By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate 

Climate change has become a key concern for China in recent years, as evidenced by its pledge to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 60% from 2015 levels by 2030. As we have previously written, it has also become a leader in the emerging field of green finance, and the world leader in installing renewable energy capacity. Moreover, climate change has become one of the few areas in which China has taken an active role on the international stage, promoting green finance at the G20 summit in Hangzhou last year, and joining the United States in championing the Paris Agreement.

Meanwhile, climate change continues to be highly controversial in the US, and the future of the Clean Power Plan – the Obama administration’s primary domestic policy to address it – remains uncertain. President Donald Trump, who took office on January 20, 2017, has expressed skepticism regarding climate change, and has stated that he will seek to repeal the Clean Power Plan. In the international arena, President Trump has also vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (though he has more recently said he has an open mind towards the agreement).

These events may point to a remarkable reversal of roles for the US and China. Where in the past it was the US that lobbied China to adopt more stringent environmental regulations, the US now appears to be pulling back while China is expanding renewable energy and implementing a national cap-and-trade system. If this reversal of postures continues, the implications will be significant and far-reaching indeed, and climate change policy could prove an early indicator of events to come.

Whether this will happen, however, is far from certain. Trade and security issues in particular are likely to remain more important drivers of the US-China relationship than climate change.  Nevertheless, environmental policy and foreign policy watchers alike will thus want to watch how President Trump approaches the Paris Agreement very closely.

The Chinese position is more clear. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Xi Jinping offered support for globalization and free trade, arguing that the world “must remain committed to developing free trade and investment.” Xi also doubled-down on the Paris Agreement, stating that “all signatories must stick to” the agreement.

Will China become the global leader in climate change? We will soon see.