Stop me if you've heard this one: The U.S. shouldn't act to cut its planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions because it would harm the economy while China and India are building coal plants and emitting whatever they want.
That is an argument that opponents of climate action, mainly in the Republican Party, have used for decades in order to oppose measures to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
It's one that President Donald Trump himself has made, as has his Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, in recent months. But increasingly, it's not based in reality.
Two new reports show that China and India are moving faster than expected to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and pollution woes, while scaling up renewable energy resources.
The speed and extent of the actions in these two developing nations are hugely consequential for what happens to global emissions during Trump's presidency, since the U.S. is backing away from its leadership position on this issue.
According to an analysis released at a round of United Nations climate talks in Bonn on Monday, China and India could more than compensate for the United States' failure to meet its proposed emissions cuts under the Paris Climate Agreement.
Image: Ajit Solanki/AP/REX/Shutterstock
What's changing is China and India's coal use. Experts from Climate Analytics, Ecofys, and the New Climate Institute, which together run the Climate Action Tracker, say that global carbon emissions are likely to be about 2 to 3 billion tonnes lower in 2030 compared to previous forecasts.
This could offset Trump's climate change rollbacks, such as killing the EPA's Clean Power Plan and trying to revive the moribund coal sector. The Trump effect on the climate would only cause an uptick in carbon emissions of about 0.4 billion tonnes of carbon, the group found.
“The highly adverse rollbacks of U.S. climate policies by the Trump Administration, if fully implemented and not compensated by other actors, are projected to flatten US emissions instead of continuing on a downward trend,” said Niklas Hohne, of NewClimate Institute, in a press release.
According to the Tracker, which keeps tabs on countries' commitments and whether they are living up to them, China’s coal consumption decreased from 2013 through 2016, with a slow decline expected to continue. This is partly related to an economic slowdown, in addition to policies put in place by the central government in Beijing.
Coal is one of the dirtiest forms of energy, pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Burning less coal has the benefit of lowering carbon emissions.
In India, plans for more coal-fired power plants may be canceled since the country is making headway at dramatically expanding its solar power capacity.
“Five years ago, the idea of either China or India stopping — or even slowing — coal use was considered an insurmountable hurdle, as coal-fired power plants were thought by many to be necessary to satisfy the energy demands of these countries,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, in a statement.
“Recent observations show they are now on the way toward overcoming this challenge.”
While the U.S. remains undecided on whether it will remain a part of the Paris Agreement, the global energy market is still moving quickly ahead, favoring renewable energy to such an extent that in more areas it is cost competitive with coal and other fossil fuel sources. This has played a role in slowing and even reversing coal's expansion in China and India.
— ClimateActionTracker (@climateactiontr) March 31, 2017
The results of the Climate Action Tracker's report are bolstered by findings from a Center for American Progress analysis of China's coal consumption. The report makes clear that the argument that China's emissions would outweigh any progress made in the U.S. is, at best, outdated, and more accurately a zombie argument.
As David Roberts writes at Vox, China is taking on coal head on by shutting down older, more heavily polluting plants in favor of newer, more efficient facilities and renewables. It is also planning for a non-coal future based on renewables.
"In short, while the US dithers along in a cosmically stupid dispute over whether science is real, China is tackling climate change with all guns blazing. The US, not China, is the laggard in this relationship," Roberts wrote.
It's unclear if anyone will be able to successfully convince Trump and his team that China is beating the U.S. on transitioning to a cleaner, more efficient future early enough for the administration to decide to remain part of the Paris Agreement. It's more likely that for now, at least, the mantle of climate change leadership has been passed to Asia.