China vows to stop building overseas coal-fired power plants

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In a move to bolster Beijing’s climate credentials, Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday that his country would stop building coal-fired power plants abroad, ending its support for construction projects that rely on the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world.

“China will step up support to other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy and will not build new overseas coal-fired power projects,” Xi said in remarks. pre-registered with the United Nations General Assembly.

Within its own borders, China produces the largest share of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is by far the largest coal producer in the country and the largest funder of coal-fired power plants abroad, with a whopping 40 gigawatts of coal-fired power expected, by some estimates.

A hint of China’s change came earlier this year. For the first time in several years, China has failed to fund new coal projects as part of its global development endeavor, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, in the first six years. month of 2021. Chinese coal projects have faced considerable resistance in countries like Bangladesh, Kenya and Vietnam, mainly from civil society groups.

Responding to Xi’s pledge, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “accelerating the global phase-out of coal is the most important step in sustaining the ‘1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement within reach “.

An international agreement reached in Paris in 2015 said countries should strive to keep temperature increases during this century to “well below 2, preferably 1.5 degrees”, with the aim of avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Mr Guterres has called for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in virtually every global speech he has given on climate change, his flagship theme.

Mr Guterres also praised the pledge made earlier today by President Biden, who said his administration would seek to double aid to help developing countries tackle climate change, carrying the pledge that it took in April to about $ 11.4 billion a year by 2024.

This commitment is seen as critical to the success of the United Nations-led climate talks to be held in Glasgow in November, although the realization of the money depends on congressional approval.

What Xi didn’t tell the General Assembly was anything about China’s coal-fired power plants in his country. It builds the world’s largest fleet of coal-fired power plants within its borders, and most of its electricity still comes from coal.

Some observers have urged China to build on Xi’s pledge by also reducing the construction of coal-fired power plants in China. “This announcement is a strong sign of the global coal collapse,” said Durand D’Souza, data scientist in London for Carbon Tracker, which monitors countries’ emissions policies. “Now is the time for China to stop being the world’s largest producer of coal-fired electricity and continue its transition to lower-cost renewables.”

Last year, China built more than three times as much new coal-fired power generation capacity as all the rest of the world combined, “more than one large coal-fired power plant per week,” according to estimates from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Finland. China’s latest five-year development plan, approved earlier this year, expands construction of coal-fired power plants in the country in the coming years. But Chinese experts calling for an earlier spike in the country’s carbon emissions have called for no further development of national coal-fired electricity.

Xi also did not make any new announcements on China’s plans to limit emissions by 2030, beyond reiterating his pledge to peak emissions before this end. decade. This is nowhere near what is needed to prevent the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a point beyond which the world faces a much greater likelihood of consequences. devastating climatic conditions.

Yet Xi’s pledge, which came just weeks before the UN-led climate talks in Glasgow, heightens the coal dilemma for large emerging economies like India, South Africa and Turkey, all major consumers of coal. “This is a milestone for the world’s largest provider of overseas coal finance,” said Simon Stiell, environment minister for the island nation of Grenada, which is one of the smallest countries in the country. world and also among the most susceptible to climate damage. cash. “We look forward to seeing proportionate action at the national level. “

The main source of carbon dioxide emissions is the combustion of coal. And after a decline of a pandemic year, demand for coal is expected to increase 4.5% this year, mainly to meet rising demand for electricity, according to the International Energy Agency.

Kevin P. Gallagher, a professor of global development policy at Boston University who has tracked China’s energy funding around the world, praised Xi’s statements, “assuming there have a follow-up “. Next, he said, efforts to reduce the construction of coal-fired power plants must focus on the private financial institutions that still finance coal, and on ensuring that developing countries have viable alternatives.

Globally, coal is at a crossroads. Spending on coal projects fell to its lowest level in a decade in 2019. And in the past 20 years, more coal-fired power plants have been retired or shelved than they have been put on hold. in service.

In some countries where new coal-fired power plants were only recently built on a large scale, plans to build new power plants have been abandoned (as in South Africa), reconsidered (as in Bangladesh) or faced with funding problems. (like in Vietnam). In India, existing coal-fired power plants are operating well below capacity and are losing money. In the United States, they are quickly downgraded.

Jake Schmidt, senior strategic advisor for international climate issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a research and advocacy group, called Xi’s announcement “a very big step.”

“China has been under a lot of pressure,” he said. “If he wants to be a climate leader, he cannot be the main financier of coal-fired power plants abroad.”

Xi also used his speech to the General Assembly to reject his government’s US representation as authoritarian, predatory and expansionist, saying he supports the peaceful development of all people and that democracy is “not a special right reserved for an individual country “.

While Xi’s language was reserved, he also hinted at China’s anger over the Biden administration’s announcement of a new security pact with Australia that will put nuclear submarines out of the way. Americans in the Australian arsenal. The deal upended an Australian contract for conventional French submarines, a change that outraged France. It also represents a new military challenge for China as it affirms increased military musculature in the Asia-Pacific region.

Without specifically citing the United States or Australia, Xi said the world should “reject the practice of forming small circles or zero-sum games.” Disputes between countries, Xi said, are difficult to avoid and “should be dealt with through dialogue and cooperation on the basis of quality and mutual respect.”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting.

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