Yuan Xu is associate professor, Energy and Sustainability, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
After nearly four decades of economic reforms and gradual reintegration into the world from self-isolation during the Cultural Revolution, China in recent years has been actively expanding its influence globally and just reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change. At the same time, Donald Trump's withdrawal from the most important and inclusive climate treaty marks a grand retreat for the United States from the global arena, which could provide a great opportunity for China.
First, China's environmental and national image have rarely been more positive and the country has never been more important to the world over the past two centuries. China's CO2 emissions, including the infamous air quality in Beijing, are now equivalent to those from the United States and the European Union combined. China's colossal size and determined commitment puts it in a leading position in the global cause, with high environmental, economic, social and political stakes. The reversal of China's climate position in the past decade was largely driven by evolving domestic factors – such as air pollution, energy security and the rise of renewable energy industries. At the same time, climate mitigation has been more and more used as a strategic-governance tool to holistically address these numerous, smaller, yet still challenging, domestic tasks. For China, global leadership on climate change and the solution to domestic problems are increasingly compatible to each other.
Second, climate mitigation is heavily innovation-intensive, demanding countless new technologies and rapid industrial learning and upgrading on energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy storage, smart grid, transportation and so on. The United States has been the world innovation centre for more than a century. Although China has made dramatic progress in the past fifteen years in terms of science and technology, it is less likely that it could overtake the United States in this aspect any time soon. However, an especially bright spot is in the related fields of climate mitigation, such as wind and solar technologies.
The withdrawal of the United States could dampen its climate-related innovation and technological competitiveness to gradually and steadily shift the geography toward China. This could help drive the country from a labor-intensive, developing economy – a world factory – to an innovation-based, developed one – a global innovation centre.
Third, the retreat of the United States could make China's development model more attractive. Environmental degradation and climate change are serious problems not only in China but also in other rapidly industrializing countries. The lower economic development stages indicate their desire of further economic growth. China's unwavering stand on the Paris agreement and its huge climate-related industries provide an intriguing development model for developing countries. If a country chooses not to passively evade but to actively embrace it, climate change will be not just a global problem to request costly mitigation but also an economic opportunity to create millions of new jobs.
Fourth, in addition to the climate strategy, China's other equally important international strategy is the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative that focuses on massive investments in infrastructure, primarily on the Eurasian continent. Many of these infrastructure projects are relevant to energy supply and consumption and have significant climate implications. The resulting faster economic growth could also increase CO2 emissions from these countries, especially if their energy mix is CO2 intensive. If China synchronized the two grand strategies, it would mutually strengthen the progress of each.
When China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014 – a supporting organization for the OBOR initiative – the United States tried but failed to persuade many of its allies from joining. If China could lead OBOR countries onto a more climate-friendly development path under the Paris agreement, Mr. Trump's withdrawal and self-isolation would push more countries into supporting the Chinese initiative with long-term profound impacts on the global roles of the two big powers.
Mr. Trump has provided a historic opportunity to China by pulling the largest economy and most important global leader out of the Paris agreement. I believe China will not waste the Trump opportunity.