Will China Really Care If Trump Withdraws From The Paris Climate Accord?

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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President Donald Trump will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, according to news reports, sparking claims that the president is ceding “climate leadership” to China.

Former Obama administration officials and climate diplomacy experts further argue that withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would do “very significant damage to U.S. standing in the world,” including our relationship with China.

But would Trump’s refusal to implement Obama administration global warming policies really hurt our relationship with China — a country that didn’t seem to care about the issue until its economic growth slowed?

Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose research focuses on China, says that Trump’s actions on the Paris Agreement don’t actually matter much to the Chinese.

“The Chinese will use it as an excuse not to cooperate at time,” Scissors said. “It’s purely PR for them.”

This notion runs counter to what many in the foreign policy community have been arguing for months. China and the U.S. co-announced their Paris Agreement commitments in 2015, and signed onto the accord together in 2016.

Proponents say that China’s commitment to the Paris accord — even if their pledge to cut emissions was totally bogus — is a sign that U.S. relations with the country will be hurt. It’s a fundamentally different situation than with the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s last global warming treaty.

“The fact that the Chinese government is (or at least styles themselves as) deeply committed to Paris and sees climate cooperation with the U.S. in such positive terms also makes Paris different from Kyoto,” Philip Wallach, Philip Wallach, a senior fellow Brookings Institution, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“There is no question leaving Paris would have costs for our sensitive relationship with China,” Wallach said.

While it’s unclear if a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would impact negotiations or trade deals, Wallach said that it could spill into some areas of international policy, like dealing with North Korea.

“I think the biggest question is whether it significantly turns China off from cooperating with the U.S. in a way that spills into other matters,” Wallach said.

Scissors disagreed. He said China won’t likely cooperate on tamping down North Korea’s nuclear ambitions no matter what the U.S. did in regards to the Paris Agreement.

“That’s just nonsense,” Scissors said. “It doesn’t matter to the Chinese.”

Scissors said that declining economic growth was a major reason China signed onto the Paris Agreement, but not the Copenhagen Agreement in 2009. China was experiencing 14 percent growth before being hit by the global recession in 2009.

Growth rebounded somewhat, but has slowed to less than 7 percent in 2015 — about half of what it was in 2007. Even with less growth, China still uses lots of coal and plans to expand its use of coal in the future.

Indeed, China made no promise to cut absolute greenhouse gas emissions as part of its Paris Agreement pledge. China promised to “peak” emissions by 2030, while the Obama administration pledged to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

China has closed coal mines and canceled power plant projects in recent years to cut excess capacity in electricity markets — a consequence of slower economic growth, not concern over the climate.

“The dominant story here is the Chinese used more coal when they wanted to and stopped using it when they wanted to,” Scissors said. “They don’t care about it except when it’s convenient to them.”

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