BEIJING — Japan’s environment minister is angry, Indians are outraged but China’s nationalist state media isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord was a “huge setback” in the global battle against climate change, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said Friday, calling it a retreat from the “common aspiration of mankind for a low-carbon future.”
The dismay from Asia carried additional sting as nations such as China and India — once scorned as runaway polluters — now portray themselves as responsible global citizens and leaders in trying to limit climate change.
But if there was regret in Beijing, it was mixed with not a little gloating.
Citing environmentalists, Xinhua news agency called Trump “reckless and foolish,” and said he was isolating the United States. China Daily denounced the “single action of just one man” that can change the course of the world, drawing a direct parallel with former president George W. Bush and decisions taken in the name of the war on terror.
In Tokyo, the Japanese government issued a diplomatic statement calling the American decision “regrettable” and vowed to work with the other signatories to implement the treaty.
But Koichi Yamamoto, the environment minister, didn't mince his words. “The decision made by American President Trump amounts to turning their backs on the wisdom of humanity. I'm not just disappointed, I'm angry,” he told reporters.
But the clearest denunciation came, as it often does, from nationalist Chinese tabloid Global Times, a state-owned paper whose editorials don’t represent official policy but do often represent a strain of thinking within the Communist Party.
Hours before Trump made his announcement, it said America’s “selfishness and irresponsibility will be made clear to the world, crippling the country’s world leadership.”
Pointing out that the United States joined only Syria and Nicaragua in rejecting the accord, it argued that “the Trump administration doesn’t care about putting the U.S.’s reputation at risk.”
There is a certain irony in the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gases rounding on the United States for turning its back on a climate change accord, especially when China’s promises under that accord are not particularly ambitious — while U.S. emissions are already falling.
As Trump himself pointed out in an attempt to justify his decision, China has only promised to cap carbon emissions by 2030, giving it theoretical carte blanche to raise its emissions levels every year for the next 13 years.
Yet Trump also failed to mention other important points: that Western nations are historically much more culpable than developing nations for global carbon emissions, and on a per capita basis continues to be by far the worst offenders.
He also failed to mention that China’s emissions have been stable or falling since 2013, and are forecast to fall by around 1 percent this year. Coal consumption fell by around 1.3 percent last year, the third annual fall in a row, while China is “smashing records” for solar panel installations, installing enough panels to cover three football pitches every single hour of the year, according to Greenpeace.
It is a dramatic development that has helped halt the rise of global CO2 emissions for the first time since a global climate change treaty was first signed almost three decades ago, the environmental advocacy group said.
It is also the sort of record that has prompted some environmentalists to talk of China taking over a leadership role vacated by the United States.
In Europe this week, Premier Li Keqiang appears to be grasping that challenge — or exploiting that vacuum.
He will join with the European Union on Friday in a commitment to cut back on fossil fuels, develop more green technology and help raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries cut their emissions, Reuters reported.
There are parallels as well to China’s attempt to portray itself as a champion of economic globalization, with President Xi Jinping attempting to seize that mantle in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January as the United States threatened to become more protectionist.
Yet talk of China as a leader in trade and globalization overlooks one massive contradiction: its own increasingly protectionist attitude at home. Similarly, talk of Beijing as a leader in climate change also overlooks some uncomfortable facts.
As Greenpeace clean air campaigner Lauri Myllyvirta pointed out in a series of tweets on Thursday, leadership can involve taking action at home, symbolic or rhetorical steps, provision of finance to drive carbon cuts or diplomatic efforts.
“China has merits on all aspects but is no means a saint,” he tweeted.
China has been vocal in defending the Paris accord, and has become the world’s number one manufacturer, developer and exporter of renewable energy. But it remains by far the world’s leading polluter, has one of the world’s most CO2-intensive economic models, and continues to subsidize “dirty” sectors.
And it is building dozens of polluting, subsidized coal plants in other countries, that could lock them into a dirty development path, Myllyvirta said.
During his speech, Trump also railed against India, which he claimed was making its participation in the pact “contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries.”
The Times of India called it an “epic rant” with “hyperbolic falsehoods,” arguing in a piece by their Washington correspondent that U.S. aid to India is set to be whittled down to $34 million in 2018.
Experts from the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research’s “Initiative on Climate Energy and Environment” called Trump’s remarks on the climate pack “baffling” and said he displayed “a disturbing lack of knowledge” on how the climate pact works.
“India's pledge does make a partial link between implementation and financial support from the global community, but does not state that India would only make an effort to limit carbon if international support is available,” senior fellow Navroz K. Dubash said in an interview.
More important, Dubash said, is to see what India has done since — shifting in a big way to renewable energy, so that it is likely to meet or exceed its pledge of make 40 percent of its electricity capacity fossil-fuel-free by 2030.
“Trump is hiding behind India's poor who, meanwhile, are already making the transition to clean energy that Mr. Trump scorns as unviable,” he said.
In a commentary piece, China’s Xinhua argued that Trump’s decision to quit the Paris accord would “leave a fairly big shoe for a single country to fill,” while the Global Times claimed that China is “not interested in discussions about the leadership of fighting climate change.”
Under President Obama, cooperation between the world’s two largest polluters had been widely seen as a major achievement and a bright spot in relations between the two countries. This week, it is more likely to be seen as contest, and a point of friction.
Yet seeing climate change largely in geopolitical terms, as a battle for supremacy between American and Chinese leadership, could be missing the point.
“We don’t need one perfect leader, need lots of countries, states, firms to step up, laud progress and expose unhelpful policies,” Greenpeace’s Myllyvirta tweeted.
Annie Gowen in New Delhi, Anna Fifield in Tokyo and Shirley Feng in Beijing contributed to this report.