China could take leadership role in Paris climate change deal if Trump pulls U.S. out

A U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement is unlikely to scuttle the international deal, but it could instead see China take on a leadership role, experts say.

Candidate Trump pledged U.S. withdrawal, but president-elect Trump seems to be hedging

US President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping are shown in Hangzhou on Sept. 3. Prior to formally joining the Paris climate deal, the countries two years ago agreed to improve their respective efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (How Hwee Young/AFP/Getty Images)

A U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement is unlikely to scuttle the international deal, but it could instead see China take on a leadership role, experts say. 

"I think a lot of it will fall upon the shoulders of China," said Henrik Selin, director of curricular innovation and initiatives at Boston University's Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.

He said with China, the planet's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, remaining committed to tackling climate change and supporting the deal, it could be an example for other countries and "at least fill some of the vacuum left by the U.S."

"I think on some level, China can see this as an opportunity to provide leadership."

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's intentions when it comes to the Paris climate change agreement have become unclear since the election. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Donald Trump's plans for the agreement have become unclear since the election. On the campaign trail, candidate Trump repeatedly pledged he would cancel the deal. But president-elect Trump seems to be hedging.

In an interview with the editorial board of the New York Times on Tuesday, Trump said he would  "keep an open mind" about whether to pull the U.S. out of the agreement. 

"I'm looking at it very closely," he said.

The agreement calls on its 191 signatory countries to drastically cut their greenhouse gas emissions in a bid to keep the average global temperature increase "to well below 2 C" compared to pre-industrial times. It wants the world to be carbon neutral — meaning human activity isn't producing more greenhouse gases than trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally — after 2050 but before 2100.

It also seeks to create a transparent system that will allow the public to monitor how well each country is doing in meeting its climate change goals in hopes this will motivate them to transition more quickly to clean, renewable energy like wind, solar and hydropower.

Regardless of what Trump decides, the agreement says a country can't withdraw for four years. 

'Digging in their heels' 

Selin said he doesn't believe a U.S. withdrawal would cause a domino effect with other countries following suit. So far, statements from officials at the Marrakech Climate Conference suggest the signatories remain committed, he said. 

"It seems like other countries are just digging in their heels and pretty much all statements over the last week indicate they will continue taking action even if the U.S. pulls out," he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping isn't fond of the effort to build a transparent reporting and monitoring system into the climate deal. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Even India and Russia, two less-than-enthusiastic signatories, are so far expressing support for the deal.

Selin said he believes India will remain supportive since its emissions targets and climate change policies aren't particularly onerous.

As for Russia, the Kremlin was never going to be an active player or driving force behind the deal, he said.

"I can see [Russian President Vladimir] Putin making the calculation it's better to be on the inside than the outside."

There would be no need to renegotiate the agreement if the U.S. backs out, Selin said. It would just have one less player, albeit a major one.

"The agreement will stand as is," he said. "The agreement has entered into force, it will remain into force. The U.S. pulling out won't change the legal and political stuctures."

U.S. states can set 'ambitious' targets 

And it doesn't stop individual states, like California or New York, from continuing with their own climate change initiatives.

"The federal government is very important in setting the rules of the game across the 50 states, setting the lowest common denominator," Selin said. "But the states have the authority to move beyond that. If they want to have ambitious GHG targets, they can do that."

It seems like other countries are just digging in their heels and pretty much all statements over the last week indicate they will continue taking action even if the U.S. pulls out.- Henrik Selin, Boston University's Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies

With the U.S contributing around 15 per cent of global emissions, pulling out of the accord would affect the world's ability to reach the overall goals. But as Selin said, "85 per cent is still a sizeable chunk of global emissions."

A U.S. withdrawal could also affect how the accord is implemented. 

Michael Wara, an associate professor at Stanford Law School who specializes in climate and electricity policy, says it was the U.S., working with other developed countries, that focused on crafting the deal's monitoring, reporting and verification framework.

China, he says, has pushed back very strongly and wants less transparency.

"[China has] said we don't want international monitors telling us our national statistics are not accurate or the programs we say are working are not actually working,'' he said. "And what the Paris agreement really does functionally is set up that international monitoring system."

Experts tell CBC News the Paris climate change agreement wouldn't be doomed if Trump pulls the U.S. out. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

Wara suggested the monitoring system might be less stringent if China takes a leadership role.

"Is it less effective without U.S. participation? Yes. The reason to have the transparency is to build greater trust. Not just that people keep their promises, but you can actually tell whether people have kept their promises." 

Todd Stern, the former U.S. special envoy for climate change who helped negotiate the accord, said in a recent interview that he believes there would be diplomatic backlash against the U.S. if it pulled out and damaged the agreement. 

"It will have the impact of having the whole system just kind of … not work … as effectively and as rapidly as it would if the U.S. were there," he told The Atlantic.

"If the U.S. wanders off, that's going to harm the pace and effectiveness of the system."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters