The Planet

While America Launches Missiles, China Quietly Leads On Climate Change

by Ben Jervey

April 7, 2017

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday for his first face-to-face meeting with President Trump, including a two-day summit and formal dinner. By the end of the trip, the two are set to discuss the North Korean threat and trade, before the Trump team retreated to launch Tomahawk missiles at Syrian airfields. Climate change isn’t on the agenda, which is unfortunate—if not surprising—because the two nations are now taking precisely opposite approaches to the global crisis. 

This divergence follows a period of unlikely and hard-fought accord. For an unprecedented half decade, the world’s two biggest economies and largest greenhouse gas emitters actually worked together to tackle climate change. Two years ago, the historic joint diplomatic efforts of then-Secretary of State John Kerry with America’s lead climate negotiator Todd Stern and their Chinese counterparts will be remembered as the deal that set the table for the Paris Agreement.

China has gone from perpetual climate scapegoat to major leader in the global transition away from fossil fuels.

Those days of cooperation on climate are over. Despite the fact that the Trump administration’s refusal to engage on climate change—formalized by the radical environmental executive orders signed by Trump at the end of March—gives China some leeway to ease efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, China has gone from perpetual climate scapegoat to a major leader in the global transition away from fossil fuels. T. Lu Kang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, reaffirmed its commitment last week, “No matter how other countries’ policies on climate change, as a responsible large developing country China’s resolve, aims, and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change.”

This isn’t just a diplomatic failure for the United States. It will also likely go down as one of the greatest economic failures in our nation’s history. The clean energy race we’re now losing is for an estimated $6 trillion prize: the predicted market for clean energy within 13 years. Ambassador Liu Jieyi, China’s permanent representative at the United Nations, made the following statement at a March meeting in New York:

China remains steadfast in its ambition to reinforce actions in responding to climate change. From 2011 to 2015, China’s carbon intensity decreased by 21.8 percent, which equals to a reduction of 2.34 billion tons of CO2 emission.... China will work relentlessly to save energy, improve energy efficiency, develop renewable energies, expand forest carbon sinks, establish a national market for carbon emissions trading, facilitate low-carbon city development, and promote climate change legislation. All these are part of our vigorous efforts aimed at realizing the goals of reducing carbon intensity by 40-45 percent in 2020 compared with 2005 and reaching the peak of carbon emissions by 2030 or even earlier.... China’s response to climate change has maintained its force and momentum.

In practice, as Republican Rep. Bob Inglis famously said years ago, this response looks like China “eating our lunch,” investing and innovating in that $6 trillion clean energy economy of the 21st century. By the end of this decade, China plans to spend more than $360 billion on renewable energy sources like solar and wind, a plan that is projected to create more than 13 million jobs by 2020. Roughly 3.5 million Chinese workers are already employed in the renewable energy sector—nearly half of the global total and represents nearly four times as many clean energy jobs as exist in the United States. By 2030, China’s plans to achieve the goals offered in the Paris Agreement are expected to create 69 million jobs.

On the ground in China, solar and wind are coming onto the electric grid at breakneck rates, as well. According to calculations by Greenpeace, on average in 2015, a new wind turbine was plugged in every hour for the whole year, and meanwhile, a soccer pitch’s worth of solar was installed every hour for the year.

For these reasons, as the World Resources Institute notes, China is on pace to obliterate its 2030 climate goals, and is already ahead of some key climate goals for the end of this decade, as the country rapidly moves away from coal and invests so heavily in renewables. According to WRI experts Katie Ross and Ranping Song, China’s first official report on national climate progress “indicates that of its four goals, China has already exceeded one, is close to meeting another, and is more than halfway toward achieving the remaining two.”

Trump has said that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese to hurt American manufacturers. But if recent history reveals anything, American companies are missing out on the manufacturing opportunity of a century, while Chinese clean energy companies are putting millions to work in order to meet China’s climate goals.

Preview image via YouTube screenshot and by Kevin Frayer via Getty images: A Chinese man wears a mask to protect against pollution as he visits Jingshan Park overlooking the Forbidden City in heavy smog in Beijing, China on December 8, 2015—a few days before COP21.

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While America Launches Missiles, China Quietly Leads On Climate Change