How China and Environmentalists Became Unlikely Bedfellows

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  • Trump’s rebuke of climate change hands China a central role
  • China is seeking to exploit trade from shift to clean energy

The Coming Storm of Climate Change

If politics make strange bedfellows, few are more unlikely than the growing link between China and the environmentalists seeking to rein in climate change.

The nation that spews the most pollution and is building dozens of coal-fired power plants is also winning accolades from the likes of Greenpeace and WWF for its efforts to fight global warming and steer an eventual path away from fossil fuels.

“Air quality kills competitiveness, kills people -- that’s a big driver for China,” said Rachel Kyte, a United Nations special representative who leads the Sustainable Energy for All program. “How that translates into their leadership beyond the way they’re already leading is something that will be important to watch.”

Once a wrecker of global warming deals, China under President Xi Jinping is moving to shape the consensus on how to rein in greenhouse gases after President Donald Trump decided to scale back U.S. involvement. China’s ambitions on climate will be on display this week, when Trump arrives in Beijing on Nov. 8 to meet Xi, and on the other side of the world where envoys from almost 200 nations gather starting Monday in Bonn for UN climate talks. 

Xi is seeking to translate his prestige into gains for China’s diplomatic and trade agenda, opening doors for its rapidly-expanding clean energy businesses -- especially the solar panel making industry it dominates. The nation’s central role on climate may both reduce friction between richer and poorer countries that held up deals in the past and weaken rules designed to bring transparency to measuring pollution. 

For now, environmental groups are praising Xi’s handling of both climate and Trump. Part of is out of necessity: the practices they use in the west of confront and protest wouldn’t work with China. Also, the green groups remain critical of China and have long suggested ways it can clean up its industry.

Still, the words green groups use indicate they want Xi as an ally -- and a foil against Trump. Shuo Li, a senior global policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia, said China has been effective in working around Trump on climate using “a soft approach without direct confrontation.” At WWF, Lou Leonard said the nation has no choice but to work on reducing its footprint on the environment.

“They’re either going to be seen as a constructive proactive force or they’re going to be seen as a big part of the problem,” said Leonard, who is the group’s senior vice president on climate and energy. “They’re the world’s largest annual emitter now.”

Praise for China on the environment is remarkable given the scale of its emissions and that the government has said pollution won’t peak until 2030. While photovoltaic makers including Trina Solar Ltd. and JA Solar Holding Co. are stepping up capacity to feed booming demand at home and abroad, energy in China is dominated by fossil fuels.

China surpassed the U.S. as the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2006 and is now responsible for 27 percent global pollution, according BP Plc. As the U.S. and Europe retire their dirtiest power plants, China by 2040 will install 26 percent of all the new coal-fired generation, according to International Energy Agency data.

“It’s easy for environmental activists to point to the amount of money that China is spending on renewables or the fact that they’re engaged in Paris,” said Nicolas Loris, research manager for energy and environment at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “I don’t know if the outcome of China doing those things will result in any averted warming. They continue to rely on and build conventional power plants.”

Loris is concerned China will water down standards on how countries measure carbon dioxide coming from industry, leaving scientists less certainty over the path of emissions and the outlook for temperatures.

“I don’t know how much they can be trusted in terms of reducing their CO2 emissions and actually reporting an accurate assessment,” Loris said.

China may use its leverage on the environment to open up trade -- or to choke it off with unsupportive countries, said Tim Yeo, a former U.K. lawmaker who follows climate policy and now leads New Nuclear Watch Europe, an industry-funded lobby group.

“They won’t talk about it until they know they can beat most people, and then they’ll say they’re imposing trade sanctions,” Yeo said in an interview. “They want to have more economic power.”

Growing Assertion

Evidence of China’s assertive stance is gathering, with Xi picking allies to help shape the agenda at the UN talks and beyond. 

Just days after Trump announced the U.S. was pulling out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, Xi met with California Governor Jerry Brown for almost an hour. Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry was offered a relatively low level meeting with an official who ranked seventh in the command structure at the time.

Xi, setting out a vision for the country at the Party Congress last month, noted China “is approaching the center of the world stage.” On the environment, his aspirations may be for a gradual shift. Xie Zhenhua, the country’s special representative on climate, said at a briefing last week that China would uphold commitments under the Paris accord, but he also encouraged the U.S. to remain engaged.

“We hope the U.S. can come back to the big family of the Paris pact again,” Xie said in Beijing. 

In the wake of Trump’s decision to exit, Xi himself has tried to rally the world behind the Paris deal. He has signed agreements with other big polluters including the European Union and Canada to keep up the pressure on reducing emissions while giving speeches reaffirming China’s central role in the debate.

To read a story on China’s latest moves to build a carbon market, click here.

It’s a big shift from 2009, when China helped bring down a global deal on climate at the UN talks in Copenhagen.

“China has increased its leadership. That’s a matter of fact,” said Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank chief economist who has advised the U.K. and European governments on climate policy.

— With assistance by Feifei Shen

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