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Environmental activists rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on July 6, 2022 in Washington, DC.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

United States Supreme Court rulings that limit the federal government’s ability to fight climate change could have ramifications for Washington’s ability to lobby other countries to reduce their emissions, experts say – particularly when it comes to the world’s largest polluter, China.

After the conservative majority on the court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions last month, Justice Elena Kagan warned they were appointing themselves “decision-maker on climate policy,” adding, “I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

With more decisions along these lines expected in the future, other countries may end up sharing this view, or at least doubt the ability of President Joe Biden’s administration or its successors to pass policy that won’t be reversed by the court.

“It really weakens U.S. ability to act as a constructive player on the international stage,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, adding that the ruling “doesn’t make the Biden administration very attractive as a negotiating partner for anyone.”

What particularly concerns many observers is that the U.S. setback coincides with China’s ramping up of coal production and burning amid spiking electricity demands caused by summer heatwaves, themselves likely exacerbated by climate change.

Last month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang “urged tapping into advanced coal capacity, securing power supply and resolutely preventing power outages amid the peak summer season,” according to state media.

He also called for greater production of “clean coal” – a misnomer according to most experts – “thereby ensuring power supply while underpinning the push for renewables such as wind and solar power.”

In 2019, more than 60 per cent of China’s electricity supply came from coal, according to a recent paper in the journal, Nature Communications. While China has expanded use of renewables in recent years, its grid remains hugely dependent on coal, and the government has shied away from more aggressive action on climate in the wake of power shortages last year and a pandemic-induced economic crunch.

“Although China already features the world’s largest installed power generation capacity for renewable energy, a profound transformation of the power system will still be required over the next 30 years to achieve carbon emission goals,” wrote a team of Chinese researchers.

Beijing has committed publicly to this transformation, and this week one of the country’s top officials, Wang Yang, called for “redoubled efforts” to “help the country realize carbon peaking and carbon neutrality goals.”

Mr. Myllyvirta said the “acceleration in clean energy in China over the past couple years is astonishing and is happening faster than anyone could have hoped or expected two years ago.”

“Those trends are definitely pointing in the right direction,” he added.

But some observers are skeptical about China’s willingness to pay the economic and political costs – in terms of slower growth and shrinking the influential coal sector – to take action that is both drastic and timely enough to have an effect.

The Climate Action Tracker, which pegs countries’ commitments to what is needed to hit Paris Agreement targets, rates China as “highly insufficient,” warning the country “needs to adopt more ambitious medium-term climate targets to match its long-term net-zero goal.”

Inaction from Washington only increases the importance of China taking the lead on climate. And while the recent Supreme Court ruling does not necessarily mean U.S. emissions will rise again – most improvements in recent years have been driven by industry and at the state level, not by Washington – it does drastically hamper the Biden administration’s ability to press Beijing to take action, or agree to any future bilateral reduction targets.

Speaking after the EPA ruling, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Washington should not “just chant slogans” and urged the U.S. to “own up to their historical responsibilities and show greater ambition and actions.”

His language was telling. Beijing has long argued that the U.S. and other developed countries bear a greater responsibility to act because of their historic emissions, while the developing world should be given more leeway for carbon-intensive growth practices previously pursued by the West.

Historically, the U.S. pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country. However, in recent decades it has been overtaken by China, which today is by far the larger polluter, and efforts to stave off climate disaster are dependent on that country significantly reducing its emissions.

“China views the U.S. as being responsible for the problem, and responsible for taking action before China,” said Paul Harris, chair professor of global and environmental studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He summarized Beijing’s argument as “the Americans got rich polluting the atmosphere so we are entitled to do that, too.”

Where this falls down, Dr. Harris said, is that on all other issues, from trade to military competition, “China wants to be viewed as a great power, if not the top power on par with the U.S.”

“The exception is action on climate change, where China views itself as a developing country,” despite being the world’s second-largest economy, he said.

“History is going to judge China perhaps more harshly than the U.S. because the Americans were ignorant about this problem until around the middle of the last century,” Dr. Harris added, while acknowledging that this does not absolve Washington from also needing to take drastic action now.

No analysts who spoke to The Globe and Mail were optimistic about China taking a greater role if the U.S. steps back, either under a future Republican-controlled federal government or as a result of the Supreme Court restraining future climate action. Rather, they predicted, Washington’s failure could be used as an excuse by Beijing to slow its own efforts.

Li Shuo, a Beijing-based senior analyst for Greenpeace, said “the best chance for us is to help the U.S. forget about China when it comes to climate, and vice versa, in the sense that one side does not serve as the excuse for the other side’s inaction.”

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