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China touted as next global climate change leader after Trump victory

China could become the new flag-bearer in the fight against global warming following the election of climate change sceptic Donald Trump in the US presidential elections.

China worked closely with the administration of outgoing President Barack Obama to build momentum ahead of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

The partnership of the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters helped get nearly 200 countries to support the pact, which came into effect four years earlier than expected this month. 

The day before the election, Morocco’s foreign minister said the US cannot renege on its commitment to lower carbon emissions and it was noted that leaving the pact would take four years of complex legal procedure. 

Nevertheless, Trump has expressed continued scepticism about climate change even going so far as to say it was a hoax created by China to give it economic advantages.

He has said he plans to remove the US from the agreement and reverse many of Obama’s measures to combat global warming.

US emissions are now predicted to stay flat until 2030 compared with deep cuts under Obama’s plans.

Obama promised in Paris to cut his country’s greenhouse gas emissions by between 26 and 28 per cent by 2025 from 2005 levels. US data show emissions were down 9 per cent in 2014, compared to 2005.

Trump has appointed noted climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to help lead transition planning for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has crafted the administration’s major environmental regulations such as the Clean Power Plan and efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

Beijing is now poised to cash in on the goodwill it could earn by taking on leadership in dealing with what for many other governments is one of the most urgent issues on their agenda.

“Proactively taking action against climate change will improve China’s international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground,” Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and a senior Chinese climate talks negotiator said.

Zou added that if Trump abandons efforts to implement the Paris agreement, “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 Paris Agreement seeks to phase out net greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of the century and limit global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Each country has put forward national plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Some have raised concerns that without involvement and financial support from the United States, emerging economies like India may feel inclined to back out.

One of the key advisors to Obama’s team on climate change said he hoped China would take on the mantle and keep the global climate deal alive.

Beijing should “continue to work in the spirit that we worked together in and before Paris”, said Andrew Light, former senior adviser to previous US Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern.

It is an ironic twist for the government of the world’s second-largest economy. For years, Beijing fought attempts by foreign governments to limit carbon emissions, claiming it should be allowed the same space to develop and pollute that industrialised nations had.

But with its capital often choked by smog and its people angry about the environmental devastation that rapid development has wrought across the country, Beijing has become a proponent of efforts to halt global warming rather than a hindrance.

“China is acting on climate for the benefit of its own people,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Programme.

“I am confident China will take a lead role.”

China has powerful domestic and global imperatives to play a high-profile role in continued global climate change talks, meant to avert more heat waves, droughts, floods and rising sea levels that could cause trillions of dollars of damage by 2100.

China sees a perceived role as global climate leader as a way to bolster its aspiration to become a “clean energy superpower” by leading in renewable energy technology such as wind and solar power and asserting itself as a key geopolitical power.

In recent months, separate teams have created computer models that demonstrate how a global electricity system that is powered solely by renewable sources could function effectively. 

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