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Science & Environment

Will China Take A Bigger Role As The U.S. Leaves The Climate Pact?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now that the Trump administration has announced it's withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord, China's environmental policies draw more interest. Alvin Lin is director of climate and energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council's China program, and he joins us via Skype from Beijing. Mr. Lin, thanks so much for being with us.

ALVIN LIN: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: What do you hear from officials, and maybe non-officials, in Beijing following President Trump's announcement?

LIN: Well, you know, of course, they'd been following this very closely. So I think they've been kind of prepared for it. And, you know, Friday, for example, the EU and China, they just concluded a bilateral, the leaders of their countries, in Brussels. And upon hearing the announcement from Mr. Trump, they actually came out and announced that they would be strengthening their commitment to fighting climate change together. So I don't think this changes the Chinese position at all. And in fact, I think, you know, they're just going to go and do what they were going to do in terms of transitioning to a clean energy future.

SIMON: Well, what - and what drives them? Is it the prospect of international leadership or an international market or, as I don't have to tell you, the fact that many Chinese choke on the smog in their own cities?

LIN: Yeah. Well, there are definitely multiple factors. You know, about a decade ago, China passed their renewable energy law. They started to really grow wind and solar as the future strategic industries. And now they're the largest in the world. They install by far the most wind turbines and solar panels in the world. So they really can see that this is a future growth area, that this is something that they can export to other countries. And it has all of these environmental benefits. So of course, to them, it just makes sense to do it.

SIMON: So they see jobs in green energy.

LIN: That's right. You know, there's 3 million renewable energy jobs in China. That's the most in the world. Renewable energy jobs around the world, including in the U.S., are growing much faster than the overall job market. So there are definitely areas for growth.

SIMON: At the same time, China is the world's largest coal user and producer, isn't it?

LIN: That's right. But it has actually peaked its coal consumption in 2013, and it's been falling the last three years. I think even the leaders here see that coal doesn't have a very bright future as an energy source and that you've got to develop these non-emitting, clean energy sources. So they have a mandatory target - are ready to continue to reduce their coal consumption and then to increase their non-emitting clean power renewables into the future. So these are mandatory targets. They're setting in place the policies to reach them now.

SIMON: And China sees a role in world leadership on this issue?

LIN: Yeah. You know, I think Chinese leaders are not going to use that words to describe themselves. They're sort of not ready to sort of take on that mantle, but they're certainly very willing and excited to work with other regions, like the EU, like other developing countries. And I think they're kind of the de facto leader on climate change now just because they're implementing what they said they're going to do in terms of wind and solar and energy efficiency.

SIMON: Alvin Lin - director of climate and energy policy for the NRDC's China program. Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Lin.

LIN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.