Earlier, it was the United States, and not China, that pushed India to make commitments ahead of the Paris summit meeting, even if it was China that helped set an example for large developing nations in the announcement in 2014 by Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi. In 2015, Mr. Kerry took the unusual step of attending a trade fair in Mr. Modi’s home state of Gujarat, India, in order to prod Mr. Modi on climate change policy and pave the way for a visit by Mr. Obama, who aimed to make the Paris agreement a top priority of discussion with Mr. Modi.
There is still internal resistance in China by some powerful parties to policies cutting the use of coal and other fossil fuels. Those interests include the state-owned energy companies. Some Chinese scholars say global efforts on climate change, with the Obama administration at the forefront, gave ammunition to Chinese officials trying to push through energy restructuring in the face of resistance from companies that profit from the consumption of fossil fuel.
“The talk of climate change actions is very important because energy reforms will inevitably hurt some vested interests,” said Lin Boqiang, an energy scholar at Xiamen University who has advised PetroChina, the big Chinese oil producer. “Such talk has created favorable conditions for energy reforms, without which many things would have been impossible.
“For instance, solar and wind subsidies were possible because the climate change agenda has forced policy makers to turn to a low-carbon economic model,” he said. “We know that China has a lot of coal and it’s very cheap, so without climate change promises we wouldn’t be talking about the low-carbon economy now, and industries such as that of electric cars would have faced more hurdles.”
Mr. Lin added: “China is now number one in the world in installed capacity of wind and solar power. This would not be possible without all the talk about climate change and a low-carbon economy.”
But there is still conflict in China over deployment of electricity generated by wind and solar sources. Because energy companies with coal-fired power plants have advantages in setting up contracts with China’s two main grid companies, wind and solar power companies have not been as successful as they should be in getting their electricity on the grid, energy analysts say. Coal-based power plants are guaranteed sales to the state-owned grid enterprises, so energy companies continue to build such plants, even though the existing ones are operating at low capacity, a sign of a glut.
Mr. Lin and other experts say such conflicts can be resolved in favor of clean energy if big countries, including the United States, keep up the global push on climate change. The retreat of the United States strengthens the positions of those who support wider use of fossil fuels, a stand that President Trump and a top adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, also take.
Addressing climate change has also played a role in a wider economic debate in China. It has helped officials wanting to make the case that China needs to move from its carbon-intensive economic growth model based on the development of infrastructure to a more consumer-driven model, which would produce lower emissions. Here, too, the United States withdrawal weakens the positions of those officials and bolsters opponents of this more radical economic transformation.
Alex L. Wang, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies Chinese environmental regulation, said that while Chinese leaders remained committed to the Paris agreement, “the headwinds on implementation of climate goals remain strong.”
“Coal still accounts for 62 percent of China’s energy consumption,” Professor Wang said. “Millions of jobs are still tied to coal, steel and other carbon-intensive industries. Powerful vested interests will continue to push for a slowdown in Chinese climate action. There will be a temptation to shift carbon-intensive activities to western China and abroad. Efforts to improve data quality and transparency are ongoing, but require political resolve and resources. The U.S. exit from the Paris agreement only helps those interests within China opposed to climate action.”
“The dynamic between the U.S. and China in recent years created a healthy competition on clean energy and climate change,” he added. “That dynamic has already faltered as Trump has pulled back on climate action. A full exit from the Paris agreement will be a final nail in the coffin.”
How proactive on climate change will China be? The Paris accord was written so that countries would push one another to make more ambitious commitments in the coming years, with the biggest emitters in the lead.
“I would hope that China would play a constructive leadership role and recognize that their partner the United States will be back at the table one of these days,” said Todd D. Stern, the former United States special envoy for climate change in the Obama administration. “And one of these days might be just a few years from now.”
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