Much hangs in the balance as the United States chooses its next president — including, perhaps, the temperature of the Earth.
A victory by President Donald Trump portends more of the same: a seeming indifference to climate change that drifts into denialism.
His rival, Joe Biden, says he can convince the world that the US — one of the top polluters in history — can guide the planet to a greener future.
Key to his strategy is cajoling the current top carbon emitter, China, to give up coal — not necessarily inside China, which is slowly veering toward cleaner energy, but in countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where China is bankrolling dozens of new coal plants.
China is on a coal spree, financing and providing technical expertise to roughly 60 new coal-fired power plants outside its borders. Projects are planned for Egypt and Indonesia, Vietnam and Mozambique, and other countries that are thirsty for energy.
This is not some fringe effort. Supplying electricity to these countries is linked to China’s top foreign policy mission. Called the “Belt and Road Initiative,” it could ostensibly devote more than $1 trillion to building new highways, ports, fuel pipelines, and, yes, power plants.
If Beijing’s dreams come true, China will be hailed for stitching together much of the world and helping pull millions out of poverty. It will be difficult to pressure them to change course.
But that is the battle Biden promises to fight if he becomes president: to “stop China from subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing carbon pollution.”
Everyone knows that coal is among the foulest sources of energy, most of all officials in Beijing, a city that was for many years shrouded in smog.
But it’s also comparatively cheap and convenient, says Jennifer Turner, a policy analyst who directs the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum.
“Coal-fired power is the kind of electricity you can get online quite quickly. It’s very nimble. It can get the job done. That doesn’t mean it is without its problems.”
“Coal-fired power is the kind of electricity you can get online quite quickly. It’s very nimble. It can get the job done,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it is without its problems.”
Huge, existential problems, such as driving up the planet’s temperature, unleashing drought, floods, hunger, superstorms and more.
Imagine, Turner says, that the US, Europe and China perfectly abide by the premier emissions-limiting accord: the Paris Agreement. (And put aside that Trump yanked the US out of the deal.)
Even then, China’s Belt and Road mission, if fulfilled as planned, could still push temperatures into dangerous territory: 2-3 degrees Celsius beyond what the Earth experienced before the Industrial Revolution.
In other words, convincing China’s government to abandon its coal spree would do wonders for the environment.
“With China,” Turner said, “it rarely works to push them around or order them to change behavior.”
Inside China, those overseas coal plants are often portrayed as benevolent. Jingjing Zhang, one of China’s top environmental lawyers, said that “from the Chinese government perspective, it is a way of giving. ‘We are helping the developing world … helping those countries have a better economy.’”
And if its smoke-spewing projects drive up the world’s temperatures?
“The argument from China’s government is that it’s not the Chinese government’s responsibility. It is the host government’s responsibility.”
“The argument from China’s government,” Zhang said, “is that it’s not the Chinese government’s responsibility. It is the host government’s responsibility.”
Zhang, now a lecturer with the University of Maryland, has been called “China’s Erin Brockovich” for winning breakthrough environmental cases in Chinese courts. Deeply familiar with the government’s reasoning, she too advises Biden against a lecturing tone.
China’s experts will say “‘at least we are still at the negotiating table. The US turned over the table and destroyed the whole negotiation [the Paris Agreement],’” Zhang said. “They definitely consider the US to be a not-so-responsible country.”
Both Zhang and Turner believe that, for any future US administration, there is only one path forward: harnessing the spirit of competition.
“Some of these countries [accepting Chinese coal plants] are in desperate situations to get electricity. And you can’t just be bossing around the Chinese if you don’t have a counter plan.”
“Some of these countries [accepting Chinese coal plants] are in desperate situations to get electricity,” Turner said. “And you can’t just be bossing around the Chinese if you don’t have a counter plan.”
Just as the Cold War drove the space race, tension between the US and China could prod them to compete to spread renewable energy around the world. As of now, when a nation such as Indonesia seeks help meeting its power demands, China is often the only big player to show up — with huge loans and coal plant schematics.
So how would Team Biden, if brought to power, parlay with its counterparts in Beijing? The World put that question to its campaign multiple times, over the course of a month, and never received an answer.
Biden has vowed to not only rejoin the Paris Agreement but launch a roughly $2 trillion green energy and infrastructure plan, one that centers heavily on reducing US emissions. Scant are any details about promoting clean power overseas.
The US and China have to somehow cooperate on climate change policy, Turner said, because “the world depends on it. The US and China are the biggest energy producers and if our countries can’t get our CO2 emissions under control, that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the world.”