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In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a bold statement in publicly positioning his country as the next global leader in combating climate change.

“Taking a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change,” Xi said at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress last month. “China has become an important participant, contributor, and torch-bearer in the global endeavor for ecological civilization.”

China and the U.S. acted together two years ago to pave the way for a successful Paris agreement. Now, under President Trump, the U.S. is backing away from that agreement and China sees an opportunity to lay claim to the process and carve out space for itself as a diplomatic leader.

After months of affirming its commitment to cutting carbon, Xi’s phrase “taking a driving seat” removed any doubt that the country is positioning itself not just as a willing participant, but as a leader in global climate action.

“It shows that China’s top leaders place fighting climate change, and working with other countries to do so, as a key international goal,” said Alvin Lin, with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s China office. He called Xi’s statement “very important.” 

Domestic policies support Xi’s claims

China appears well ahead of its Paris agreement target of hitting peak carbon emissions by 2030.

And even though it still burns more coal than any other country, it’s working to wean itself off the dirty fuel. China canceled plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants this year.

“The country is certainly living up to President Xi’s words domestically,” said Andrew Light, a former U.S. climate…