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China and EU recommit on climate change after Trump backs off

US president’s order to boost coal industry strikes at heart of Paris Agreement

A former coal mine sits empty in Letcher County, Kentucky. A report by the US department of energy in January said 43 per cent of the workforce in electric power generation, or about 374,000 workers, were employed in the solar sector. Photograph: George Etheredge/The New York Times

Nations led by China and the European Union rallied around a global plan to slow climate change on Wednesday after US president Donald Trump began undoing Obama-era plans for deep cuts in US greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr Trump’s order on Tuesday, keeping a campaign promise to bolster the US coal industry, strikes at the heart of an international Paris Agreement in 2015 to curb world temperatures that hit record highs in 2016 for the third year in a row.

Many nations reacted to Mr Trump’s plan with dismay and defiance, saying a vast investment shift from fossil fuels to clean energy such as wind and solar power is under way with benefits ranging from less air pollution to more jobs.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, whose government co-operated closely with former US president Barack Obama’s administration on climate change, said all countries should “move with the times”.

“No matter how other countries’ policies on climate change, as a responsible large developing country China’s resolve, aims and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change,” he said.

European climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said: “We see the Paris Agreement and the transition to a modern, more innovative economy as the growth engine of job creation, investment opportunities and economic prosperity.”

Mr Trump’s main target is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which required states to slash carbon emissions from power plants and was key to the US pledge under Paris to cut emissions by between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Mr Trump did not say whether he would pull out of the Paris Agreement, agreed by almost 200 nations and which seeks a shift from fossil fuels this century as the cornerstone of efforts to limit heat waves, floods, droughts and rising sea levels.

The fear is that less action by the United States, the number two greenhouse gas emitter behind China, will cause other nations to roll back their own goals. The pact has been ratified so far by 141 nations ranging from Pacific island states to Opec oil producers.

Open mind?

Still, Mr Trump’s rowback is likely to undercut a core principle of the Paris Agreement that all national plans, due to be submitted every five years this century, have to be ever stronger and reflect the “highest possible ambition”.

German environment minister Barbara Hendricks warned Washington it could lose out. “A shift into reverse [gear] now will only hurt themselves in terms of international competitiveness,” she told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily.

Echoing that view, Danish energy and climate minister Lars Lillehold said there had been “a significant momentum for the green transition” as green technologies have become cheaper.

In London, a spokesperson for the British department for business, energy and industrial strategy reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to tackling global climate change.

Speaking in Brussels, former Brazilian environment minister Izabella Teixeira said Mr Trump’s decision was a mistake.

Solar sector

“All around the world, wind power and solar power is becoming so cheap that it will be favoured over fossil fuels,” said Niklas Hoehne, of the NewClimate Institute in Germany.

In Paris, governments promised to limit a rise in average surface temperatures to “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, ideally 1.5.

US greenhouse gas emissions fell 11 per cent from 2005-15. Bill Hare, head of the Climate Analytics think tank, said they may remain at current levels by 2030 with Mr Trump’s policies.

Mr Trump’s policies could in turn nudge up the global rise in temperatures by about 0.1 degree Celsius from a projected 2.8 degrees by 2100, based on existing government pledges for action, he said.