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March 2, 2018

Responding To: The Future of U.S.-China Climate Change Efforts

U.S. Withdrawal Affects More Than the Sino-U.S. Relationship

Hao Min

U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is sure to cause uproar in the international community, especially in Europe. This withdrawal not only has an impact on the Sino-U.S. relationship, but more so on the U.S.–Europe relationship. Addressing climate change has been ingrained in Europe’s ideology, and they will pay more attention to its impact. As an important international power, as well as the backbone of the Paris Agreement, U.S. withdrawal would lead many countries to doubt future ability to tackle climate change. The Paris Agreement was made on Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), based upon the bottom-up contributions of all nations. Therefore, countries would define their responsibilities on emission reductions based on the rules of INDC. It is hard to say whether U.S. withdrawal at this moment will undermine the foundation of the INDC of all nations, or disrupt the balance on tackling climate change. As to whether China is taking the lead in response to climate change, objectively speaking, the withdrawal of the United States may result in a G2 pattern of group China and Europe. China thinks the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement is irresponsible. As China is trying to have a voice in international affairs and play a bigger role on the global stage, many domestic media or scholars believe that we are becoming a leader and trying to engage in environmental diplomacy, that we are trying to seize the chance to expand our international influence. However, I think these sayings might to some extent be catered to the thoughts of government authorities. But from an objective perspective, whether China will shoulder the leadership responsibility after U.S. withdrawal remains uncertain.

First, the United States remains a member of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and is an indispensable member of the global response to climate change. Withdrawal from the agreement might arguably be due to the financial pressure the United States faces from the 100 billion U.S. dollars invested in energy-saving and emission-reduction targets. However, I think the United States did not intend to completely overwhelm the global response. We must be clear that the United States remains in cooperation with the international community on tackling climate change, and not an adversary.

In addition, China should definitely be the de facto frontrunner on the scale of emissions and emissions reductions alone. However, that does not mean that China can take the lead to maintain the balance on a global scale, support energy conservation and emissions reduction in other developing countries, as well as support and coordinate with all countries in coping with climate change. In my opinion China is not yet ready to shoulder that leadership. China will try its best to carry out its promised objectives and tasks according to the INDO documents and set a good example, but it does not yet have the economic and technical capabilities to lead the whole world in fighting climate change.

The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement does not mean that it opposes the plan and will never participate in it again. As the world’s largest economy and emitter, the United States still carries huge responsibilities to climate change even if it exits from the Paris Accord. President Trump merely represents the position and attitude of this current administration. Previously, the Obama administration did an excellent job responding to climate issues and made great contributions. Withdrawal of the government does not equal withdrawal of the people, business, or the states. On the contrary, the power of the people can make great contributions and should not be ignored. China is now developing clean energy, conducting energy transformation and technological change, and as a consequence, it is the world's largest investment country and market for clean energy and technology. On the other hand, the United States is still the most powerful and technologically advanced place in clean energy applications. It is foreseeable that there are many opportunities for cooperation between China and the United States in the field of clean energy.

Hao Min is the vice dean of the Department of International Politics at the University of International Relations in Beijing. She is a participant in the Initiative for U.S. -China Dialogue on Global Issues faculty research group on climate change.

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