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Africa Weekly\Comment

Why Trump's climate decision may backfire

By Giles Chance | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2017-06-09 08:51

US president's decision can be understood in the context of the nation's politics

On June 2 in the Rose Garden of the White House, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would leave the Paris climate agreement, struck between 197 countries in December 2015.

The decision was greeted with widespread dismay and anger around the world. Even in the US, city mayors and state governors, like Jerry Brown, governor of California, strongly criticized Trump's decision to take the US out of the initiative.

Why Trump's climate decision may backfire

It has taken several decades for the facts about climate change, and its long-term consequences, to become evident, but today the science of climate change is well-established. Excessive amounts of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere block the Earth's heat emissions into space, trapping them within the atmosphere. Gradually, these trapped heat emissions increase the global temperature. More than half the carbon dioxide the Earth produces is man-made, coming from the use of carbon fuels - mainly oil and gas-to provide electricity and power vehicles, mainly cars and commercial trucks. The reduction of man-made carbon emissions can slow or even reverse global warming.

We know that since global industrialization, climate change effects already include shrinking of the polar ice caps, a rise in sea-levels of three inches, the gradual disappearance of snow and glaciers in the Himalayas and other mountain areas from which life-giving rivers flow, more violent and unpredictable weather patterns and the extinction of plant and animal life that cannot adapt to a hotter and drier climate.

The first major global agreement that accepted climate change science and aimed at stopping, or at least slowing, the climate warming process was made in Kyoto in 1997. This agreement was limited in its scope.

In December 2015, in Paris, a much more ambitious and widereaching agreement was crafted. For the first time, China and the US agreed, with the European Union and almost all the other countries in the world, to take steps that would limit the increase in the global temperature since the beginning of industrialization to 2 C or less, a figure widely accepted as being the limit of global warming before the effects of climate change could become large enough to prevent life on Earth.

Why Trump's climate decision may backfire

How important is the US exit for the future of the global climate? What does it mean for China, a key signatory of the Paris climate accord that has adopted a clean energy strategy?

The US is the world's second-largest carbon polluter, so the effect of Trump's decision on the future of the global climate may have some significance. But I believe that this is smaller than the effect of the decision on the US position in the world.

President Trump made it clear that his decision was driven only by US interests. The impact on the rest of the world of the US withdrawal from the climate accord did not play a part in his thinking. This was in line with his pre-election message of "America First", which helped him win the election in November.

Trump's decision can be understood in the context of US politics. The US has the world's largest coal reserves, and most states of the US use coal as a cheap domestic resource to fuel their electrical generation. The states that lie away from the east and west coastlines of the country make up the Republican heartland, with some, like West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania (all states that Trump won in the 2016 election) relying heavily on coal production to provide employment. The portion of the US population who voted for Trump in the election will be heartened by the decision.

But Trump's decision means that a world accustomed to US leadership and to the US as a provider of global public benefits, like security and a global currency, is finding itself looking elsewhere for guidance in the matter of climate change, an area of undoubted and critical importance to the lives, not just of people alive today, but of those many millions yet unborn.

China has already committed itself to making significant reductions in its carbon gas emissions, with a huge effort and major financial resources devoted to developing sources of renewable energy, like wind, waves and solar.

Why Trump's climate decision may backfire

In the process of making these large and irreversible commitments, China has recognized important facts that were misrepresented in Trump's statement: that a strategy aimed at fighting climate change not only creates significant economic value through technological innovation, but does not destroy jobs. Rather, it transfers jobs from blue-collar workers to trained technicians, and can even increase net employment over time.

In 2014, China agreed in Beijing that by 2030 it would reach a peak in its carbon emissions, and would increase the share of nonfossil fuels to 20 percent of total energy production. The current Chinese Five-Year-Plan (2016-20) aims at reducing Chinese energy intensity by 15 percent and carbon intensity by 18 percent.

New coal mines have been stopped in China in the three largest industrial areas: the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta, while energy production from alternative sources, including nuclear, has been stepped up. China recently issued its first green bond in London, and is set to extend its successful cooperation with Europe to develop new clean technology and a financial infrastructure that can support this huge, long-term energy shift.

China's decision, a decade or so ago, to make the change to cleaner energy has already placed it at the forefront of the global effort to manage climate change. The survival of the human species in an increasingly crowded and energy-dependent global environment is of great importance for most inhabitants of Planet Earth. Trump's decision, apparently taken for short-term political benefit, will help China to achieve its strategic goal of reaching out to its global partners to promote global well-being and prosperity, and to replace the anxiety felt by some people at China's rapid global emergence with understanding and acceptance.

The effect of Trump's decision on the global effort to fight climate change will be limited in the US, mainly because of those on the US coastlines-including California, Washington and New York-that will continue to work to reduce harmful gas emissions in accordance with the aims set out in the 2015 Paris agreement. It will also be mitigated by the US exploitation of shale gas via a technique known as "fracking", and the ongoing pursuit of US energy efficiency driven by cost savings.

The author is a visiting professor at the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/09/2017 page10)

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