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Climate of Uncertainty

Chinese, US climate change pledges thrown into uncertainty


A lot can happen in a month.


Since TWOC put together the Climate Issue—which looked at the ways climate change is already affecting China, as well as the efforts to cut emissions—a lot has taken place on both sides of the Pacific.


Just a few months ago, Presidents Obama and Xi had both signed on to the Paris Agreement, which requires countries representing a majority of the world’s emitters to sign on. With the two economic giants on board, it was assured of success, and within weeks enough countries had agreed to participate.


There was plenty of reason for optimism, but since then, things in both countries have taken an abrupt turn.


In the US, with the surprise election victory of Donald Trump, US participation in the Paris Agreement is in doubt. Although the mechanisms of the agreement mean that it may be difficult for the US to pull out of the agreement in less than a year (it would take four years to pull out of the Paris Agreement, but theoretically the US could just pull out of the UN Framework on Climate Change within a year), the mixed messages coming out of the Trump administration would indicate that regardless of climate pledges, the administration will roll back restrictions on coal and oil producers.


On the Paris Agreement, Trump told The New York Times in an interview that there is “some connectivity” between climate change and human activity, and that it “may” be something to look at.


He said he was “open” to looking at the Paris Agreement.


Meanwhile, top advisors have indicated that NASA’s climate change research division will be scrapped, and Trump has appointed noted climate skeptic and libertarian Myron Ebell to a top post in the Environmental Protection Agency.


As for China, in the past month it would seem that authorities have significantly relaxed their approach to coal production and consumption. The coal consumption figure that China was aiming for by 2020 has been increased by 20%. This decision came despite a number of conflicting circumstances—past reports in The New York Times found that coal consumption was leveling off in China, but cited Greenpeace as saying that many local governments were still approving and building coal plants even though central authorities were trying to limit these developments.


Since Trump’s election victory, China has responded to some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, resulting in the darkly hilarious headline: China tells Trump climate change is not a Chinese hoax.


China’s vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin pointed out at a climate conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, that US officials under previous Republican administrations had reached out to China to cooperate on climate issues. Though of course, his statement is only relevant if the notion that climate change is a Chinese hoax is being taken seriously as a statement, and even Trump himself has both denied tweeting it and also said it was just a joke. (For a brief summary of his tweets and short comments on the issue, look here).


The situation has become so dire that some climate commentators are saying that China looks set to become the world leader on climate change efforts, despite China’s checkered history in climate change talks. But continued efforts by China to focus on carbon reductions do seem likely if China can fulfill its ambitions of being a key manufacturer and exporter of low-carbon products.


Key issues for climate change efforts going forward are likely to relate to transparency and enforcement, particularly if the US is not participating, or lacks will to implement requirements. China has in the past objected to a number of monitoring requirements that would test the efficacy of efforts to reduce emissions. There is also the fact that China is a vast bureaucracy, and regardless of how fast decisions may be made at the top, when they filter through the various departments and party organs, things can get pretty muddied.


Ultimately, in a time of such uncertainty, we can’t really know the direction climate change mitigation strategies are going to head, but it may be pertinent to brace ourselves for the notion that any helpful degree of certainty in this area may be out of reach for the next few years, and that in itself has implications.



Cover image from tuicool and Xinhua

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