BEIJING: The US exit from the Paris climate pact is a gift to China’s ambitions to become world leader on everything from trade to global warming, despite its own mixed record.
Beijing appeared well aware of the opening that it was given as it vowed to uphold the deal to cut carbon emissions after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement.
“We also hear that our actions and leading role are applauded by the international community,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Friday.
The remarks came as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels where the two sides moved to fill the leadership void on fighting climate change.
China is the world’s top polluter but also its biggest investor in renewable energy and it has pledged to reduce its reliance on carbon-belching coal and clear the toxic smog from its cities.
The US retreat from the deal struck in 2015 has given China a chance to snatch the lead in the global battle against climate change and boost its clout at future negotiations, analysts said.
It could also spur Chinese investment in overseas renewable energy projects — and expand its political influence — as poorer countries increasingly look to their deep-pocketed trade partner for help.
“This is gold for China. It really puts them in a powerful position,” said John Mikler, an associate professor in international relations at the University of Sydney.
“The paradox of the America First doctrine is it’s putting America last and China is taking the lead.”
Beijing’s emphatic support for the Paris deal comes as the world’s second-largest economy promotes itself as a champion of globalisation, capitalising on Trump’s inward-looking stance on trade and foreign policy.
But President Xi Jinping’s claims of welcoming foreign investment have been met with scepticism from European and American executives who say Beijing should practise what it preaches and lift unfair market access restrictions.
“It’s become quite clear that China sees the US withdrawal as a diplomatic opportunity. It has given China an opening to take a more positive role on the world stage,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a coal and air pollution expert at Greenpeace.
It also fits with Beijing’s domestic political agenda of being seen to make efforts to clean up the environment and find new ways to spur economic activity into the future.
After years of breakneck growth, China’s economy is slowing as it transitions away from a debt-fuelled investment-driven model to one more reliant on consumer spending.
China’s overseas investment in renewable energy deals exceeding $1 billion each soared 60 percent to $32 billion in 2016, according to the US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which expects the trend to continue.
California Governor Jerry Brown is hoping to get on board despite Trump’s backsliding on the Paris agreement.
“We want to further strengthen our relationship with China,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday before flying to China to attend a clean energy ministerial meeting.
“The world is moving in a direction that I want California to be part of.”
‘A black mark’
But Beijing’s vow to cut back on coal does not necessarily extend beyond its borders.
While China’s own coal consumption has fallen for the past three years, reducing the fossil fuel’s share of its energy consumption to 62 percent, it has also been investing heavily in coal projects abroad as part of its Belt and Road initiative.
The massive infrastructure plan involves ports, railways, roads, industrial parks and power plants spanning some 65 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe.
A study by the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute found China was involved in 240 coal power projects in Belt and Road countries between 2001 and 2016, with a total generating capacity of 251 gigawatts.
Pakistan, for example, is building some 13 coal-fired power plants in different parts of the country with Chinese assistance that will produce 7,890 megawatts of electricity.
“If you ask the developers everything is clean but if you look at the emissions standards being applied most of these projects generate a lot more air pollution than is allowed for in China,” said Greenpeace’s Myllyvirta.
“It is certainly a black mark against China’s track record.”