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As U.S. cedes leadership on climate, China steps up

Since taking office, President Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris accord, questioned climate science, and sought cuts to clean energy research. Meanwhile, China has become the world's biggest investor in green technology. In a new book, "Will China Save the Planet?" Natural Resources Defense Council's Barbara Finamore argues China could become the world's next leader climate change.

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  • Megan Thompson:

    In October, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire warning. The catastrophic effects of climate change have begun and the international community must take drastic steps immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But President Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017 has left many asking who will now lead this work? It may end up being China, says Barbara Finamore in her new book, 'Will China Save the Planet?' She's an attorney and the founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council's China program and she recently joined me from Boston.

    So in the book you write about how over the last few decades China has had this big about-face when it comes to climate change policy — it went from being a nation that really resisted the international climate talks to being much more of a leading participant in Paris. What led to this turnaround?

  • Barbara Finamore:

    Beginning in 2001, the year that China joined the WTO, that first decade saw its GDP quadruple and its exports quintuple. All this was powered by coal, which is the leading source of China's air pollution and its CO2 emissions. And as time went on, China's leaders began to recognize that this was not sustainable, that there was an enormous price to pay in terms of environmental degradation.

    And this all came to a head in 2013, the year of the so-called air pocalypse when it was as polluted in Beijing in major cities as airports smoking lounges. 4,000 people were dying every day from air pollution. And that's the turning point. That was the year that China launched a massive air pollution control program targeting coal. That was the year that China became the world's largest investor in renewable energy. And that's the year that China began its historic climate cooperation with the United States.

  • Megan Thompson:

    You write in the book how China is determined to be the world leader when it comes to green technologies. What are we seeing?

  • Barbara Finamore:

    China recognizes that clean energy technology is the leading market opportunity of the 21st century. And just in the past decade it has become the largest user and largest producer and larger investor in renewable energy.

    Just to give you an example, by 2020 China will have more solar power as much as five times the United States, and it has one of every three wind turbines in the world and it has become the largest market for electric vehicles.

  • Megan Thompson:

    I mean, when it comes to innovation and technology we here in the United States think that we're usually the leaders in that realm. Are we sort of ceding our position here? Have we missed this opportunity?

  • Barbara Finamore:

    The U.S. invented the solar cell the, U.S. built the first practical electric vehicle. We are still leaders in innovation. But China is catching up fast because we are not investing in R & D like we used to. And China is taking over but it's not too late.

    There is huge opportunity for the countries to collaborate to really ramp up and accelerate the growth of these clean energy technologies worldwide.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But the reality is that China is still highly dependent on coal and it is still the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. So I mean how can China be a leader on climate change when that's the reality?

  • Barbara Finamore:

    Well, first of all, China's massive investments in renewable energy have brought the cost of solar and wind power down by 70 percent in the last decade. And the cost of electric vehicle batteries two-thirds in just five years so this is one form of leadership.

    China's investments are going to enable these clean energy technologies to compete without subsidies with the internal combustion engine, with coal fired power plants in the very near future. But on a broader scale, China recognizes that switching away from its economic model based on heavy industry and coal is absolutely essential to its own prosperity.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council, thank you so much for being here.

  • Barbara Finamore:

    My pleasure.

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