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.
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 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.
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