In One Speech, China Just Grabbed the Mantle of Global Climate Leadership From the USA

To kick off the Davos World Economic Forum this week, Chinese president Xi Jinping delivered a speech to a packed hall in which he denounced the conservative nationalism that is catching fire across the western world. But, perhaps even more importantly, Xi’s speech also reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, giving climate hawks the opportunity to let out a rare sigh of relief.

With the United States poised to abandon the treaty, it appears that China is ready, willing and downright enthusiastic about taking up the mantle of global leadership on climate action.

“All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations,” Xi said of the agreement to the global elites gathered in Davos. “We should join hands and rise to the challenge,” he continued. “Let us boost confidence, take actions and work together for a bright future.”

Without mentioning his name, Xi warned US president-elect Donald Trump — and the populist European politicians cheering Trump’s victory — that China will happily champion globalization if the US and the Europe choose to embrace isolationism. This shift in the global economy would serves China just fine.

“Economic globalization used to be seen as the treasure cave found by Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights, but now it has become the Pandora’s Box in the eyes of many,” he said. “The point I want to make is that many of the problems troubling the world are not caused by globalization.”

It is, of course, in China’s interest to be seen as a global leader not just on the economy but also on sustainability. And while the idea of China — the world’s top emitter of climate change-causing emissions — leading the world in the fight of global warming might have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago, the country has taken definitive steps in recent years to green its economy and invest in sustainable development abroad.

Earlier this month, the Chinese National Energy Administration announced plans to invest $361 billion in renewable power generation over the next three years, creating an estimated 13 million jobs. Days later, the agency suspended the construction of 104 coal-fired power plants, and is likely to suspend more in the months ahead. The country has quietly raised taxes on gasoline, and invested $32 billion in green energy abroad. These developments show that the immense ship of China’s bureaucracy is gradually turning around.

“Given the current volatility of global politics, President Xi Jinping’s address helped calm nerves. His reference to climate change highlights a growing sense of China’s international responsibility, and the country’s evolving calculus towards taking action on the issue,” Greenpeace East Asia’s Li Shuo said in a statement to The Guardian. “As Trump drops Obama’s climate legacy, Xi might well establish one of his own. 2017 presents a real opportunity for China to rise to the challenge of responsible climate leadership.”

There was a time when the roles that the US and China appear poised to play on climate in 2017 were switched. Hillary Clinton, in her 2014 book Hard Choices, describes an incident during the 2009 Copenhagen talks in which she and President Obama ambushed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in conversation with the leaders of India, Brazil and South Africa as they plotted to dilute a potential international climate agreement.

Five years later, it was a different story. A deal struck between Obama and Xi in 2014 set the stage for the Paris Agreement, which would be hammered out at the end of the following year. The fact that both the first and second largest emitters — one a developed country, one still developing — were able to commit to climate action on the international stage gave many other countries confidence that they too could take the risk of greening their own energy economies.

Now, in a twist that would have been surprising a half century ago, China will likely be leading the climate fight without the US by its side. “Having moved from climate villain to a reluctant leader in five short years over the first half of this decade, it’s reasonable to expect China to become a true leader by its end,” Shuo said.

The reputation of global climate leader — along with the clout and economic benefits that come with it — was America’s to lose, and America just lost it.