“My impression from afar is that President Xi, and China more generally, see this as a strategic issue that they are investing more heavily in. It’s not even a matter of investing in climate. It’s that policies they are committing to are consistent with overall economic strategy,” he said.
In other words, China’s climate policies are served by its overall need to transition to a more service-dominated economy. Switching to renewable energy, and pushing for electric car adoption, also helps it address its pollution problem.
Were the United States to simply abandon the Paris process, it is likely that the mechanisms which guide the agreement—such as whether countries’ emission-reduction goals are subject to outside scrutiny—would become less transparent.
“You are likely to get international climate policy with Chinese characteristics,” Wara told me. This would mean, in part, that China’s faulty and unreliable energy statistics would define whether it was complying with the agreement. The American strategy, led by Stern, has been to seek outside validation for other countries’ climate goals.
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Leaving negotiations around the Paris Agreement is not the worst thing that the Trump administration could do for U.S. climate and clean-energy policy, however. Were the United States to start a trade war with China, it would devastate the country’s emerging renewable-energy economy.
“From a clean-energy perspective in the United States, a trade war with China has the potential to do enormous harm,” Wara told me. Supply chains for American solar panels and wind turbines are so delicate, and so dependent on global trade, that a trade war could perversely allow China to race ahead on renewable technology.
This could prove supremely unpopular: An overwhelming majority of Americans, more than 80 percent, favor expanding wind and solar energy. And it would cut into American competitiveness at a vital time for the industry.
”I think it was two years ago, the module price for solar fell below a dollar for watt. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable!,’” Wara said. “But the price right now is 35 cents per watt, and it’s headed to 30. It’s not like that means solar panels are cheap, it means that it unlocks all these different important ways for how you approach solar as a business. You can look at solar as an add-on.”
“If those cost declines continue, and we are divided in a protectionist setting, we’re also likely to be at a real competitive disadvantage,” he added.
For now, though, that conversation seems to be months off. The Trump administration must first confront the Paris Agreement question. And there, he will hear from two unusual allies who agree he should keep it: Barack Obama and Bill O’Reilly.
Paris “has made our economy more efficient, it’s helped the bottom line of folks, and it's cleaned up the environment,” said President Obama earlier this week. “It says to China and India and other counties that are potentially polluting: Come on board. Let’s work together so you guys can do the same thing.”