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Trump’s Rollback Paves the Way for a New Climate Leader

The world’s next global leader on climate is probably not the country you’d expect.

President Trump has signaled his total disinterest in America's commitment to solving climate change. Now it’s time for another nation to lead the international effort to reduce emissions.

Early in his presidential campaign, Trump voiced disdain for climate concerns, promising to scrap “job-destroying” limits that Obama placed on the burning of fossil fuels and emissions from power plants. Then, as he took to office, he wasted no time in trumpeting an America First Energy Policy Plan that pushed climate change way down the bill. The administration's first detailed budget followed suit, proposing huge cuts to environmental programs that would de-fang climate efforts at the EPA, do away with government investment in ambitious clean energy ideas, and stop U.S. contributions to U.N. climate change programs.

Now Trump has signed an executive order that seeks to roll back many of the climate initiatives put in place by the Obama administration. It directs federal agencies to rescind policies that are deemed to be a “burden” on energy production—most notably the Clean Power Plan.

His main hope is to reinvigorate the American coal industry. During the order's signing ceremony, Trump explained that his administration was “putting an end to the war on coal. We'll have coal, really clean coal.” That claim is debatable, and the chances of a rejuvenation slim.

On a marginally brighter note, the whole process is likely to be harder work than he might like: as Climate Central points out, expect lengthy legal battles before regulations roll back.

Perhaps surprisingly, Trump is yet to go as far as announce a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. But his actions do appear to indicate that it’s a plausible course of action. So much so that even the oil giant Exxon Mobil has felt the need to suggest that the president shouldn’t force the country to abandon the pact.

What is now clear, though, is that America cannot lead the international effort to reduce emissions. How can it, if limits are lifted on the emissions of fossil-fuel-burning power plants? As Foreign Policy notes, the policy shift is likely to make it difficult, perhaps even impossible, for the country to meet its first Paris agreement target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

If the Paris agreement isn’t to crumble, it will need a new de facto leader. As we’ve explained before, one of the major attractions of the Paris agreement is the way it allows countries to set their own goals and periodically review them—but serious reviews require strong leadership, a responsibility that had seemed to fall to the U.S. That now looks untenable.

Europe is unlikely to fill the hole as it deals with its own internal problems, and each of its members is likely too small to assume the responsibility. So, as we’ve suggested before and the New York Times reiterates, the unlikely-sounding successor will probably be China.

It may sound unusual, but it makes sense. While China is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, followed by the U.S., it’s also demonstrated a clear commitment to cleaning up its act. It has been making bold commitments to the increased use of solar energy. To clean up air quality and drive adoption of clean energy it’s begun to reduce its reliance on coal. And, like America, over the last few years it has managed to grow its economy while reducing CO2 emissions.

Perhaps most importantly, though, there’s clear desire for that trend to continue. In January, China’s president, Xi Jinping, said that “the Paris agreement was hard won,“ adding that it was “a responsibility we must assume for future generations.” In other words, China looks set to maintain a trajectory that America was also set on until President Trump came into power.

And so America may find itself in a rather unusual situation: one where its leader seeks to abandon efforts to slow climate change, while China doggedly demands that it works harder to reduce emissions.

(Read more: Nature, New York Times, “Trump’s Budget Would Mean Catastrophe for U.S. Climate Programs,” “Carbon Dioxide Emissions Are Flat for a Third Year Running, but the Economy Continues to Grow,” “How Bad Will Trump Be for Climate Policy?”)

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