Singled out by Trump, India and China eye new climate leadership roles

Both countries are on track to meet their Paris commitments — but a U.S. exit is creating uncertainty.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the signing ceremony by foreign ministers during the BRICS summit in Goa, India, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the signing ceremony by foreign ministers during the BRICS summit in Goa, India, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

With the United States exiting the Paris climate agreement, many eyes are turning to two countries: China and India. As President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing from the agreement, he singled out both nations.

“China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So, we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement. India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it: India can double their coal production. We’re supposed to get rid of ours,” Trump said last Thursday. He added that the Paris agreement “is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the [United States].”

Adopted in 2015, the Paris agreement works to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, in addition to shifting the world towards sustainable growth and practices. Signed by 195 countries, the accord marks a global effort by developing and industrialized countries alike to tackle climate change. India was initially reluctant to sign the agreement, and China’s promises were met with skepticism. But with the U.S. withdrawing, both countries seem prepared to step up.

“As far as the Paris agreement is concerned … our government is committed irrespective of the stand of anyone, anywhere in the world,” India’s environment minister, Harsh Vardhan said shortly after Trump’s announcement.

Like the effort to combat climate change itself, that commitment is as much about self-preservation as anything else. During a panel conversation at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday, Amar Bhattacharya, a senior fellow at the Global Economy and Development Program, Brookings Institution, argued that China and India are stepping up in no small part because they have to.

“Both countries are investing much much more rapidly in renewables…why are they doing this?” Bhattacharya said. “They are really doing this primarily in their self interest. …the cost of lives in China because of its pollution” is massive, he explained, adding that, “the case for doing this is very much in self interest.”

Speaking in Berlin after Trump’s announcement, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced that his country would with work the European Union to fight climate change. “Fighting climate change is a global consensus, it’s not invented by China,” he said, taking a swipe at Trump, who once claimed global warming was a Chinese-created hoax. “We realize that this is a global consensus agreement and that as a big, developing nation we should shoulder our international responsibility.”

Eager to lead, China is arguably in a position to benefit from a U.S. exit. “Diplomatically, this fits within Chinese President Xi Jinping’s broader ambition to reform global governance systems to reduce US influence — they talk about that in terms of making things more multilateral an consensus-based — and give China a much larger role in writing the rules,” Melanie Hart, director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news website housed at the Center for American Progress.)

Still, that doesn’t mean it will be a simple one-for-one exchange. China is the world’s top producer of renewable energy — something that, increasingly, is driving the nation’s economy. In January, China announced an investment of 2.5 trillion yuan ($361 billion) in renewable energies by 2020, part of a larger effort to shift away from coal and towards renewables — under the country’s plan, renewables will power 50 percent of its energy three years from now.

That’s good news for China’s economy, Hart said. China clearly intends to capitalize on renewable energy, something that will create around 13 million high-paying new jobs across the country.

“They want to dominate global clean energy markets,” Hart said. “Paris nations are going to be rolling out new energy, and imports [of clean energy technology are] expected to be around $13 trillion. China will be delighted to sell as much of that $13 trillion as it can, and they would like nothing more than to see the Trump administration take action to undercut the U.S. clean energy sectors just as those global markets are really taking off.”

The United States could easily do the same, rather than focusing on efforts to revitalize coal jobs, which even some Republican leaders have acknowledged are not likely to make a comeback. But Trump has chosen to shift away from a focus on renewables, meaning that countries like China will acquire jobs the United States has snubbed.

China is the world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions. But the country also has four times as many people as the second-biggest emitter, the United States, to say nothing of an economy that churns out products for richer, Western nations — labor that contributes to the greenhouse gases China produces. Still, central to Trump’s exit announcement was the idea that the United States was being played by other countries. “For example, under the agreement, China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years — 13,” Trump said. “They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us. India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries.”

But that’s not true. Each country involved in the agreement put forward its own nationally determined contribution, or NDC. According to the multi-European think tank-backed Climate Action Tracker (CAT), both China and India are likely to overachieve their NDCs, reducing projected global carbon emissions by two to three billion tonnes more by 2030 than was initially expected. By contrast, CAT observed in mid-May that the Trump administration’s policies are expected to “flatten” emissions, rather than continuing their downward trend — a sign that the United States is failing to achieve the reduction China and India are moving towards.

That’s an abrupt shift. In 2015, the New York Times ran a cartoon hitting out at India, then viewed as an impediment to climate progress. Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Indian cartoonist Satish Acharya responded in kind.

Imagery like this highlights just how far India’s approach to climate change has altered course — in a very short time. A rapidly-developing country, India has long maintained that it has the right to grow the same way that more industrialized countries have. Western nations, like the United States and in the European Union, have historically emitted much more carbon than nations only now becoming industrialized. India, where around 304 million people still don’t have electricity (the most in the world), has maintained that it has a right to widespread industrialization and electrification — even if that means emitting additional carbon.

This mentality posed a problem prior to the Paris agreement, according to Andrew Light, former Senior Adviser and India Counselor to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change.

“India was one of the hardest governments to get into the agreement,” Light, now a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute’s Global Climate program, told ThinkProgress. “The Indians have had a longstanding, very difficult position on climate change…[they have the] view that they have a right to emit.”

After China, the United States, and the European Union, India is the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter. In India, coal is king. But that’s changing rapidly — especially with the rise of solar power. In a post-Paris world, India is increasingly working towards a future powered by renewables. While heavily-polluting coal plants still power the country, India aims to be 40 percent renewables-powered by 2030. Much of that about-face, Light said, is thanks to Narendra Modi, India’s controversial Hindu nationalist leader.

“Climate change [during the Obama administration] was beginning to become a very prominent part of U.S.-India relations, [if] not quite where the United States and China was,” he said. “[It] brought Modi and Obama much much closer…they saw the issue in more or less the same terms: as a moral obligation.”

That relationship was key to the signing of the Paris agreement. Over the course of a few months between September 2014 and January 2015, the United States and India created or expanded around 15 programs relating to climate and energy cooperation. U.S. officials offered technical advice as well, and financing — the Obama administration cleared the way for $1 billion from the U.S. Export-Import Bank for Indian investment in U.S. technology for clean energy efforts. Moves like these allowed for common ground to emerge, culminating in India signing on to the accord in Paris. But under Trump, everything has changed.

“The Paris agreement was really something that Modi brought home as an agreement that represented his sense of what should be climate justice,” Light explained. “And that’s being challenged by Trump, and has made everything more difficult.”

Despite, or perhaps in defiance of, Trump’s callouts, India’s commitment to fighting climate change doesn’t seem to be altering. Visiting French President Emmanuel Macron last week, Modi promised that India would work “shoulder to shoulder” with France. “The Paris agreement is the common heritage of the world. It is a gift that this generation can give,” Modi said.

But while both India and China have vowed to carry on despite a U.S. exit, Trump’s withdrawal could have severe ramifications. For one thing, there will be less pressure to actually meet the goals laid out by Paris. Other major world powers, like Russia, could easily follow suit and withdraw, which would sink the entire effort.

A man walks past a coal-powered steel plant in Tianjin, China. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Wong
A man walks past a coal-powered steel plant in Tianjin, China. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Wong

That’s far from the only problem the exit could pose. With the United States out of the agreement, “Chinese negotiators will have more leeway to get major credit on the international climate stage without actually doing everything they can on the domestic front,” Hart said, adding that Chinese climate scientists are worried that the country’s fossil fuel interests might use U.S. inaction as leverage, slowing down implementation of the agreement.

“China’s economy is evolving rapidly such that things that seemed impossible [five] years ago are easy today,” Hart added. “[China is] constantly revising their clean energy targets to be more ambitious…There will be wiggle room to either coast or double down, and fossil fuel [interests] will push to coast. They can go full-speed on [renewable energy] and coast on climate emissions simultaneously.”

India could face similar problems, with added constraints. Unlike heavyweight Beijing, Delhi can’t afford to antagonize the Trump administration too overtly. But with Modi planning to make a trip to the United States soon, it’s probable that climate issues will come up sooner than later. India is a beneficiary of the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries adapt practices to mitigate climate change. Trump lashed out at the fund when he announced the U.S. exit from Paris, and he has repeatedly said the United States will not provide the remaining $2 billion the Obama administration pledged. If India loses the financial support helping to fund its projects, there’s reason to be concerned that its climate efforts could be hindered as well.

To that end, it’s anyone’s guess if partnerships between the European Union and countries like China and India will be able to counter the damage done by Trump’s decision. One thing is certain: a U.S. exit from global leadership on climate change leaves the stakes much higher — and the future even murkier. “I think it’s going to be remarkable to see how Trump’s approach on climate change does in fact make everything much harder,” Light said.

And for all the talk of countries rising to fill the void left by the United States, it’s more likely that it will be a group effort, Zhang Haibin, a professor at Peking University who studies international environmental politics, told the New York Times.

“The international community may expect China to play a leading role. But in my view, China doesn’t have the capacity to single-handedly play the role of global hero,” Haibin said. “Instead, we’ll need to work closely with the European Union and the Basic countries [a negotiating bloc that includes Brazil, South Africa, India and China]. Collective leadership will be more important.”