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Commentary: Trump’s Paris Letdown Needn’t Harm Asia’s Climate of Cooperation

03 Jun Commentary: Trump’s Paris Letdown Needn’t Harm Asia’s Climate of Cooperation

US president’s decision to pull out of climate accord shouldn’t prevent the region from re-orienting its economic model. It should, however, spur it to consider how to go on without relying too much on America

By Simon Tay

It should not surprise anyone that US President Donald Trump announced that his administration will withdraw from the Paris agreement to combat climate change. He has previously denounced climate change as a hoax and Paris as a “terrible deal” for the United States, proposed by the outgoing Obama administration.

But even if forewarned, the decision is wrong headed on the science and bad for global cooperation. More broadly, it undercuts the belief that the US can continue to provide leadership in the world and be a reliable partner.

Earlier this week, after meeting the American leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for Europeans to be prepared to find their own way forward, even without America. Maybe Asians are too polite to say that aloud. But the thought is clearly on their minds more than ever, and the concern goes beyond climate change.

The Paris Agreement is far from perfect but it was the first truly global effort that brought all countries to make some commitment – from the largest emitters like China and the US to the smallest island states. Only Nicaragua and Syria declined. One reason for such wider acceptance is that there is considerable flexibility for each government to tailor its national commitment to that country’s particular circumstances.

Moreover, countries agreed to address climate change not because of some abstract idea about the global good but because they had evaluated their own vulnerabilities. China’s leaders, for example, faced up to pollution and resource scarcities and realised that the country’s future could not be sustained without a shift in the quality of growth. For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), studies show the vulnerabilities of the tropical region to more intensive typhoons and how changing rainfall can impact agriculture.

Climate change, therefore, emerged as a strategic imperative and opportunity. China aimed to be the “green” factory of the new, low-carbon economy, increasing sources of renewable energy and expertise in technologies like batteries and electronic cars. India has emerged as a world leader in wind power.

Asians have been looking at how to grow their economy even as climate change is addressed in a positive synergy, and not as a negative trade-off.

Back in January, when speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the US to keep to the Paris Agreement and had backed this up with real commitments – increasing investments in green energy and mothballing a number of high-carbon, coal-fired projects.There is now an opportunity and need for China to redouble commitments and offer leadership on climate change in tandem with economic growth.

The steps China has taken domestically can have a positive and catalytic effect on others. Just weeks ago, Beijing hosted a summit to push ahead the grand effort of the Belt and Road Initiative to link Asia to Europe, by sea and by land. There remain questions about whether this and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), another recent initiative led by China, will factor in sustainability and climate change.

The answer should be an emphatic, ”Yes”. In the past, China’s reputation suffered from allegations that its assistance for infrastructure was pollutive and harmful to local communities. But since then, the country has made considerable progress.

The People’s Bank of China has, for example, visibly championed green finance during the country’s G20 chairmanship. Pro-green regulations have been issued for China’s banks and the country is now the world’s largest issuer of green bonds. As China invests across the region, these investments in infrastructure, energy and other projects can and should be green.

China need not act alone. Even as Trump backed away, China and the European Union are pledging full implementation of the Paris Agreement. Other Asians can also take steps together.

In Asean, the focus has been on efforts to address the haze from land and forest fires in Indonesia, which causes not only choking regional pollution but is a globally significant source of carbon. Ground-up efforts to stem such fires, combined with green finance and infrastructure, can make positive contributions, even without the US.

Climate change must be a truly global effort and bringing the US back on board will be essential. But, rather than debating and haggling new terms with President Trump, generating momentum on Paris may be the best tactic to that end.

Despite Trump, major US actors will likely push ahead with climate change commitments. The Californian economy, on its own the sixth largest in the world, will spearhead state-level efforts. Leading US corporations are also likely to keep to their commitments – including cleaning up their global supply chains.

For sometime now, Asians have increasingly contemplated future cooperation on their own, rather than relying too much on the US. The Asian crisis of 1997-98 provided an animus to this, when the Clinton administration refused to intervene. During the global financial crisis that began in 2008, when the US stagnated, the question arose again but was blunted by the commitment that then President Barack Obama brought to his “pivot”, as well as intra-Asian tensions over such issues as the South China Sea.

Questions about whether America can be a long-term, reliable and cooperative partner for Asia pre-dated Trump’s entry into office. But with his misjudgment about Paris and other unpredictable actions, Trump may be the one to provide the answers. Whether or not Asians are ready for that is another matter.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent and globally ranked think tank, and associate professor of international law at the National University of Singapore. This commentary was published in The South China Morning Post on 3 Jun 2017.