US President Donald Trump declared at the White House on June 1 that the US was “getting out” of the Paris Agreement on climate change, a global action plan set by 195 countries in 2015 to limit global warming to below 2 degrees centigrade. The decision sent shockwaves around the world.
In Brussels the next day, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and leaders of the European Union reiterated their commitment to the Paris Agreement and cooperation on climate change.
Two and half years earlier in Beijing, China and the US pledged to join hands on climate change after a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and former US President Barack Obama. It paved the way for the Paris accord and became one of the major areas for Sino-US cooperation.
The fate of international efforts on climate change is now overshadowed by the US withdrawal from the accord. It looks likely that China will step in and take a leadership role. To what extent do these widely-discussed hypotheses hold water?
Li Junfeng, former director of the China National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation between December 2011 and January 2017, does not think the departure is as serious a move as some fear. He explained his views in an exclusive interview with NewsChina.
NewsChina: Why do you think Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement?
Li Junfeng: The US is a free market economy. It does not like any other country or international agency to tell it what to do. In fact, Obama used a trick with the Paris agreement in the first place. Knowing that a Republican-dominated Congress would not ratify the agreement, he approved it by presidential executive order. This makes it possible for his successors to annul it easily, without having to go through Congress.
China is taking the pact seriously. The agreement has been authorized by the National People’s Congress, the legislature. It is legally binding in China, but not in the US.
There was also an important political consideration behind Trump’s decision to quit the treaty. During his election campaign, he vowed to dump aspects of Obama’s political legacy by repealing the Paris Agreement and Obamacare and revising the immigration law. Soon after he took office, he declared a temporary ban on travelers and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries. The ban was then ruled illegal by the federal district courts. His attempts at replacing Obamacare with a new law have been difficult. As a result, the Paris Agreement became his target.
Therefore, this result is due to both Obama and Trump’s ways of doing things.
Li Junfeng, former director of the China National Center for Climate Change Strategy
NC: What was global environment governance like before the US quit the Paris protocol?
LJF: The issue of climate change was on the radar of the international community as early as the 1970s. Based on a series of scientific assessment reports, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) [the first commitment at the UN level on tackling global warming] was signed in 1992. It was followed by the Tokyo Protocol in 1997. The US and the EU led the process during this period. The EU wanted every country to set a specific emission reduction goal and implement the goal together. The idea was adopted by the Tokyo Protocol in which the EU played a leading role.
However, implementation proved difficult. The US was the first to challenge the pact, complaining that the target was unfair to the US. The EU-led Tokyo Protocol and the US-led UNFCCC then progressed side by side in the following years. There were efforts to converge the two negotiation tracks through the Bali Road Map agreed in 2007 and the Durban Platform in 2011 during the annual sessions of UNFCCC parties. During this process, the idea of the US free market began to prevail. This is reflected in the Paris Agreement.
The Paris pact does not impose a target on each country. Instead, each country can decide its own reduction targets. It is called “voluntary contribution.” Both China and the US agreed to this idea. China represents the interests of developing countries which face huge environmental pressure on their growth, and cannot afford too high a price. We will do what we can. This model has been widely accepted. In this sense, it is fair to say that the US and China have played a leading role together in reaching the Paris Agreement.
NC: Is the Paris Agreement against US interests?
LJF: The US has the right to quit the Paris accord. “Voluntary contribution” is the foundation of the accord. It means every country has the right to choose what to do. Although the US has decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, it has not withdrawn from the UNFCCC. Trump said the Paris pact was against US interests and the US would renegotiate for a better accord for the US. His remarks are untrue. Voluntary contribution does not damage US interests.
As the US stays in the UNFCCC, it has the responsibility to implement the UNFCCC. The US has already promised to do more on emission reduction. The difference now is that US efforts will not be bound by the Paris Agreement.
NC: Will the US lose its leadership on global environment governance as a result of the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement?
LJF: The US energy secretary Rick Perry stated clearly [on June 1] that the US would “continue to be a leader in energy technology, development, and delivery.” The US will never give up its leadership on emissions reduction technology.
As the biggest developed nation, the US will not give up its leadership on global climate governance, either. Even after the US withdraws from the Paris accord, the US will continue to play a leading role through the UNFCCC.
However, Trump’s decision has damaged the diplomatic reputation of the US. As a result, it has shaken the global leadership of the US to some extent, although it will have little impact on its economy or energy market.
NC: Will the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement have a negative effect on the US and global climate governance?
LJF: This event does no harm to the US. Over the years, the US has always held a reluctant attitude toward climate change. It has never lost anything over this climate issue.
The US did not implement the Tokyo Protocol. President Bill Clinton did not even submit the treaty to Congress as he knew the Republican-dominated Congress would reject it. Then President George W. Bush declared in 2001 that the US refused to accept the Tokyo Protocol.
Despite this, the US has achieved a lot in emissions reduction. This is why the US energy secretary was so confident in claiming that the US was doing well on emissions reduction. The US efforts in this regard have been based more on its market economy. For example, gas has largely replaced coal in the US because of market choice, not any climate change treaty. The EU has honored the Tokyo Protocol well, and adopted very strict administrative tools. However, the EU has not done better than the US in reducing emissions [though its per capita emissions remain some way below the US since they started at a lower level]. Therefore the US is confident that its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will not affect global climate governance much.
NC: How can global environmental governance find a way forward after the US withdrawal?
LJF: Human society has consumed huge mineral and energy resources since the Industrial Revolution. The environment has been damaged hugely during the period. It is necessary to restrict human behavior from causing more damage to the environment. The international community has proposed the idea of “voluntary contributions.” The EU has advocated sustainable development. And China has come up with the goal of building an “ecological civilization.”
I believe China must change its energy structure by reducing coal consumption. It also needs to reduce its energy consumption by changing the growth model. This can be done by improving energy efficiency. All this will improve China’s environment, which is in the direct interests of ordinary Chinese people.
NC: Do you think China can lead global climate governance?
LJF: China is not able to play a leading role, at least now. China’s score on the environment is like an intermediate student, whose report card shows he is not good enough to lead the whole class. Besides, leadership must be recognized by all countries. This recognition is not gained just by donating more to the Green Climate Fund.
The first and the most important thing for China is to do a good job on the country’s own shift of development model, energy and consumption. China can improve its influence and leadership during this process. You can’t crown yourself a global leader, others have to recognize it.