Photo © Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

China and India are confronting climate change way faster than expected

Can China and India save the planet as the US walks away from the Paris Agreement?

The latest round of climate talks under the Paris Agreement wrapped up last week, and brought with them an interesting study by the Climate Action Tracker, a collaboration among researchers to track the world’s progress toward confronting climate change. It found that even as the US federal government rolls back policies aimed at reducing climate change-causing emissions, China and India are rapidly making progress to meet their promises under the Paris Agreement. In fact, these two countries are likely to meet their commitments ahead of schedule.

The study also found that, by 2030, China and India’s rapid progress will have made up for President Trump’s efforts to undo President Obama’s climate legacy. The two country’s reductions “significantly outweigh the potentially negative effects on emissions from the Trump Administration’s proposed rollbacks,” the researchers said in a press briefing.

Of course, the world is still on a dangerous course. Countries’ commitments under the Paris Agreement — with or without US cooperation — do not put the world on track to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius, the UN’s uppermost goal. Already, with the planet almost 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was in the 19th century, we are seeing dramatic effects, including stronger storms and a rapidly melting Arctic. And, even as India slows its emissions growth and meets its Paris Agreement commitment ahead of schedule, its emissions are still increasing and have not yet peaked. It’s unclear whether China’s emissions have peaked.

But this latest research by the Climate Action Tracker indicates that the US ditching the Paris Agreement would not doom the agreement. Other countries have created significant momentum under the agreement, and can continue to make progress on confronting global warming  — even, for now, without the US’s help.

A Changing Mindset

In the years before the Paris Agreement was negotiated, China and India, as nations with developing economies, maintained that they needed to continue to increase their emissions. India in particular has hundreds of millions of rural people who live without electricity, and has long argued that it would need to make use of all methods of generating electricity — including coal power plants — to lift its people out of poverty.

The plummeting cost of renewable energy and concerns about poor air quality in both countries helped to prompt a shift away from coal sooner than expected. China’s coal consumption has declined each year since 2013 and is expected to continue declining. The country recently canceled the constructions of more than 100 coal power plants that had been planned. India, too, is weaning itself off coal, and may also already have more coal power plants than it can use. At the same time, driven both by concerns about air quality and about climate change, India and China have invested in massive renewable energy projects, putting millions of people in both countries to work.

“Five years ago, the idea of either China or India stopping — or even slowing — coal use was considered an insurmountable hurdle, as coal-fired power plants were thought by many to be necessary to satisfy the energy demands of these countries,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, one of the groups that participated in the Climate Action Tracker project. “Recent observations show they are now on the way toward overcoming this challenge.”

As some of the world’s heaviest polluters, China and India have a lot of room to make progress. But another study released in time for this month’s Bonn conference indicates that countries around the world are taking steps to make sure their climate commitments are formalized under the law. The Paris Agreement is not legally binding, which means that countries that fail to deliver on their emission-cutting promises won’t face any kind of legal ramifications. But the recent survey, by Columbia Law School and the London School of Economics, found that most countries have moved to put laws on the books to make sure they do meet their commitments. The researchers found that 164 countries, including 93 of the top 100 emitters, now have laws related to climate change — a major increase from 2015, when only 99 countries had climate change-related laws.

These two studies indicate a momentum on climate change that is encouraging — even as the US considers ignoring its commitment, or perhaps quitting the Paris Agreement entirely. The fact that two of the world’s heaviest polluting countries are successfully slowing their emissions growth also places greater pressure on the US (the second largest polluter, after China but before India) to remain in the agreement, instead of becoming one of only three countries — alongside Syria and Nicaragua — not participating. As diplomats add pressure to the US at the G7 summit later this week, they’ll be able to demonstrate that the world is making progress, regardless of whether the US is on board.