Opinion | When the United States and China fight, it’s the environment that suffers


The problem predates the Trump administration. While conducting fieldwork in northern Shanxi Province several years ago, a local official told me that, given China’s better environmental record than India’s, heavy demands from foreign governments wanting China to curb pollution should stand up.

Since then, Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement – under which the Obama administration had committed reduce U.S. emissions and contribute $ 3 billion to the Green Climate Fund – has predictably further undermined Washington’s credibility on environmental issues. The same goes for the Trump administration repeated cancellations on national environmental regulations: cancellation of the Clean Power Plan, promising to revitalize the coal industry, easing restrictions on oil and gas drilling, and go to lift limits on chemicals that can be used near streams and wetlands.

Rising tensions between the United States and China and the suspension of most official mechanisms for bilateral dialogue have also diminished the influence of the United States.

Beijing, faced with what it sees as an increasingly hostile international context, is trying to make the Chinese economy more autonomous. Even liberal-minded Chinese leaders, like Vice Premier Liu He – Mr. Xi’s chief economic adviser and interlocutor for trade talks with the United States – are promoting a strategy of so-called dual circulation, which gives priority to “national distribution”, or the development of domestic consumption and markets, in part to reduce China’s dependence on foreign trade.

As China prepares to become more economically self-sufficient, Washington’s influence over the country’s development and environmental standards is likely to wane.

For years, many Chinese have viewed U.S. diplomatic missions in China as the only reliable source of air quality data. In late July, amid a rapid downward spiral in US-China relations, the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu was closed. A month later, an American journalist tweeted, “The joke among friends in Chengdu is how much the air quality has improved since the closure of the US Consulate” – at least by the way air quality data provided by the Chinese government.

The degradation of the environment in China is also bad for the United States.

Air pollution from Asia has been the cause up to 65 percent increase in ozone levels in parts of America. A 2014 study of 2006 China air pollution data found that when high winds blew over the Pacific Ocean, pollutants produced by Chinese export industries accounted for, at worst, 4 to 6 percent of carbon monoxide recorded in the western United States, up to 11 percent of carbon black pollution and 12 to 24 percent of sulphate concentrations. NASA physicists said air pollutants from China and other Asian countries could “contribute to colder, snowy winters in the United States.”

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