From “China Hoax” to “China Legend”: Will China Be the Next Global Leader On Climate Change?

Air pollution in China. | Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of | Air pollution in China.

Sophia Zhu ’18
Opinions Editor

Last Wednesday Trump’s decision on the head of Environment Protection Agency was announced. His pick of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic, further proved his commitment to dismantling Obama’s climate change legacy and rolling back all the efforts that had reestablished the U.S. as the world leader on climate change.

This is troubling, but not fatal news. Although the international communities on climate protection will suffer a huge blow, the world will unlikely wreck the ship and sink with the U.S. Some have turned elsewhere for leadership after the projected U.S. exit from global cooperation. People are now asking, will China be the next global leader?

Despite being called a hoaxer who made up the lie of climate change by Trump on Twitter, China has long been active in the fight against global climate change. As the largest fossil fuel emitter, China also has the world’s second largest economy, biggest population and probably most serious sufferings from environmental problems. China has much at stake continuing its global climate change actions, and assuming a bigger role may benefit China even more.

Domestically, China has also committed itself to strongly fighting climate change. According to The Guardian, China invested $102.9 billion in renewable energy last year and installed half of the world’s new wind power. From its 11th to 13th Five-Year Plans, China has put special emphasis on climate and environmental measures. As China’s climate policies have already been planned out for the next four years, it is unlikely that its grand strategies on climate change will be influenced by the US election.

A feature of Chinese political system is its relative consistency, stability and efficiency when the high officials are determined on an agenda. To switch gear and invest the similar political momentum into the global community does not require significant additional costs and could even bring more benefits for China. Through the One Belt One Road (OBOR) strategy and the newly created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a financing instrument, China has been ready to become the new climate leader and it couldn’t be more willing to export its technology to nearby neighbors and in turn, increase its influence, reaping diplomatic benefits at the same time.

As Liu Zhenmin, China’s special representative for climate change affairs, said recently in Marrakech, any change in US policy “won’t affect China’s commitment to support climate negotiations and also the implementation of the Paris Agreement.” He indicated the notion that the U.S. self-harm would certainly not stop China from pursuing its own interests.

This sense of independence and commitment on China’s side was not the norm. If the same situation happened a decade ago, China would be more likely to drop its commitments following the U.S. withdrawal. Compared to the the previous experience with the Kyoto Protocol and Copenhagen conference, China’s current strong stance on climate change signifies a great transition of its view on climate policy as well as its relationship with the United States. Before, China and the U.S. were bound into a negative relationship in which the climate policy of one depended on the other’s willingness to act. With neither willing to step forward first, this dysfunctional relationship continued to produce disappointing outcomes of global climate actions until Paris Agreement broke the curse.

During this period of time, several major changes have taken place in China. China’s growth was slowing and its leaders understood the necessity and urgency for its economy to become more efficient in its use of energy and resources. To avoid economic stagnation, it also puts great value on low-carbon technology and encourages innovation, which may help China to establish its dominance not only as a manufacturer but as an innovator. For China, the interests of combating climate change are perfectly aligned with other political and diplomatic gains.

At the same time, the stakes are also too high for China to drop its climate protection goals. The air pollution, which has caused the choking smog in all the major cities, together with the water crisis and soil pollution, have threatened the daily life of China’s citizens and weakened the public support of the Communist Party. If China’s air and water pollution issues aren’t solved soon, it is likely that civil unrest would ensue. Also, as the cost of pollution has been felt so closely by the Chinese people, its is unlikely that there would be any popular opposition to government actions.

Chinese leaders are still waiting to see, to what extent Trump will realize his promised made during his campaign: Will he really withdraw from the Paris agreement and destroy all of Obama’s legacies? Despite these uncertainties, assuming leadership on climate protection is undoubtably an attractive offer for China, which has the financial capability, political momentum and social support to take on such a role. If it does, this might be a win for China but more importantly it will also be good news for the world, in spite of all the losses resulting from the U.S.’s noncooperation. Let’s hope China will turn the ‘hoax’ to a ‘legend’  by leading the force to save the world climate from the continuous deterioration.

One Comment

  1. Elizabeth McCarthy. says:

    China is increasing the number of coal burning power plants by five fold in the next twenty years. In the meanwhile, the US and EU are basically shutting down their coal industries. Hardly sounds like a global friendly policy (as might be expected by a military discatorship).

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