China could gain clout if US backs out of climate commitments, experts say

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

If incoming President Donald Trump reneges from U.S. commitments on climate funding and mitigation, it could yield influence and diplomatic clout to China, climate experts warned this week.

China could step in to fill some of the void left if the United States backed out of pledges, Sir Edward Davey, former U.K. secretary of state for energy and climate change told Devex.

“If the U.S. pulls back from funding developing countries on climate, I doubt the rest of the developed world would simply step in and take up the slack,” he said. Instead, Davey suggested China may observe “a diplomatic opportunity” and “step in at least partially,” he said.

Climate experts stressed that world leaders have prioritized unified action to curb climate change — and the U.S. would be walking away from significant influence if it were to reverse course.

“I don’t think Trump has fully understood yet how much of an issue this is on the international agenda,” World Resources Institute’s global director for climate program Paula Caballero said on a press call Friday. “He might not be so willing to cede that space, not just in terms of political leadership, but on the economic front to other countries.”

Some analysts say they hope the drive for climate smart innovation, infrastructure and industry will appeal to the new president’s business acumen.

Still, others are asking how the international community will fill in the gaps if the U.S. — recently among the leaders in many international climate interventions — divests from its commitments. These include The Paris climate agreement, the U.S.’s $3 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund, and billions in bilateral and multilateral U.S. foreign aid which were allocated to pledged to climate-based interventions last year alone.

Xi Jinping made his first appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, in what many viewed as a bid to fill a leadership vacuum potentially left by the U.S. among wealthy economies driving globalization.

In his address, Xi urged delegates not to shy away from globalization and pledged instead to use his own country’s economic momentum to push for a more equitable, sustainable global future.

“Guided by the vision of innovative, coordinated, green, open and shared development, we will adapt to the new normal, stay ahead of the curve, and make coordinated efforts to maintain steady growth, accelerate reform, adjust economic structure, improve people’s living standards and fend off risks,” he said.

Xi mentioned the environment several times in the speech, both in the context of improving domestic policy and the nation’s role in following through on international commitments, offering a glimmer of hope that the world’s second largest economy will drive greater climate action. He added that China’s “efforts to pursue green development are paying off,” and that China will “do more to protect the ecosystem.”

While Davey said the new U.S. administration “might welcome” a greater role for China, particularly through its growing infrastructure investments in the developing world through the Asian Development Bank and the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, this “would further reduce U.S. influence globally of course and be a huge coup for Beijing in practice.”

Davey hopes and expects the next U.N. climate conference, known as the Conference of Parties or “COP,” to devote time and discussion “on the implications” of fading U.S. influence.

Devex is reporting live at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Follow Devex Senior Correspondent Michael Igoe @alterigoe and stayed tuned to Devex for more coverage.

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.