade of environmentally-focused bilateral progress on energy issues. In a recent conversation, Professor Mikkal Herberg, an energy policy expert at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, underscored much of what is at stake with regard to the U.S. and China. “We’ve had nominal bilateral cooperation effort for a long time, and much of that is focused on general environmental goals, but also helping China improve its energy efficiency dramatically. That’s been a key part of the U.S. effort. In the last five years, there’s been a huge acceleration on climate collaboration.” Under the Obama administration, the U.S. strengthened dialogue with China with the aim of tackling a diverse array of energy issues. The Department of Energy has established cooperative ties with China regarding smart grid implementation, carbon capture and renewable energy technology, as well as shale gas development. In November 2009, the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) was launched in Beijing. Professor Herberg emphasized that scaling back these efforts would be “very counterproductive” with regard to international climate change efforts and the overall U.S.-China relationship. “All of this dialogue is a part of the U.S.-China relationship that remains positive, in contrast to many other facets of the relationship. We need these positive elements to balance more contentious issues.”

While the specifics of many of Trump’s policy proposals remain characteristically vague, the broader direction the President-elect plans to take with regard to energy and the environment is clear. He has pledged to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, and in 2012 published a tweet characterizing global warming as a phenomenon “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”. There is no immediate way for a Trump administration in Washington to cancel the Paris deal, but its future would be left in doubt if the Trump administration signals its intention to withdraw. While the formal withdrawal process takes four years, the Trump administration can simply refuse to comply with U.S. commitments under the agreement. Trump has fashioned himself the champion of the domestic coal industry, pledged to scrap President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and selected Myron Ebell, a climate skeptic, to lead his transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency. After years of high-profile cooperation with the Obama administration on energy issues, the prospect of a dramatic reversal is certainly raising eyebrows in Beijing.

The Chinese government seems committed to plowing ahead with domestic reform efforts with or without the United States.

Under Xi Jinping, China is now attempting a historic transition to a more sustainable, efficient economic model, breaking away from decades of growth-centric policy. Given the rising tide of political, economic, and social pressure to make substantial progress on China’s environmental problems, the Chinese government seems committed to plowing ahead with domestic reform efforts with or without the United States. This drive was emphasized at climate negotiations in Marrakesh last week, where Chinese climate negotiators stated that green reforms in China would continue regardless of any movement by the new US government. China’s national carbon trading system is set to launch next year, and the 13th Five-Year Plan calls for an 18% reduction in carbon intensity from 2015 levels, a stepping stone to achieving China’s long-term goals set under the Paris Agreement. If future U.S. energy and climate policy mirrors Trump’s promises on the campaign trail, the U.S. will effectively cede its international leadership role on climate issues to China and topple an important pillar of G2 bilateral cooperation. As UCSD Professor David Victor wrote in a recent article, “If the U.S. leaves Paris and eliminates its leadership role, that leaves China to steer the ship.”

The scientific consensus is clear: climate change is the most pressing long-term global issue in the 21st century. If the U.S. embarks on a path of denial and noncooperation, we will forfeit the opportunity to lead and diminish our international reputation. Given the remarkable progress that both Beijing and Washington have made since COP 15, a reckless decision to disregard and withdraw from the Paris Agreement would be a significant setback to global efforts addressing climate change, as well as a self-inflicted blow to U.S.-China bilateral ties. In the aftermath of the election, Trump has hinted at moderating some of his most extreme policy proposals, and we can hope that he will ultimately soften his position on environmental issues. Unfortunately, the Republican party’s record of obstruction and denial with regard to climate change gives little cause for short-term optimism.

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Alex Webb

is a graduate student at GPS studying international politics with a focus on China and Southeast Asia. His research interests include regional inequality in China, Chinese investment in Southeast Asia, and cross-strait relations.

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