While U.S. President Donald Trump was talking about investing more in coal as a source of energy, China has just announced that it will scrap 85 coal power plants under construction and invest 2.5 trillion yuan ($361 billion) in green energy, largely in response to the public outcry about smog in northern China. China’s move in this direction will further strengthen China’s leadership position in green energy, while strengthening China’s positons in other sectors, like infrastructure and transportation.
In the last three decades, in an effort to increase its GDP and improve the living standards of the Chinese people, the Chinese government has stressed the importance of economic growth, largely at the expense of the environment. In early 1990s, Chinese minister of press, Yu Youxian, came to Boston and invited me to a banquet. At that time, I suggested to him that China should avoid the U.S. and the West’s mistakes by taking care of the environment, while still developing the economy. I suggested it would be too costly to develop at the expense of the environment only to later come back to correct the mistakes made. However, my idea was quickly branded as a rich man’s mentality, disillusioned and negligent of the struggles of millions of impoverished Chinese people. At the time, Yu Youxian argued that China had to develop first and take care of the environment later, like everybody else had done. Maybe it was by necessity that China, like many other developed nations in the first world, would have to learn through its own mistakes.
There are still people in China, like those at the Chinese Mining University, who argue that China should continue to use its coal resources to develop as much and as rapidly as possible. As the Chinese Government cuts back on the consumption of coal, the price of coal will drop dramatically. Many coal companies will go bankrupt, which in turn will negatively affect employment. Chinese leadership will have to ensure a smooth transition of employment from coal industries to the green sector. Nonetheless, it is important for the Chinese government to look at the big picture and to cut back quickly on the consumption of coal. Good Chinese leadership prides itself on making difficult, but necessary decisions.
On the other hand, the United States will not be a leader of environmental protection. The U.S. accounts for only five percent of the world’s population, but it is using more than 25 percent of world energy. More importantly, its five percent is producing 50 percent of world garbage. The U.S. has a history of refusing to sign and ratify most of the environmental agreements. The U.S. refused to be part of the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that the protocol gave China and other developing countries too much of an advantage. China and the U.S. undermined the agreements at the Copenhagen summit. Only until the Paris Agreement did the Obama administration work with China to embrace the challenges of global warming.
But Trump has been threatening to cancel the Obama administration’s efforts to implement the agreement, in the name of putting Americans interest first. America is still the only superpower in the world now. As a world leader, America cannot afford to only think about itself, it has to think globally. I hope that President Trump said what he said only as a way to get the American people to vote for him. If he does implement what he said during his campaign, he will forfeit many aspects of America’s position of leadership to China at a time when the world is seeking U.S. leadership the most.