Climate Change in 2017 – A Tale of Two Cities

In Washington, the Trump administration is currently repealing the previous administration’s climate change regulations. It is becoming clear that this administration won’t take a leading role in the fight against climate change. In Beijing, however, the Chinese government is sending out a different message.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens wrote to describe the years leading up to the French Revolution. In a sense, times haven’t changed drastically. The new president Donald Trump, has a history of denying the science behind climate change. Four years ago, he tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”. During last year’s campaign, he promised to withdraw from the Paris agreement and restore the U.S. coal industry. Since taking office, not only does Mr. Trump want to fulfill his climate harmful promises, but many of his senior appointments to the administration are known climate change deniers.

Scott Pruitt, Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, was confirmed by the Senate this February. During Mr. Pruitt’s senate hearing, he acknowledged that the climate is changing but argued that the science of the human impact is still subject for debate. Last week, Mr. Pruitt said that he doesn’t believe that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming.  Before heading the EPA, Mr. Pruitt was the Oklahoma Attorney General, and has sued the EPA 14 times.

To fulfill Mr. Trump’s campaign promises, the Trump administration has already begun to roll back the Obama administration’s climate change regulations. In a budget proposal to the EPA, the agency now faces budget cuts that would get rid of a quarter of their current budget. The proposal would reduce the annual budget from $8.2 billion, to $6.1 billion. Some of the largest budget cut targets include a climate protection programme, which faces a 70 percent cut, an industrial cleanup program, and decreased funding for the oversight of pollution laws. Environmental groups have expressed concerns over the cutbacks, saying that the health of millions of Americans will suffer. In addition to the EPA budget cuts, the Trump administration has proposed a 17 percent cut to the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which studies changes in climate, weather and oceans.

However, some promises are harder to keep than others. The force inside the White House that wants to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Steve Bannon, a White House Chief Strategist, is currently in conflict with Mr. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Mr. Tillerson, the former CEO of oil company Exxon Mobile, addressed the issue during his senate hearing, saying “It’s important that the U.S. maintains its seat at the table about how to address the threat of climate change, which does require a global response.”

It is not clear what action Mr. Trump will take on the issue, but even prominent Republicans are now highlighting the value of staying in the agreement. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, says that the deal “doesn’t require us to do anything”, emphasizing the non-existent sanctions if the U.S. fails to meet its targets.

Additionally, allies to the U.S. are voicing their own opinions on the issue. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, wrote in a letter to Trump after he won the election that “Partnership with the United States is and will remain a keystone of German foreign policy, especially so that we can tackle the great challenges of our time.” One of these challenges, Mrs. Merkel wrote, is “working to develop farsighted climate policy.”

At the same time as Mr. Trump finds it difficult to withdraw from the Paris agreement, economic realities are hitting the coal industry. Last month, a decision was made by the owners of Navajo Generating station, the largest coal plant in Western U.S., to shut down the power plant in 2019 due to increasing operations costs and decreasing prices of natural gas. Closing coal plants seems to have become a trend in the U.S.. Duke Energy, the largest electric utility in the U.S., has shut down twelve coal plants over the last five years and plans to shut down another one in 2020.

Nevertheless, Mr. Trump will pursue his own climate policy, and it is clear that one of Obama’s most successful legacies is in jeopardy. Obama has been praised for the environmental regulations he implemented and the agreements he signed during his tenure. One agreement, signed with Chinese president Xi Jinping, aimed to accelerate the speed towards a fossil free future. But with Trump in the White House, it seems like it will only be Jinping who will fulfill his duties.

President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping. Source: World Economic Forum, Flickr.
President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping. Source: World Economic Forum, Flickr.

In a speech to the United Nations in Geneva last January, Mr. Jinping urged the world to “work together to implement the Paris agreement” and that “China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations”. In total emissions, China is currently the largest polluter in the world, far ahead of the second biggest polluter, the U.S., which only emits half the amount of China.

Mr. Jinping has followed these words with action. China has for its third consecutive year seen falling coal consumption. Meanwhile energy consumption has increased. This is largely due to its government’s effective strategy to combat smog. At the beginning of this year the Chinese government issued a ‘red alert’ in 24 cities, which had been affected by severe smog. As a consequence, the government ordered the closure of schools and vehicles to be taken off the roads. The pollution in the capital Beijing reached a level that is 24 times higher than the level recommended by the World Health Organization.

Smog in Beijing. Source: 螺钉, Wikimedia Commons.
Smog in Beijing. Source: 螺钉, Wikimedia Commons.

To combat the smog, the government has cancelled numerous coal plant constructions. Only this year, 103 construction projects have been abandoned. The plants, if built, would have added 120 gigawatts of coal-fired energy production. China has also increased its investments in renewable energy sources. Last year, it more than doubled its solar energy production and is now the world’s biggest producer of solar energy. Over the next four years, China intends to spend $360 billion on renewable energy and create 13 million new jobs in the sector.

Comparing the messages from Beijing to those from Washington, it appears that China might now take up the torch in combatting this great challenge. While it is unusual for China to take on a leadership role, Mr. Jinping seems to have taken the lead in the fight against climate change. Before Mr. Jinping was welcomed on the stage at the World Economic Forum last January, the WEF founder and chairman, Klaus Schwab, said “In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the world is looking to China”.

In the global battle against climate change, it seems that China might have to be the one to take the lead.

Christopher Andersson

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