Now that the US has decided to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, China is in the spotlight. The authorities are getting used to their new role in the fight against climate change, says DW's Frank Sieren.
It's a fast-changing world! From one day to the next, China has found itself at the helm of the global fight against climate change, without really doing anything to get there. By pulling out of the Paris agreement, US President Donald Trump has set something in motion with consequences that are over his head. He has managed to isolate the US from the rest of the world and the subject of climate change has received much more attention in the media than is usually the case. Now, everyone is talking about the goals set by the Paris accord. Countries, corporations and even certain US states are rising up against Trump, saying that they will pursue the goals nonetheless and do more to protect the planet. Germany and China, which are already close partners in this fight, have reiterated their resolve to achieve their respective goals.
Is climate protection possible without the US?
There is a problem, however. Experts say that it will not be possible to achieve the crucial goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 without the US, even if all the other signatories achieve their goals. The US is responsible for 15 percent of global emissions. The only country which emits more is China, which is responsible for 30 percent.
But if Beijing is to be believed - and in this case it is - this will change dramatically over the next few years. The government plans to invest over $360 billion (320 billion euros) into renewable energy by 2020 and has already put many projects in place. The aim is to produce 40 percent of global solar energy, 36 percent of hydroelectric power and 36 percent of wind energy, thus creating over 13 million new jobs. At the same time, there will be less reliance on coal. Plans for 103 new coal-fired plants have been scrapped. In Paris, China promised to reduce its CO2 emissions by 2030 but according to recent studies this goal could be reached before then. Last year, the use of coal fell for the third year running.
Growing pressure on China
It is figures such as these that have fueled hope that China will play a decisive and leading role in the fight against climate change. Now that the US has withdrawn, no other country is in a position to spend so much on solar, wind and hydraulic energy. Trump could not have made it easier for China to improve its global image by becoming a leader in renewable energies.
But greater international attention on China comes with a certain pressure too and this might be higher than the authorities would currently like. There is a snag when it comes to implementing the Paris agreement: Beijing refuses to allow external verification of its CO2 emissions. So far, it has only published its figures twice - in 1995 and 2005. The agreement calls for reports to be made public every two years. Foreign companies could do the work but Beijing does not want this.
Basis of trust?
So the West has to make do with estimates - from Greenpeace for example - or the Chinese government's information even if it is not clear how precise this is since the measurements have not been clearly defined.
If China really wants to take its leadership role seriously then it might not be able to continue in this way, relying on others to trust its reports. It would be better for international cooperation if there were an open system of supervision. The fight against climate change will only succeed if the world's leading powers serve as a model. If smaller countries see that the US is not worried about protecting the planet, they might wonder why they should. This also goes for information that cannot be trusted. That's why it's so important for big players like China and the European Union to be exemplary. That's what became so clear last week at the China-EU summit in Brussels when participants agreed to work more closely in the area of renewable energies, including in R&D and technology exchange. But there were problems with the small-print - the joint declaration was not signed because of trade disputes.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.