November 7, 2017 Read More →

U.S. Energy Policy Under Trump Puts China in Charge


When people look back at Donald Trump’s first year as president, they’re likely to be perplexed by his actions on climate change. They will see an administration that put climate deniers in senior government positions during a year of record-breaking natural disasters, did everything it could to save a dying coal industry as jobs in renewables exploded, and exited from an international climate treaty that both environmental activists and Fortune 100 companies supported. And this is all despite the release of a government report that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” for climate change other than human activity—more evidence, if you needed it, that this is a problem that urgently needs attention.

“People would look back and think, ‘Boy, that was certainly an aggressive effort to go directly in reverse'” of the direction we should be heading, Todd Stern, the United States special envoy for climate change under Barack Obama, told me. No matter how you interpret it, Stern said, 2017 is a “pretty bad” year for federal US climate policy.

Future observers will be even more perplexed when they look at what China was doing during the same time period. The top geopolitical rival to the US announced $361 billion in spending on renewables, moved to shutter hundreds of coal plants, mulled a ban on gas and diesel-powered vehicles, and officially stated its intention to be a global climate leader. “The policy direction is very clear,” said Li Shuo, the Beijing-based climate policy advisor at Greenpeace East Asia. “[Low-carbon technology] is an area where through policy support [China] can really get an upper hand economically.”

Trump has said he is putting “America First” with his actions on climate change. But in reality he is willingly surrendering vast political and economic power to China. “It’s hard for me to identify a strategy in much of what this administration does,” Joseph Aldy, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard and a former Obama administration official, told me. Yet the contrast between China and the US on climate change could not be clearer. “One of the countries has a leadership that’s operating in the 21st century and the other is operating in the 20th,” Aldy argued.

This only recently became the case. During the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, China blocked US efforts to create a globally binding treaty, arguing that it would unfairly restrict China’s economic growth. But China was struggling with horrific air pollution. It was also investing billions in low-carbon technology. Stern began meeting in secret with negotiators in China and “we found a way to work together,” he said. Those discussions resulted in a historic joint promise from the US and China in 2014 to strengthen “bilateral cooperation on climate change.”

That may sound like diplomatic jargon. But this unlikely alliance between the US and China was a massive step forward in the global fight against climate change. It made possible the international climate treaty that was negotiated in Paris in 2015. After Trump won the US election and vowed to exit from the Paris treaty, observers wondered if China would also pull out. But any doubts were dispelled in early 2017 when China’s President Xi Jinping said that “the Paris agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance. We must ensure this endeavor is not derailed.”

China backed that up with a promise to invest $361 billion in renewable energy sources by 2020. Its National Energy Administration predicted this would create over 13 million jobs. China is also investing in clean energy outside its borders, spending $32 billion in 2016 alone, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. China now owns the biggest wind turbine manufacturer in the world and five of the six biggest solar module builders. “It really sees this as a new and emerging sector,” explained Li, and its goal is to “gain an upper hand globally.”

More: Trump Is Quietly Surrendering to China on Climate Change

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