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China Poised To Fill Leadership Void On Climate Policy – With Economic Incentives


As we heard earlier in the program this week, President Donald Trump will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. As we also heard earlier, the two leaders are taking different public stances on climate change. We wanted to focus on that a bit more in light of the executive order President Trump just signed that begins to roll back the Obama administration's climate change policies, especially those aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Environmentalists opposed President Trump's move for its own sake, but also pointed out that the administration's stance provides an opening for China to become a new leader on climate change which is rather remarkable given that China leads the world in carbon emissions.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we called Varun Sivaram from the Council on Foreign Relations and Georgetown University. He was also an adviser on energy policy to New York's Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. I started by asking him to describe exactly what President Trump's recent executive order actually does.

VARUN SIVARAM: President Trump's executive order following through on some of his promises on the campaign trail asserts that his administration will no longer try to implement the Clean Power Plan, which is one of the two pillars of President Obama's climate policy. In addition to not implementing the Clean Power Plan, which would have imposed standards for emissions for each of the 50 states, he also is going to not pursue several of the other ancillary regulations, for example, regulations that would have limited the amount of methane coming out of fracking wells.

So overall, it's a big blow to the Obama administration's blueprint for how the United States would reduce its emissions and meet its international committed target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025.

MARTIN: How important were those agreements to those who accept climate science and agree that these greenhouse gas emissions need to be addressed? Was it in part a political significance as well as, you know, a substantive significance?

SIVARAM: The Paris Agreement was a historic step forward in the international climate process, but it wasn't the endpoint. It was just a starting point. The agreement called for every single country in the world to set forward a climate action plan, a plan for it to reduce its emissions. Now, the United States' role was absolutely pivotal here.

The United States led by President Obama and Secretary John Kerry helped to negotiate and broker this agreement. You'd never had every single country agreeing to come up with a climate action plan even if it was voluntary and not very rigorous. So this was a big step forward, but certainly not the endpoint.

MARTIN: So now that - now we're hearing that, you know, with this change of administration in the United States and a very different philosophy in the Trump administration, we're hearing that China is poised to take the role of leader in global climate change policy, which I think is surprising to many people because China is the world's largest CO2 polluter. So what exactly is China doing that would give rise to the sense that they could become the global leaders here?

SIVARAM: You're right that China is the world's largest emitter. But it's not as paradoxical as it might sound at first blush because China's also the world's largest producer of clean energy products. China is the world's largest manufacturer of wind turbines, batteries and solar panels and in 2016, invested over $100 billion in the sector. I think China is well poised to fill the void here in American leadership, and it fits Chinese interests very well. China wants to continue to deploy clean energy within its borders to reduce its domestic air pollution which is choking its cities.

Second, China wants to continue to be a global powerhouse in a growing industry. Clean energy is worth $300 billion and growing. And, finally, China wants to be a global superpower, and it has faced its share of diplomatic disagreements and tension, for example, over its - over maritime tensions in the South China Sea or over its relationship with North Korea. This offers it an opportunity to basically scoop up the goodwill that was won through hard fought battles that the United States waged to get the world to agree on the Paris Agreement. I, however, don't think that this is so rosy either for the United States or for the world.

MARTIN: Why is that?


MARTIN: Can you just elaborate on that? Because I think people might be listening to this conversation and ask themselves so what? As long as a superpower is taking the lead and as long as the emissions are in fact reduced, what difference does it make if it's China or the U.S. leading the way here as long as the work gets done?

SIVARAM: This is not great. It is not optimal for China to lead on climate because its goals are not necessarily aligned with the global goal of limiting climate change. See, China has an economic incentive to export, for example, inefficient coal power plants to other markets. It may not want to deploy them at home to reduce air pollution, but it has an economic industrial incentive to export them.

And if other countries increase their climate ambition, they won't be buying those coal power plants. So I think China has economic incentives not to push the world toward the kind of ambitious goals it needs to reduce emissions. And with China in the driver's seat, we might just see complacency following the hard-won Paris Agreement that was just a starting point, not an endpoint to where the world needs to be on climate change.

MARTIN: That was Varun Sivaram from the Council on Foreign Relations. He's the Douglas Dillon fellow, and he's also acting director of the program on energy, security and climate change. He was actually nice enough to interrupt some personal time off to speak with us. So Varun Sivaram, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SIVARAM: Thanks, Michel. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.