In a pre-recorded address to the United Nations on September 21, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced his country will not finance any more coal-fired power plants in foreign countries. Up until this point, China, Japan, and South Korea have funded 95% of coal plants around the world, with China providing most of the money. “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.
According to The Guardian, China has been under heavy diplomatic pressure to put an end to its coal financing overseas because it could make it easier for the world to stay on course to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement to reduce carbon emissions. Depending on how the policy is implemented, the move could significantly limit the financing of coal plants in the developing world.
Thom Woodroofe, a former climate diplomat and a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, described the pledge as drawing a “big line in the sand. It is further evidence China knows the future is paved by renewables. The key question now is when they will draw a similar line in the sand at home,” he said.
“It was also in many ways an easy decision for China to take ahead of COP26 — far easier than peaking emissions by 2025, which many had hoped [Xi would do]. For the first time since 2013, China did not finance any new overseas coal plants in the first six-months of this year — and this came after a precipitous drop last year,” he added.
Xi repeated pledges from last year that China would achieve a peak in carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060. Many observers were hoping Xi would move those domestic timelines forward but perhaps he is holding any such announcement back for the COP 26 meeting coming up later this year in Glasgow.
Nonetheless, China “deserves great praise for pledging to stop building coal plants overseas — the first developing country to make such a pledge and the last of the major public financiers of overseas coal to do so,” said Kevin Gallagher, director of Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center, in a statement.
Japan and South Korea both announced an end to their coal financing plans earlier this year. “China was the last man standing. If there’s no public finance of coal from China, there’s little to no global coal expansion,” Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, told The Guardian. UN Secretary General António Guterres said after Xi’s announcement, “Accelerating the global phase-out of coal is the single most important step to keeping the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement within reach.”
Reducing China’s Domestic Emissions
China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter and is still heavily reliant on coal for its domestic energy needs. Bear in mind that China’s rise as global economic force has been largely powered by electricity from coal fired generating stations. Asking China to give up its coal plants is like asking Ford to stop building F-150s or Volkswagen to end manufacturing gasoline powered cars.
Thom Woodroofe says, “The key thing to watch now is not just what China does at home, but also how much weight this announcement will hold. Will Beijing be able to rein in finance provided by all Chinese banks? What about the huge Chinese labor force involved in the construction of these coal plants?”
Meeting its goal of net zero emissions at home by 2060 would also require China to shut down nearly 600 of its coal-fired power plants in the next decade and replace them with renewable electricity generation, according to a report by analysis company TransitionZero. Unless China reduces its own emissions sharply in the next 10 years, the world stands little chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, The Guardian warns.
What If There Is War?
The backdrop to all of this is the increasing political rivalry between China and the US. The prior US president liked to bellow and bluster about how China was playing America for a sucker. The Biden administration has adopted a softer tone (it would be hard not to) but is still casting China as a potential enemy.
The truth is, the energy stored in the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land masses has far more destructive power than all the nuclear weapons every made. The next world war will be the last. The emissions from a global conflict would tip the world over into a superheated state most humans would be unable to survive.
There is no margin for error. Unless the nations of the world learn how to work together to eliminate war as a policy tool, all the speeches and flowery pronouncements in the world won’t be able to prevent humanity’s earthly home from becoming its graveyard.
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