China says it will stop building coal plants abroad, but big questions remain on its commitment to fighting climate change

·Senior Climate Editor
·7-min read

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced Tuesday that his country will stop financing the construction of coal plants in other countries.

“China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad,” Xi said in videotaped message played at the United Nations General Assembly.

But the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter has been tepid in its climate action as the world heads towards a crucial U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, this November.

Although they welcomed Xi’s announcement, environmental activists say China — the world’s largest country, with 1.4 billion people, and the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases — must move more aggressively, particularly to limit its own use of coal and its overall carbon emissions.

“I hope this is not the end of what China does,” Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Yahoo News. “China needs to bring forward stronger ambition.”

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the United Nations General Assembly via video from Beijing on Tuesday. (Huang Jingwen/Xinhua via Getty Images)

China was essentially the last major provider of international investment for new coal plants. Experts estimate that the move could lead to the cancellation of enough coal-fired power plant construction that it will save the equivalent in emissions as removing one-fifth of the U.S. coal fleet.

Domestically, however, China has not cut back on the use of coal. In 2019, before the pandemic temporarily reduced economic output and pollution, China accounted for 27 percent of global emissions. Already this year, it has unveiled plans to build 43 new coal-fired power plant units. That’s one major reason that China’s carbon emissions reached a new record-high earlier this year.

China’s reliance on coal stands in contrast to the United States and many other industrialized countries, which are moving away from it as cleaner sources of energy become cheaper. Despite former President Donald Trump’s claim that “the coal industry is back” thanks to his repeal of environmental regulations, the New York Times reported that during his term, “145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been idled, eliminating 15 percent of the nation’s coal-generated capacity.”

For years, environmental scientists have hoped China would follow the ongoing global shift away from coal. In November 2014, one year before the last major round of U.N. climate negotiations in Paris, Xi and then-President Barack Obama made a joint announcement in Beijing that they would work together to combat climate change and secure a successful outcome in Paris. This was a major breakthrough in climate diplomacy because China, for the first time, committed to specific benchmarks for reducing its carbon emissions.

Previously, it had argued that it was unfair for developed nations such as the U.S., which had industrialized using fossil fuels, to demand developing nations avoid the same road to riches. China’s per capita GDP is only $10,500, less than one-sixth that of the U.S.

But, in part because the conventional pollution caused by coal and cars is choking its cities, and in part because climate change could have a devastating impact on China’s mostly coastal population, it embraced the cause of climate action and encouraged other developing countries to do the same.

“In the pre-Paris period, even getting China to come to the table in the climate fight was very difficult,” said Thom Woodroofe, a fellow at the Asia Society. “When China was willing to come to the table in 2014, that was a signal to the whole world.”

Steam billows out of the cooling towers
Steam billows out of the cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in China's Jiangsu province. (Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

China’s commitments stemming from Paris were relatively modest — to peak out its carbon emissions by 2030 and an intention to get one-fifth of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by then — but the optimistic assumption was that it would increase its goals as the price of renewable energy dropped. As early as 2016, American news outlets carried stories speculating that Chinese emissions might have already peaked.

But its emissions have kept climbing and China hasn’t laid out a vision for an accelerated schedule to bring them down. In April, Xi said at a global leaders summit convened by Biden that China will start reducing coal use in 2026, which disappointed international counterparts and environmentalists who were hoping for faster, more substantive action.

At last year’s U.N. General Assembly, Xi also announced that China aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. According to Woodroofe, the Asia Society’s modeling shows that China can’t realistically reach that goal without peaking out its emissions sooner than 2030. Other experts have previously predicted that the world will be unable to meet one of the key goals of the Paris agreement — staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, with a fallback goal of 2C — if Chinese emissions keep rising for the rest of this decade.

And a joint announcement with the U.S. isn’t likely any time soon due to escalating tensions between the two countries over issues such as the status of Taiwan and a growing military rivalry in the Pacific.

“The notion of a similar announcement to 2014 on the climate is completely off the table,” Woodroofe said. “There’s no chance that’s going to happen.”

Earlier this month, Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry traveled to China in an unsuccessful bid for climate cooperation. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Kerry that “climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations.”

Former British Ambassador to the United States Christopher Meyer told the Washington Post on Wednesday that a successful outcome in Glasgow “will depend largely, as it has always done, on the U.S. and Chinese contributions.”

Although he is limited by what he can get through Congress, Biden is trying to make those contributions for his country. In April, the U.S. submitted a plan to reduce its emissions by 50-52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Previously, it had only offered 26-28 percent by 2025. The president is currently pushing a collection of proposals in Congress to put the country on that path, and offering various incentives to energy utilities to get them to avoid using fossil fuels. And on Tuesday, Biden’s U.N. speech included a promise to work with the Congress to double American financing of climate action in developing countries. 

Joe Biden
Biden at the U.N. on Tuesday. (Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Whether China will match those efforts remains an open question. Woodroofe suggests that China may yet step forward with stronger pledges, but that it was waiting to see what other large emitters offer first. The most important things it could do, he said, are move up the date by which its emissions peak and offer some immediate cap on emissions to ensure that they don’t spike dramatically.

In an effort to break the ice, a week after Kerry’s visit, Biden called Xi. On a smaller scale, a climate partnership between the world’s two biggest emitters is “still possible, maybe around climate finance or the short-lived climate pollutants,” said Fan Dai, director of the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

In Glasgow, China will probably try to play its usual role as a leader of developing nations and will advocate for more climate financing from developed countries. However it may, according to Dai, oppose certain attempts to strengthen the agreement.

“[China] opposes a focus on the 1.5 degree goal; [it] wants to retain the current more flexible language in the Paris agreement and not renegotiate,” Fan said. Since China is a major exporter of manufactured goods, it also opposes “carbon border adjustment mechanisms,” which are essentially tariffs on imports to countries with limits on their own carbon production, such as the European Union.

A focus on short-term economic expansion is a constant in Chinese politics, as is tension with the United States. But to prevent catastrophic climate change, China will have to reorder its priorities.

“The fate of the planet is dependent on them figuring out how to set aside whatever differences they may have and solve the climate challenge,” Schmidt said.

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