Just as the United States appeared poised to take a victory lap after securing a string of successes on climate change, Donald Trump was elected to the U.S. presidency, suggesting that Washington might abandon its leadership role instead. Trump and his advisers have vowed to withdraw the United States from climate accords abroad and to abandon President Barack Obama’s push for clean energy at home.

If the Trump administration keeps those promises, China will probably step into the leadership vacuum left by the United States. At first glance, that might seem like good news, since China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, leads the world in the production and deployment of clean energy, and will probably meet the international climate-action pledges it has made so far.

The trouble is that China would lead on climate-change issues only insofar as doing so would advance its national interests. Some of those interests, such as China’s desire to cultivate foreign markets for clean energy exports and curb domestic air pollution, line up with combatting climate change. Others, such as the incentives the country faces to export coal power plants abroad, could get in the way of reducing emissions. In some cases, it is unclear where China’s interests lie—for example, whether it wants to promote or stunt breakthrough innovations in clean-energy technologies. Still, one thing is certain: ceding climate leadership to China would be disastrous for the United States, whose diplomatic standing and position in the race to supply the world’s clean-energy needs would fall precipitously as a result.

At a solar power plant in Aksu, China, April 2012.
STRINGER / REUTERS

THE COST OF RETREAT

Washington helped shepherd a breakthrough on climate change in late 2015, when 195 countries signed the Paris agreement, under which governments volunteered action plans to control their greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration played a crucial role in building the international consensus around that agreement, and it coordinated the deal’s rapid entry into force just a year later, after 115 countries had ratified it. Together with the several ancillary deals that the United States recently helped broker—aimed at limiting refrigerant emissions that warm the earth, curbing the carbon footprint of aviation, and hashing out financial assistance that will help developing countries address climate change—the Paris agreement gave the range of climate accomplishments secured during the Obama administration’s final year a breathtaking scope.

China is now poised to build up an advanced nuclear industry at the United States’ expense.

These successes have earned the United States diplomatic capital, particularly among its European allies, that it would be foolish to squander. Reversing course on climate policy could enrage the United States’ partners across the Atlantic and might make them less willing to cooperate on Washington’s geopolitical interests, such as presenting a unified front against Russian aggression, and its economic ones, such as the repatriation of corporate profits stashed in Europe. Nevertheless, the president-elect’s advisers have exuberantly described Trump’s plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement and possibly even the overarching 1992 international framework for climate diplomacy. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to cancel payments to UN climate bodies, such as the Green Climate Fund, which provides financial assistance to developing countries. He also pledged to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan, thus reducing the likelihood that the United States will uphold its international commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent relative to 2005 levels before 2025.

In a sign of its willingness to take over the mantle of climate leadership, China has strongly denounced Trump’s promises. Senior Chinese officials have urged the United States to uphold its climate commitments, and Beijing has pledged to make good on its own regardless of what the next administration does.

The opportunity to take over climate leadership from the United States would be a gift to China. Facing international tensions on several fronts, from its posture in the South China Sea to its tacit support for North Korea, Beijing stands to gain prestige and goodwill abroad by leading on climate change. And now that the United States has done the heavy diplomatic lifting of rallying the world to reach an agreement in Paris, China can earn plaudits just by publicly prodding other countries to live up to the pledges they signed up for. China, for its part, will have no problem meeting its own climate pledge—it has promised to reduce its emissions from 2030 onward, and economists forecast that slowing economic growth will naturally lead to a peak in Chinese emissions well before then. 

U.S. President Barack Obama at a wind turbine production facility in Newton, Iowa, May 2012.
Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

WHERE CHINA AND CARBON CONVERGE

The good news for the environment is that it is in China’s interest to encourage other countries to live up to their climate pledges and to push them to make even stronger ones: doing so successfully would let China export more clean energy products to countries seeking to curb their emissions. China leads the world in the production of solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines, and its domestic market for clean energy is the largest in the world. Yet Beijing has nevertheless struggled to boost domestic demand enough to prop up prices for local manufacturers. It therefore makes sense for China to lead the international implementation of the Paris agreement, as it does for Beijing to lead countries in other, informal venues, such as the Clean Energy Ministerial, a gathering of major economies committed to deploying clean energy that the Obama administration created and that China will host in 2017.

China may also take over leadership from the United States in the world’s efforts on clean energy innovation. That might be a mixed bag for the climate, but it would be decidedly bad news for the United States. Next year, China is slated to host the Mission Innovation Ministerial, a gathering of countries committed to boosting support for clean energy innovation–creating an opportunity for Beijing to influence the world’s clean energy research and development (R&D) priorities. In technological areas where China has been a trailblazer, the country could speed the market entry of breakthrough clean energy innovations that could displace fossil fuels. China is already investing heavily in developing next-generation nuclear reactors, for example, so it may lead an international push to commercialize advanced reactors that are safer and cheaper than existing versions. Unfortunately for the United States, however, although most advanced nuclear designs originated in American research labs, the U.S. government and private sector have been stingy about funding their commercialization. As a result, China is now poised to build up an advanced nuclear industry at the United States’ expense.

China already enjoys a commanding lead in the production of solar panels and batteries, both of which, on the other hand, are based on relatively mature technologies. In those fields, then, it is in China’s interest to direct international cooperation toward incremental R&D. For example, China may invest its own resources and shepherd international R&D investment into making solar panels slightly more efficient or batteries slightly cheaper to manufacture. These small advances would play to the strengths of Chinese factories at flooding global markets with low-cost products, entrenching the market positions of Chinese firms. As a result, the United States may lose the opportunity to direct global R&D toward the development of advanced technologies—an area in which the U.S. economy excels—thus falling further behind in the race to capture clean energy market share.

Beijing’s economic interests in the energy sector are not confined to clean technologies alone. From 2007 to 2015, China financed more coal projects abroad than any other country in the world. Recognizing this, the Obama administration worked with the Chinese government on a joint pledge to “strictly [control] public investment flowing into projects with high pollution and carbon emissions.” By abdicating its climate leadership, however, Washington would give up its ability to push Beijing to comply with that pledge. In that case, China might increase its exports of supercritical coal power plants, a kind of coal power plant that is cleaner than the outdated models used in many emerging economies, and claim to be financing clean energy projects that way. But supercritical coal power plants are still worse for the climate than alternative sources of electricity, and on the whole, China’s willingness to export coal power will be even more attractive to developing countries looking to meet their energy needs if the United States withdraws from its commitment to help finance their shift to lower-carbon technologies.

That would portend poorly for the fight against climate change, and most of the world would suffer as a result of the higher carbon emissions that would result, as would the United States. But if Washington abdicates its leadership in the fight against climate change, it would also give up its right to complain.

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  • VARUN SIVARAM is the Douglas Dillon Fellow and Acting Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. SAGATOM SAHA is a research associate for energy and U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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