China said its CO2 emissions in 2017 will drop 1 percent from 2016, making it the fourth consecutive year of either zero growth or a decline in the country's emissions.
The forecast by China's National Energy Administration is encouraging news in the effort to slow climate change. It also comes as the climate world looks to China for leadership as the U.S. appears to be abdicating its leading role on climate policy. China and the U.S. are the world's two leading emitters and the U.S. has a much greater responsibility for climate change because of what it has emitted historically.
The news came as President Trump prepared to announce federal budget plans on Tuesday in his first address to Congress. His budget requests are expected to contain significant cuts in government spending on clean energy development, while he pursues policies to bring back coal. China's emission reductions reflect a decline in coal consumption that would reduce the need for exported coal from countries including the US, Australia, and North Korea.
"As Trump's rhetoric leaves the world in doubt over what his plan is to tackle climate change, China is being thrust into a leadership role," Li Shuo, a global policy advisor for Greenpeace, said in a statement. "These trends give some hope that the global peak in emissions might well be within reach, but only if all major emitters break free from fossil fuels and reduce emissions."
China is on track to meet or beat pledges it made prior to the Paris climate agreement to get 15 percent of its energy from clean energy sources including renewables, nuclear and hydropower, and to reduce the energy intensity of its economy by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
"There is no doubt China will reach those goals," Rangping Song, developing country climate action manager for the World Resources Institute said.
An analysis by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis concluded that China's coal consumption peaked three years ago.
China hasn't made any commitments on when it will begin to reduce its consumption of coal, however, the country did promise to reaching peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 during the negotiations leading to the Paris agreement. Despite its performance in recent years and the forecast for the coming year, Song said China may not have reached peak carbon dioxide emissions yet.
"Chances are that there still some fluctuation involved in terms of CO2 emissions because China is still in middle of an economic transition, trying to transit from more energy and carbon intensive industries to a more service oriented and low carbon economy," he said. "It will not be easy, but I believe China will be able to exceed the [peak carbon dioxide] commitment it made in the lead-up to Paris."
China's total energy consumption grew 1.4 percent in 2016 while CO2 emissions stayed flat, in part because of a 12 percent growth in clean energy development. After nearly two decades of constant increases, China's CO2 emissions have remained stable since 2013, Greenpeace said.
Concerns about climate change and extreme air pollution in its urban centers has driven massive renewable energy investments in China.
"The amount of solar that they did last year was more than the U.S. had done in the entire history of U.S. solar deployment," said Jake Schmidt, the international program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It shows signs that it might be slowing a bit, but slowing from 120 miles an hour to 80 miles an hour is still breaking the speed limit."
Schmidt questioned Trump's ability to overcome market forces to bring back coal, including the price of natural gas and renewables. But he said the president's rhetoric is further distancing the U.S. from China's progress on clean energy development.
"It's a sad day when these two large countries are moving in the opposite direction and the opposite direction is that the U.S. is moving backwards on renewables policies and China is looking like a shining example of how to move forward with the clean energy economy for this century," Schmidt said.