For the last few years, fighting global warming has been the glue that held the United States and China, economic rivals, together.
President Donald Trump has started to pull back U.S. efforts to curb carbon emissions, leaving Chinese President Xi Jinping as the once-unfathomable global leader on combating climate change.
Xi was expected to push – but probably not very hard – Trump to reconsider during the two leaders’ first face-to-face meeting Thursday evening at the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
The Paris agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance. We must ensure this endeavor is not derailed.
Chinese President Xi Jinping in January
“It’s one of the only bright spots between the two countries in the last decade,” said Barbara Finamore, senior attorney and director of the China program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The countries have been intensely involved on bilateral cooperation. There are a lot of benefits to both sides.”
In 2014, Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and Xi announced that their two countries – the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the world’s emissions – would embark on an ambitious plan to cut those emissions.
Obama agreed to cut net emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels over 11 years. Xi agreed to reduce fossil fuels, allowing emissions to peak around 2030 before dropping as his country looked for sources of power that did not come from coal.
But Trump, who has called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese, recently made good on his campaign promise to start undoing Obama’s policies when he announced a rollback last month of the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature effort to fight climate change by cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
“These decisions by the Trump administration to back away from these Obama administration commitments do provide opportunities for China to present itself as the stabilizing factor in the global economy, the responsible country who is going to continue to deal with global warming,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “These are things that China can certainly use to its advantage.”
Administration officials say there is no set agenda for the Trump-Xi summit, though there are many areas the two are likely to talk about, including the nuclear threat from North Korea, trade and China’s push to claim territory in the South China Sea. But it’s unclear what the two men might agree to work on.
“While there are many areas of pressure, there are also many areas of potential cooperation,” said Harry J. Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a public policy research center. “Climate change and saving the environment should be at the top of talks.”
Trump told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One to Florida that his two biggest issues on the trip are North Korea and trade.
“We have been treated unfairly and have made terrible trade deals with China for many, many years. That’s one of the things we are going to be talking about,” he said. “The other thing, of course, is going to be North Korea. . . . I think China will be stepping up.”
Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greeted Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, at Mar-a-Lago late Thursday afternoon. The four joined a couple dozen others for dinner, including Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. They dined on pan-seared dover sole with champagne sauce and New York strip steak.
“We’ve had a long discussion already and so far, I’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing,” Trump joked about Xi. “We have developed a friendship, I can see that.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told the reporters on Air Force One that Trump had invited Xi to stay at Mar-a-Lago but the “sheer size” of the Chinese delegation made it impossible. Earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stayed at Mar-a-Lago as a personal gift from Trump while his delegation stayed elsewhere.
The World Resources Institute recently found that China is making progress faster than expected in combating climate change — exceeding one of its goals, nearing completion of a second and more than halfway toward the final two.
China recently canceled plans for 30 new coal-fired power plants even though they were already under construction. In contrast, Trump has pledged to restore coal mining jobs through rescinding the Obama-era regulations, though even the industry says that will bring minimal benefit to coal-producing regions.
“No matter how other countries’ policies on climate change change, as a responsible large developing country, China’s resolve, aims and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters last month after Trump signed the executive order.
Administration officials sought to downplay climate change Thursday. A National Security Council official did not respond to a question about the issue. Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department, said she did not think “the Chinese will probably be raising that in detail.”
I think that this building and this administration recognize that climate change is a threat, but I think they’re still assessing how big a threat and how we approach that threat.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner
Andrew Light, a distinguished senior fellow at the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute, said Xi had been stepping up his role especially in public statements because of the leadership vacuum created by the U.S. on combating climate change. “President Trump won’t bring it up,” he said. “As far as we know, he hasn’t brought it up with any foreign leaders.”
The White House has not answered questions about whether the U.S. will pull out of the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, a pact among nearly 200 nations to reduce fossil fuel pollution as a way to combat global warning.
Spicer said last week that officials were reviewing the agreement and expect to have a decision by the time of the Group of Seven summit of leading industrial nations in late May. “I think the Paris agreement is still under discussion within the administration,” he said.