The US and China between them produce 44 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide, but environmental campaigners fear the issue of climate change – one of the world’s existential threats – will not be on the agenda when the leaders of the two countries meet.
Donald Trump is set to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for two days at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. They are likely to discuss trade, North Korea and the geopolitics of the South China Sea.
Yet global warming, something Mr Trump once claimed was a hoax “created by the Chinese”, is unlikely to be addressed, something that has dismayed environmentalists who say there is no more pressing issue confronting the planet.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
“My guess is that this issue will not come up at this meeting, and I think that is a lost opportunity if it’s not raised,” Barbara Finamore, founder of the Natural Resources Defence Council’s China programme, told The Independent.
“For many years, this issue was one of the brighter spots of the US-China relationship, and it helped to build dialogue.”
Under the two terms of Barack Obama, the US found itself helping prod China to act on climate change, by cutting emissions and switching to cleaner sources of power.
In 2014, Mr Obama visited Mr Xi in Beijing for talks that ultimately led to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Mr Obama said the US would cut emissions immediately, with a target of 28 per cent by 2025, while Mr Xi said China would seek to ensure the nation’s emissions peaked by 2030 and then started to fall.
Yet, one of the first acts of Mr Trump was to threaten to pull the US out of the Paris deal and remove from the White House website any discussion of the threat of climate change. It was replaced with a commitment to eliminate Mr Obama’s major environmental policies, something he did with an executive order last month.
As the US has stood away from a role of leadership on the issue, China has stepped forward. In a speech in January at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Chinese president urged all countries to meet their commitments.
“The Paris agreement was hard won,” said Mr Xi. “All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.”
Last month, Chinese state media criticised Mr Trump’s move to get rid of Mr Obama’s environmental regulations and seek to boost the coal industry.
“No matter how hard Beijing tries, it won’t be able to take on all the responsibilities that Washington refuses to take,” the Global Times said in an editorial.
“Western opinion should continue to pressure the Trump administration on climate change. Washington’s political selfishness must be discouraged.”
Despite China’s desire for the Trump administration to make climate change one of its policy priorities, it seems unlikely the two leaders will discuss it in Florida.
Axios reported that in a background briefing with reporters ahead of the two-day meeting, Trump administration officials did not wish to address it. “Trump has little interest in dealing with global warming,” the news site reported. “When a reporter asked the officials about the subject, they quickly pivoted to North Korea.”
Jackson Ewing, director of Asian sustainability at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said climate change would be “conspicuously absent” from the first summit between the two leaders.
“Trump recently made good on his promises to begin rolling back President Obama’s climate and clean energy agendas, while Xi is working to assure the Chinese people and the world that China will continue to face climate change head-on,” he said.
“This marks an expected departure from a bilateral bright spot. In March of last year, Obama and Xi declared climate change to be a “pillar” of the US-China bilateral relationship.”
Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he had been told by Chinese counterparts that climate change would not be discussed, even though it directly impacted issues such as the economy and security. He said it may come up at the next bilateral meeting, on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in July.
He said China had signalled its views on climate change and its desire that the US stick to the commitments of the previous administration.
However, speaking from Washington DC, he added: “They don’t think it would be constructive to take it head on.”
He said climate change was an existential threat to the world. Mr Meyer said it was ironic that China, which in 2015 produced 29.5 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide - twice as much as the total released by the US, but less than half when measured on a per capita basis - had now emerged as a leader on the issue. The country’s profile and reputation had benefited as a result, he said.
He said it was also ironic that Mr Trump had once claimed climate change was a hoax invented by the people he was set to host. He said: “If it is a hoax, it’s working out very well for them.”