By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced during a speech at the White House that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, fulfilling a campaign pledge to end the agreement that the President argued would harm the U.S. economy. Supporters of the Paris Agreement had lobbied for the U.S. to remain in the agreement, including members of the Trump Administration and 360 companies that signed an open letter to the President. In the end, President Trump was swayed by the agreement’s opponents who argued it threatened America’s energy sector. Though under its terms the U.S. cannot withdraw from the Paris Agreement until 2020, the effect of the announcement was immediate as leaders around the world condemned the decision and pledged support for the agreement.

In relation to China, the decision to withdraw is significant in two respects. First, cooperation between the U.S. and China was a key driver of the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement and crossing the agreement’s threshold of 55% of the world’s carbon emissions to become effective. Second, President Trump has framed the decision as part of a larger pivot away from international trade and cooperation, which has left China in the unfamiliar position of a leading champion of international trade. China’s President Xi Jinping called on the world to “remain committed to developing free trade and investment” in Davos earlier this year, a position expressed by the U.S. in the past. Alex Wang, a professor of environmental law at the UCLA School of Law noted that “[w]hile the US is breaking these ties, China — which has traditionally been more reserved in international affairs — is building them at breakneck pace.”

As we have previously written, this role reversal may have far reaching consequences in the environmental arena and beyond. It comes at a time when China is launching an ambitious program of transnational infrastructure construction. It also follows the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which included 12 countries around the Pacific but did not include China. Most of the world’s governments have indicated that they intend to follow the path laid out in the Paris Agreement, with or without the U.S., so if the agreement succeeds that success may largely be attributed to China’s leadership.