The age of Xi: will China flex its climate muscles in 2017?

Beijing’s policies have seen China invest heavily in renewables and support the UN’s first major climate pact – but without US cover it will face new scrutiny this year

(Pic: GovernmentZA/Flickr)

(Pic: GovernmentZA/Flickr)

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It’s impossible to look beyond the bronzed facade of Donald Trump when evaluating what 2017 holds for efforts to tackle climate change.

The incoming US president has offered clues but little detail on how he will tackle the issue once he assumes power on 20 January.

During the campaign he promised to “cancel” the Paris climate deal and roll back Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. More worryingly since the election, Trump has appointed a slew of climate sceptics and oil enthusiasts to his cabinet.

Now comes power, and with it… responsibility? That’s the hope of Michael Zammit Cutajar, the UN’s top climate official from 1991-2002.

Tackling climate change requires a “long-term vision of economic and geopolitical interests,” he tells Climate Home – Trump can’t continue to indulge in “short-term posturing to the populist gallery”.

Isaac Valero Ladron, advisor to the EU climate chief Miguel Arias Canete and a veteran on the international climate circuit says he hopes US engagement will be “constructive”.

The big fear among climate campaigners in Washington DC is that Trump will announce he’s pulling out of the Paris deal on day one as a sop to his right-wing base.

“We just need to keep us in for the next four years,” said a Democrat source who was close to the Obama White House, evidently hopeful that Trump would only see through one term.

Quitting Paris takes four years. Leaving the UN’s climate body – the UNFCCC – takes just one, although it would be unprecedented, a former George W Bush advisor told Bloomberg BNA.

“The only thing that Trump said during the campaign was that Paris was a problem, and I just haven’t heard boo about the UNFCCC,” said Jim Connaughton.

“Momentum” is a word used by many of the experts asked by Climate Home to sum up their hopes for 2017, a desire to see global efforts upped a notch.

“We need to move rapidly move into implementation of the Paris Agreement,” says Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi climate analyst and director of Dhaka-based ICAAD.

Report: Countries hit by climate change pledge to go 100% renewable

Whatever Trump does, it’s evident from his cabinet picks that the US won’t be the proactive arbiter of climate deals it was under Obama’s second term.

That leaves space for other – perhaps unlikely – leaders, says Athena Ballesteros, negotiator for Philippines at UN talks and head of climate finance in Asia at the Growald Foundation.

“I think the emergence and strengthening of the group of vulnerable countries led by the CVF [Climate Vulnerable Forum] with support from Germany, Norway and China again is an inspiring thing to see,” she says.

“They will charge ahead with the implementation of Paris and committed to 100% renewable energy.”

The renewable pledge was made at the Marrakech talks, and was vague enough not to trap any country into an impossible goal.

But it signalled a change in tempo says Huq, who has chronicled the various promises made by rich and poor countries since the international push on climate change started in the 1990s.

For once leaders in developing capitals were setting the agenda, rather than being told what to do on a promise of a few millions in cash.

The hope from most of these climate diplomacy veterans is that these pioneers will grow in numbers, emboldened perhaps by a new level of leadership in Beijing.

“China’s prominence on the global stage is likely to raise interest in many capitals and the potential for shifts in the balance of power,” says Liz Gallagher, senior policy advisor at the London-based E3G think tank.

“The Chinese government might be hesitant to step into the fold and ‘like for like’ replace US climate diplomacy efforts, but on some elements they can certainly lead with confidence.”

With the world’s second largest economy, and hosts of the G7 and G20 aligned on this issue, many analysts reckon Trump could decide an attack on climate isn’t worth the effort.

New UN secretary general Antonio Guterres could be key, argues Gallagher, who says his record in office “bodes well for a radical agenda”.

Trump says he’ll try and change the UN once in office, furious at a Security Council resolution that criticised Israel’s construction of settlements across Palestinian territories.

One way he could do this is by restricting funds to the UNFCCC, which relies on Washington for 20% of its $20m budget.

It’s also one of a number of UN bodies where Palestine is a full member, a factor in calls from a number of Republicans through 2015 and 2016 to stop all UN climate-related support.

But while Trump may loom large over the climate process, there’s a bigger and more fundamental threat to progress, argues Teresa Ribera, a former Spain environment minister.

Now running the Paris-based think tank IDDRI, Ribera believes climate policymakers must start to tweak their pitch to focus on “solidarity and climate justice”.

It’s a call for governments to not just look towards a low carbon shift but also ensure that those left behind such as coal miners are offered a viable future.

“Failing to address these challenges will make the transition impossible,” adds Gallagher.

Germany, Mexico, Canada and the US are among those to have mapped out a future without fossil fuels, with a 2030 strategy from the UK expected in early 2017.

The next 12 months will also offer a familiar challenge in an age where climate sceptics have found new channels and new leaders to project their doubts.

As the El Nino event of 2015 and 2016 fades, so too will the temperature spikes above those already recorded as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

Talk of a “pause” could take hold again, despite the best efforts of scientists to explain why the long term warming trend is deeply alarming.

Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at the UK Met Office, hopes the “silly old spat about whether anthropogenic climate change is real or or a ‘hoax’” doesn’t return.

“Instead we should move forward with a more useful discussion about how much risk it poses and how we can best reduce or manage that risk,” he says.

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