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Opinion | When the U.S. and China Fight, It Is the Environment That Suffers

The problem predates the Trump administration. While I was conducting fieldwork in the northern province of Shanxi several years ago, a local official told me that, considering how much better China’s environmental record was than India’s, foreign governments’ loud demands that China curb pollution must be a plot to contain the country’s rise.

Since then, Mr. Trump’s move to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate accord — under which the Obama administration had committed to reducing America’s emissions and to contributing $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund — has further undermined, predictably, Washington’s credibility on environmental issues. The same goes for the Trump administration’s repeated rollbacks on domestic environmental regulations: undoing the Clean Power Plan, promising to revitalize the coal industry, easing restrictions on oil and gas drilling, and moving 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 United States’ influence.

Beijing, facing what it considers to be an increasingly hostile international context, is trying to make the Chinese economy more self-reliant. Even liberal-minded Chinese leaders, such as Vice Premier Liu He — Mr. Xi’s top economic adviser and his point person for trade negotiations with the United States — is promoting a strategy of so-called dual circulation, which prioritizes “domestic circulation,” or the development of domestic consumption and markets, partly to reduce China’s dependence on foreign trade.

As China moves to become more self-sufficient economically, Washington’s leverage over the country’s development and environmental standards is likely to decline.

For years, many Chinese people looked at U.S. diplomatic missions in China as the only reliable source for air-quality data. In late July, amid a rapid downward spiral in U.S.-China relations, the U.S. consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu was closed. A month later, an American journalist tweeted, “Joke among Chengdu friends is how much better the air quality has become since the U.S. consulate closed”— at least going by air-quality data provided by the Chinese government.

Environmental degradation in China is bad for the United States, too.

Air pollution from Asia has been the cause at times of as much as 65 percent of the increase in ozone levels in some parts of America. A 2014 study of 2006 data for air pollution in China found that when strong winds blew across the Pacific Ocean, pollutants produced by China’s export industries accounted for, at worst, 4 percent to 6 percent of the carbon monoxide recorded in the Western United States, up to 11 percent of the black carbon pollution and 12 percent to 24 percent of sulfate concentrations. NASA physicists have said that air pollutants from China and other Asian countries may “contribute to colder and snowier winters in the United States.”

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