If the US steps away from climate leadership, China will fill the gap: Joan MacNaughton

Ilario D'Amato
Reading time: 4 minutes
10 January 2017

LONDON: Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the US could create “a vacuum in global leadership on climate change – and China is waiting to fill it,” says Joan MacNaughton, Chair of The Climate Group’s Board, in a recent interview on BBC4 radio.

President-elect Trump, who will soon take the presidential oath, has repeatedly cast doubt on global warming, saying it “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive” and calling it “a hoax”.

However, the Chinese government has worked closely with the Obama administration in recent years, signing a ‘game-changing’ climate deal in 2014 that paved the way for the historic Paris Agreement to be reached in December 2015.

Speaking at Climate Week NYC 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of such bilateral collaboration on climate action between the two biggest carbon emitters in the world, pointing out that climate change is one of the “greatest economic opportunities in history”.


As part of the Paris climate commitments, China pledged to increase non-fossil fuel sources in primary energy consumption to about 20% by the same date – and peak its CO2 emissions before 2020.

“With the Paris Agreement in place, China has been taking a leading role in tackling climate change, and it has achieved significant progress,” said Liwei Chen, China Program Director of The Climate Group.

“Last March, China unveiled its five-year-plan, highlighting its goals to strengthen the path towards achieving ambitious decarbonization targets. The country is sending a strong and clear message to the world: the government is committed to curbing coal consumption and CO2 emissions beyond global expectations.”

After launching its first green bond just two years ago, China now accounts for nearly half of the global market, with US$17.4 billion worth of registered green bonds. China also continues to lead the global wind power market, adding 30.8 gigawatts (GW) of capacity last year - more than the entire wind power industry installed in 2008 – to reach a total of 145 GW installed capacity.

China is also the world leader on renewables employment, with more than 3.5 million people working in the sector to support the country’s irrepressible clean energy expansion. In comparison, the country’s oil and gas sector employs 2.6 million people.

Renewable energy employment in selected countries and regions, from the Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2016 report, courtesy of IRENA.


Recently, The Chinese National Energy Administration confirmed it will invest at least US$360 billion on renewable energy development by 2020, with a focus on solar and wind power – a move that will create about 13 million new jobs in the sector.

During COP22 last November in Morocco, Zou Ji, a senior Chinese climate negotiator, underlined how China is “proactively taking action against climate change” because this will improve the country’s “international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground.”

Zou Ji remarked that if Trump’s administration steps back on US climate commitments, “China’s influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power and leadership.”


The data shows how the country is walking the talk on this issue. “I see tremendous commitment,” confirms Joan MacNaughton in her interview. China is “on track to introduce a national Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in 2017. Many of us worried that would be a huge undertaking they couldn’t do in the time, when they announced it a few years back, but they set up pilots and they are now going forward.”

The combined market value of these pilot schemes reached CNY536 million (US$77.4 million) in 2014. When it will be launched next year, China’s ETS will be the biggest in the world – raising some concerns about how its complex bureaucracy will handle such a complex mechanism, and how the regions not involved in the pilots will handle this new instrument.

In June, China will host the eighth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), a global forum to advance clean energy technologies and policies. During last year’s event in California, leading companies showed how green business is good business – as part of RE100, a program brought to you by The Climate Group in partnership with CDP, which demonstrates the economic case for businesses to go 100% renewable.

“China has been an active participant” at the latest CEM, concludes Joan MacNaughton. “I think that’s very indicative of their commitment, and their will to play here.”

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