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China Steps Forward As Unlikely Leader In Fight Against Climate Change


As the U.S. moves away from its role as a leader in slowing climate change, it looks like China might want to take over. Today, China's premier said his country remained committed to working with the international community through the Paris climate agreement.

We're joined in the studio now by Robert Daly. He's a China specialist at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Thanks for coming in.

ROBERT DALY: Thank you.

MCEVERS: So the Obama administration worked really hard to get China into the fight against climate change, and now we hear that China wants to lead this effort. What changed for China?

DALY: What changed for China primarily was that its own people got concerned about China's filthy air, water and its filthy soil. And the United States played a large role in getting this kind of awareness stimulated within China. It wasn't just President Obama who worked with Xi Jinping. Both men's predecessors for about 20 years have had an ongoing discussion in which the United States has been trying to bring China into the discussion to emit fewer greenhouse gases. And finally under Obama with President Xi, China agreed to make that move. But it was us pulling them all the way. It was not a Chinese plot to take money from the United States.

MCEVERS: Right. What does having China in this role now instead of the U.S. - what could it mean for the Paris climate accord?

DALY: Well, China is not quite ready to lead on its own in a meaningful way. Although, it's glad to have the appearance and the prerogatives of leadership. It will mean that China is going to take advantage of this as they did America's withdrawal from the TPP to work more closely with Europe, to work with a lot of its Asian partners - and China is already the primary trading partner of all of these nations - to try to reach the Paris climate agreement goals. It will also be working at the same time to lead not necessarily in forming international organizations but in developing and selling the new technologies that are - that it believes is - are going to drive the green economy.

MCEVERS: And while all this is happening, though, China is still the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. I mean what do you see happening inside China that could show that they are committed to fighting climate change?

DALY: China is the leading emitter year on year. The United States is still the largest emitter cumulatively of all of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, a point that China is very keen to make.


DALY: China is already lowering its carbon intensity of economic production. And over the past two years, it appears, according to statistics that have been proven dubious in the past, that China's greenhouse gases actually are dropping, that had dropped in 2015 and possibly in 2016 as well.

MCEVERS: Important to note, though, that China still consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. I mean how confident are you that that could change?

DALY: Well, it is going to take time. But it also needs to be said that China is a much larger country than, say, the United States, where our per capita greenhouse gas emissions per person - pollution per person - is still four times larger than China's, 10 times larger than India's. So that needs to be a part of the mix because China is still developing. It still has about a hundred million people who are under China's poverty line.

This is not to say that China is not a dangerous emitter and polluter. It is, and it's people's awareness of this. And their calls for a better life are China's primary driver. But it remains true, too, that per capita, China is poorer and is not nearly as wasteful and is not nearly as big a greenhouse gas emitter.

MCEVERS: You talked about how China will like to have the appearance of being the leader on this effort even if they aren't necessarily leading it alone. What do they gain by that, by positioning themself in that way?

DALY: They gain international status by providing more public goods. They are already on the move in the economic sphere. They have formed the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. They are carrying out what they call the One Belt One Road project, which is vague and perhaps problematic. But it's aimed at the integration of Eurasia through infrastructure.

At Davos several days before President Trump was inaugurated, Xi Jinping assumed the mantle of leadership of economic globalization. Now, that's a claim that China perhaps can't fulfill. But at the very least, it increases his domestic support and convinces the Chinese that they have a great leader.

MCEVERS: That's Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. Thank you so much.

DALY: Thank you.

MCEVERS: We'll have more reaction to the president's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement throughout the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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