China began 2017 on a rather dark note, shrouded by extreme levels of pollution across the country. Following severe smog throughout much of December that caused grounded air transport, standstill traffic, and citizen warnings to avoid outdoor activity, on January 4 China finally issued its first-ever nationwide red level fog alert—the highest level within a four-tier warning system—requiring factory, school, and construction site closures in 32 Chinese cities. As visibility in certain cities diminished to as little as 50 meters (160 feet), China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection reported that nearly 62 percent of monitored Chinese cities suffer from air pollution.
A seemingly endless challenge that the central government has repeatedly promised to tackle, extreme pollution levels have prompted the need for more pressure on local governments to fulfill environmental protection requirements. This year’s wave of suffocating winter smog has arrived roughly one year after China signed on to the Paris agreement, causing greater internal and external pressure for China to improve its environmental conditions and achieve its low-carbon and climate commitments.
However, unlike past winters, China’s unrelenting pollution problems are particularly concerning as the United States prepares to inaugurate Donald Trump—a climate change denier—in one week. While China struggles mightily to control rampant smog, the President-elect has baited China, claiming that “[t]he concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” Doubling down on his climate change stances throughout his presidential campaign, Trump has spent the past two months appointing a cabinet seemingly determined to undo President Obama’s legacy on combatting climate change. Trump’s choices include:
Secretary of State: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who, for 40 years, has put big oil before US national interests abroad.
Secretary of Energy: former Texas governor Rick Perry, who lacks energy sector experience and, while running for president in 2012, even attempted to propose scrapping the department altogether—but could not remember the department name.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator: Scott Pruitt, who once sued the very agency he will now lead in response to tightening regulation of power plants.
These cabinet picks demonstrate Trump’s inability to fully grasp the reality of climate change, the most pivotal issue of our time. His recent remarks that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is real and that he is “studying” whether the US should withdraw from the Paris agreement suggest an ill-informed and stubborn line of upcoming leadership that threatens current and future environmental and social stability.
Trump’s stances on climate change also serve to undermine years of improved diplomatic ties between the US and China on the issue. The poster children of the Paris agreement, China and the US are the world’s first and second largest carbon emitters and clean energy investors, respectively. Presidents Obama and Xi have lauded their increasingly collaborative fight against climate change as the most important pillar of the US-China relationship, a gesture that is as impressive politically as it is symbolically during an era when the health of the planet must take precedence over other points of distrust between the two countries. Conversely, Trump’s proposed environmentally unfriendly agenda at home and abroad would have a detrimental impact on how effectively the US and China can work together on overcoming this grave threat.
As the world braces for an expected shift in US climate policy, China will suddenly be in position to take the lead in the global fight against climate change. This is a complex proposition, as China has proven both its impressive renewable energy development capabilities, as well as its current inability to control pollution. Such a role would require China to lead thoughtfully in the movement to improve environmental protections, while increasing worldwide utilization of clean energy. Should the Trump administration decide to abandon the Paris agreement, it will be up to China to maintain its own commitments and ensure that the international community continues to strengthen efforts to reduce pollution and transition to alternative energy sources.
China has the capacity to show such leadership, as it has promised to build upon its recent noteworthy achievements in renewable energy development. In 2015, China was the largest investing country for renewables (excluding hydro) by a long shot—its $102.9 billion commitments raised investments by 17 percent, more than one-third of the global total. This figure far outpaced that of the world’s second largest investor, the US, which invested $44.1 billion, up 19 percent.
These trends are expected to continue, as China has pledged to invest $360 billion in renewables through 2020 in efforts to transition away from existing dependence on coal. The investments will span renewable energy sectors, as China’s National Development and Reform Commission has announced that $145 billion will increase the country’s solar capacity five-fold, while $100 billion is committed toward wind farms and $73 billion toward hydroelectric and tidal sources of energy. China’s National Energy Administration reports that this investment will help create more than 13 million jobs—an impressive job growth model for both developing and developed countries.
China’s renewable investment figures offer a promising blueprint for national clean energy development and could portend forthcoming leadership in the global fight against climate change. However, there remain a variety of factors that might prevent China from fulfilling this major responsibility. Despite impressive renewable energy capacity growth, China is vastly underutilizing this energy due to significant inefficiencies in its energy market and grid infrastructure. Overcapacity continues to plague the Chinese energy industry, as the existing energy market prioritizes fossil fuel plants. While operators nationwide curtail renewables to meet coal and oil generation quotas, competing renewable energy developers are unable to secure contracts connecting generated clean energy to the grid.
Another less transparent concern is the influence of China’s national agenda on its global clean energy aspirations. Though a burgeoning domestic clean energy sector is incentivizing China to cultivate foreign export markets and roll back carbon emissions at home, a highly influential coal industry also seeks to export plants abroad to acquire new profits without contributing to domestic pollution. This conflict of interests poses questions as to whether China’s promotion of clean energy stems from a desire to achieve environmental stability or, instead, national economic goals. These intersecting priorities will dictate China’s approach to leading the global movement against climate change.
Concerns surrounding China’s ability to undertake such a singular leadership role reaffirm the need for the US to continue driving worldwide clean energy development and environmental protection policy. Yet, the direction of forthcoming US climate policy, now under Trump, is suddenly just as unpredictable as that of China.
In many ways, the upcoming era of US-China climate relations will be influenced by the initial tone struck between the President-elect and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi. Presidents Obama and Xi have enjoyed a considerably strong relationship during their overlapping tenure, with climate cooperation serving as the driving force. On the other hand, Trump’s campaign, post-election rhetoric, and cabinet appointments have signaled a rather hostile approach toward China on important trade, security, and climate issues. However, considering the proactive nature with which President Xi approaches climate policy, he may gradually persuade the Trump administration to take a more cooperative and progressive stance on the environment. This may prove true once Trump has assumed the presidency and become more familiar with the stakes associated with ignoring this threat.
This also may not be the case, and China is preparing for even the worst of outcomes. These include Trump failing to deliver on Paris agreement commitments or perhaps even pulling the US from the UN climate architecture altogether. At a minimum, the expectation in China is that the active US-China relationship on climate issues during the Obama era will, at least for now, end under Trump.
As ambiguity looms over the US for the foreseeable future, all eyes turn to China as it seeks to tackle its continued pollution crisis. China’s strategy for surmounting this challenge in the coming years will reveal its intentions for ushering worldwide leadership on climate and clean energy development. Nevertheless, future global environmental stability is largely in the hands of the US and China—two countries each embarking upon unchartered paths for very different reasons. How these major powers choose to proceed—separately and, perhaps, together—will ultimately determine the fate of our precious planet.