Premier Li Keqiang and EU President Donald Tusk. Credit Donald Tusk's twitter account

It’s Been One Day Since Trump’s Announcement on the Paris Agreement and already China and the EU are Looking Past US

Yesterday, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Today, we are seeing the first sign of the kind of post-American geopolitical reality that this move has created.

The European Union and China will put forth a document reaffirming their commitment to climate action, and declaring that they will move forward together (i.e. without the US) to ensure the survival of the Paris Agreement.

China is the world’s top emitter of climate change-causing greenhouse gases, and the European Union, if taken as a whole, is the world’s third largest emitter, following the United States. The two governments hold a summit every year, but, thanks to the United States ’s rapid transformation from a climate leader to a climate villain, this year’s summit was moved up a month, and focused predominantly on climate change.

Before the end of the day today, leaders from the two governments will release a document upping the ante on their mutual cooperation. Drafts shared with reporters including include commitments to “lead the energy transition” to a low-carbon economy.

“The EU and China consider the Paris agreement as an historic achievement further accelerating the irreversible global low greenhouse gas emission and climate resilient development,” said a draft document viewed by the BBC.

“The Paris Agreement is proof that with shared political will and mutual trust, multilateralism can succeed in building fair and effective solutions to the most critical global problems of our time. The EU and China underline their highest political commitment to the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement in all its aspects.”

Europe takes over for the US

With the United States ceding the field, the European Union now becomes the standard bearer in the climate fight for developed, wealthy nations who have historically done the most to contribute to climate change. Until Trump’s decision yesterday, the United States and China were often viewed as the key players in global climate efforts — partially because the two countries are the world’s top two polluters, and partially because, for more than a decade, both countries resisted climate action.

In November 2014, that changed. President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping announced an agreement between their two countries: Over the next decade, the United States would reduce its emissions by at least 26 percent over 2005 levels, and China would slow its own emission growth with the aim of reducing its emissions. That announcement paved the way for the Paris Agreement by demonstrating that top two polluters, both large, nationalistic superpowers — one a developed country and one still developing — were willing to cooperate on climate action.

Now that the United States has done a 180, it falls to Europe to play the role of the wealthy, globalist superpower driving the talks forward.

China completes its transformation

China, meanwhile, is embracing its role as a climate leader.

“The country has moved from a climate bad boy in 2009 into a cautious leader in the run-up to Paris, and now to a country with the potential to become a true climate leader in the age of Trump,” said Li Shuo, a Senior Climate & Energy Policy Officer for Greenpeace East Asia.

The country is ahead of schedule on its Paris Agreement commitments, thanks to its falling coal use and a commitment by the Chinese government to aggressively invest in renewable energy. China had promised that its emissions would peak by 2030, but they look likely to peak within the next year or two, if they haven’t already.

Leaving the United States behind

Today’s declaration by the EU and China is expected to focus not just on what the countries do within their own borders, but what they do to help the developing world green its energy economy while preparing for climate change. This, in particular, is an opportunity for China, which is increasingly looking abroad and seeking to play a role in economic development — though, at the moment, is not always in an environmentally friendly way.

“This part, if it is indeed in the declaration, is definitely one of the interesting breakthroughs,” said Wendel Trio, director of the Climate Action Network Europe, a group that lobbies the EU and European governments to strengthen their climate commitments. “It’s kind of going beyond the traditional divide between developed-developing, rich-poor countries in that the EU and China are committing to together work on the further implementation of the Paris Agreement in the poorer parts of the world.”

It’s an example of the kind of economic opportunity that the United States will be leaving behind by exiting the agreement. “If one country decides to leave a void, I can guarantee someone else will occupy it,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said earlier this week, warning that in abandoning global climate efforts, the United States was bolstering the position of rivals like Russia and China. “The message is simple: The sustainability train has left the station. Get on the train or get left behind.”

Leaders in both China and the EU have staunchly condemned Trump’s decision to pull out as foolish, but also expressed relief that the Americans — often a difficult negotiating partner on climate — had left the stage to countries serious about the task.

Trump’s announcement, said Miguel Arias Cañete, the European commissioner for energy and climate action, “has galvanised us rather than weakened us, and this vacuum will be filled by new broad committed leadership.”