President Trump is expected to discuss the Paris climate change deal when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week. But don't expect much in the way of agreement.
Xi will meet with Trump beginning Thursday at the president's Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, fresh from a visit to Finland where climate change and collaboration on Arctic policy were top points of discussion.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, in response to Trump's recent executive order rolling back former President Barack Obama's climate regulations, said China will push forward with its plan to cut fossil fuel emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goal.
China, the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases, pledged to put a peak on its emissions by 2030 in a deal with the U.S. that also is part of its Paris goal. China produces about one-fourth of the world's carbon emissions, topping the second-place United States, which produces about 15 percent.
Xi's foreign ministry spokesman in briefing reporters on the trip last week was noticeably laudatory when previewing the discussions in Finland, while being extremely reticent in providing details on the Florida visit.
"Finland was one of the first EU member states to establish ties, in particular economic and trade ties, with China," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang. "China-Finland relations have been in good shape in recent years and the two sides enjoy a solid foundation for cooperation."
He also pointed out that Finland is about to take over as head of the Arctic Council as the U.S. steps down, and China wishes to increase its presence as an observing state on the council to address a number of issues, including climate change, development in the region and protecting species in the Arctic.
Kang's discussion of the Mar-a-Lago visit was about half as long as the discussion on Finland and devoid of climate change-related topics. But it will be a meeting the whole world will be watching, Kang said.
"This is the first meeting between the top leaders of China and the U.S. after the Trump administration took office.
"We have noted that the international community is paying great attention to this meeting," Kang said.
He added that the "main purpose" of the meeting will be "to let them have their first face-to-face discussion on some of the major issues," although he would not discuss details on what the major issues will be.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministry said "the meeting will chart the course for the development of China-U.S. relations in the new era, push for the sound and steady growth of the bilateral relationship from a new starting point and promote peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and the world at large."
At the same time, Trump tweeted that the meeting will be "difficult."
Chinese officials have been controlled in responding to Trump's stated goal of withdrawing from the Paris deal. The Trump administration last week said it has not made a decision on whether or not to exit the deal, but plans to do so by the end of May.
"Beijing will certainly bring up climate change, if only to needle President Trump," said the liberal think tank Center for American Progress in a primer for the meeting issued Wednesday. "On this issue, the Trump administration is setting the United States up to be the global bad guy, and that will give China leverage to push back against U.S. initiatives on other issues."
From the Chinese point of view, "it would be the perfect time for them to fill the leadership vacuum" on climate change, said Miyeon Oh, an expert on Asia and energy geolpolitics at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. "But at the same time, I don't think the U.S. government wants them to fill the leadership vacuum. So that's why Trump said he will wait until the end of May to make a decision."
Trump could use his decision on Paris as leverage "that he can use in negotiations over trade and other issues," Oh said.
Environmental groups suggest that the meeting could be surprisingly heated when it comes to the Paris Agreement, especially with China saying clean energy development is part of its economic growth strategy over the next decade. Under Obama, a number of collaborative agreements between China and the U.S. were struck to develop renewable and cleaner fossil fuel energy technologies. It is uncertain if those will continue under Trump.
The World Resource Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, will be tracking the discussions closely. The group said with Trump in office the two countries have experienced a sizable split on climate change after a period of "strong collaboration." The two countries are the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions and, consequently, consumers of coal and oil. Many scientists blame the emissions for raising the Earth's temperature through the burning of fossil fuels, and resulting in more severe weather, drought and floods.
"This fissure was significantly widened last week when President Trump signed an executive order that took a 'sledgehammer' to U.S. climate action," said Jessica Brand with the group's climate program. She pointed out that Kang responded to the news, saying, "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."
Brand expects the talks to focus primarily on trade and economic issues, but "it is important to note that China's climate action is a driver of economic growth."
The Chinese government said last month that attaining its Paris Agreement goal of peak greenhouse gas emissions between 2025 and 2030 would create 69 million clean energy jobs. Brand said attaining the goal would place China in a "prime position to dominate" the anticipated $6 billion market for clean energy by 2030.
But environmentalists aren't the only groups that hope the U.S. won't back out of the deal. A group of the largest coal companies, including Peabody and Cloud Peak Energy, want Trump to stay in the Paris deal to ensure they have a seat at the table and not let the Europeans dictate terms, an official familiar with talks at the White House told Reuters Wednesday.
The coal companies want to make sure that coal remains a top priority under the climate change agreement, especially when it comes to increased cooperation on developing clean coal technologies.
Even one of Trump's former energy advisers, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., wants him to remain a part of the agreement. He sent a letter to Trump last month detailing how the U.S. could remain a part of the agreement, while changing the terms by which the U.S. had pledged to meet the deal's non-binding terms.
That would allow the U.S. to "use its seat at the Paris table to defend and promote our commercial interests, including our manufacturing and fossil fuel sectors," Cramer said. "Our engagement must prevent the development of harmful policies which undermine economic growth and energy security here and abroad."