How will China’s pledge to end its foreign coal plants impact the climate crisis?

How will China’s pledge to end its foreign coal plants impact the climate crisis?
Leading up to the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow this November, garnering global commitments on ending coal use, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, has been a major focus

Hours after President Biden announced that the US would double climate finance funding for poorer nations, China’s President Xi Jinping used his moment in the spotlight at the 76th UN General Assembly to make headlines on the climate crisis.

In a pre-taped address from Beijing on Tuesday, President Xi said that China would no longer build coal-fired power plants overseas.

“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,” he told the gathering of world leaders.

President Xi then reiterated his commitment from last year that China will “strive” to peak carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

The commitments were a much-needed jolt of good news from the world’s two largest polluters, whose relationship remains fraught on other issues, ahead of the global climate summit, Cop26, taking place in Glasgow in a matter of weeks.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the pledges but cautioned that much still needed to be done to make Cop26 a success, as “the climate alarm bells are ringing at fever pitch”.

“Everyone, developed & emerging economies alike, must do their job,” he said.

Cop26 is highly-anticipated as the moment in which major strides can be made on the commitment of nearly every country under the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global temperature rise to 1.5C, amid ever worsening climate-linked disasters around the world.

Leading up to Glasgow, garnering commitments on ending coal use, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, has been a major focus.

China’s announcement was welcomed by climate scientists, policy experts and activists but they underlined that the devil would be in the details.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but this only involves their financing of international coal projects. We need to see what [China] does domestically,” Dr Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State and member of the National Academy of Sciences, told The Independent in an email.

“There’s no way we keep planetary warming below catastrophic levels if China continues to build new coal-fired power plants. The key negotiations going into COP26 will involve incentivizing China not to go down that road.”

Li Shuo, of Greenpeace East Asia, called President Xi’s announcement “a step towards the right direction” but said China needed to work harder on its “domestic coal addiction”.

“Beijing should drastically reduce coal in its energy system to ensure its emissions peak before 2025,” he tweeted.

China is the largest public financier of overseas coal plants, accounting for around 50 per cent of funding. President Xi’s announcement makes China the last major player to get out of the space after Japan and South Korea committed to doing so earlier this year.

China’s announcement could impact 44 plants, mainly in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Mongolia, Indonesia, and South Africa, said Christine Shearer, coal program director from Global Energy Monitor, totalling nearly 42 Gigawatts (GW) of coal power.

One gigawatt is roughly the energy it takes to power 750,000 homes. (New York City runs on upwards of 12GW, depending on the season, as Bill Gates writes in his new book on the climate crisis).

The cancellation of these overseas plants could reduce CO2 emissions by 200-300 million tonnes a year, depending on the utilization rate. By one estimate, it’s equivalent to the total annual greenhouse gas emissions of France.

President Xi’s remarks did not include a timeline for the coal drawdown, or whether it included private and public funding for overseas coal plants.

And saying that China would no longer “build” coal projects abroad also left open to interpretation whether it means plants that have been proposed, in planning stages, or where ground has been broken.

Dr Cecilia Han Springer, senior researcher at Boston University’s Global China Initiative, told The Independent that it seemed unlikely projects already underway would be abandoned.

“But there’s this nebulous pipeline of things that were going to happen in the future which is not insignificant,” she added. “13.5 gigawatts of projects that are under planning with no specific date announced. I think those will vanish very quickly.”

Then there is the major question of China’s booming domestic coal industry, the largest in the world by a long stretch. In 2020, China built more than three times the new coal power capacity as all other countries combined, the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported.

“Chinaʼs coal fleet grew by net 29.8 Gigawatts (GW) in 2020 while in the rest of the world net capacity decreased by 17.2 GW,” the center noted, essentially canceling out the emissions-reduction impact.

Dr Han Springer said that she hoped to see clear language from China in the coming weeks about how President Xi’s speech would impact the financing of coal projects.

“We’re already seeing early signs [from] Chinese companies, that are providing capital for overseas coal projects, trying to scramble to show that they’re going to achieve what Xi announced. These companies – state-owned enterprises as well as private companies – will hopefully fall in line with this announcement.

“I would hope that this is all hammered out by Cop, and then we can hope for even more exciting announcements at the climate negotiations.”

Dr Kevin P. Gallagher, director of Boston University Global Development Policy Center, said that China’s announcement also meant it was high time for the global private sector – which finances 87 per cent of overseas coal – to follow the example.

“We will not meet our global climate and development goals if the private sector continues to finance overseas coal while leading governments have stopped,” he said in a statement.

Dr Han Springer drew a line between President Biden and President Xi’s announcements at UNGA as crucial issue for all countries to have a just transition from fossil fuel power to clean energy.

“The US specifically phrased its commitment in terms of financing whereas China is getting a lot of attention for saying that they will no longer build new coal plants overseas. But Xi’s announcement also was pretty clear that they will be supporting lower carbon sources of energy,” she said.

“I hope that the support China would have provided for coal will go to renewable energy, and that China and the US can both scale up their support for renewable energy overseas.”

She pointed to how China’s technical knowledge, particularly in ultra-high voltage transmission lines, could help not only achieve clean energy but provide reliable grid infrastructure in countries where it had been supporting coal.

“It’s really a matter of seeing this support not disappear, but shift,” she said.

Mr Biden said on Tuesday the US would double its commitment to a global climate finance fund, providing $11.4billion annually by 2024 – for which he will need sign off from Congress.

Wealthy nations agreed a decade ago to provide $100bn every year by 2020 to poorer countries which face extreme impacts from global heating but have historically contributed low levels of emissions. Making good on the “Green Climate Fund” is seen as vital in creating trust among countries at Cop26, and driving its success.

John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy on climate, had pressed China on the country’s coal use when he visited several weeks ago.

“We’ve been talking to China for quite some period of time about this. And I’m absolutely delighted to hear that President Xi has made this important decision,” Mr Kerry said on Tuesday. “It’s a great contribution. It’s a good beginning to the efforts we need to achieve success in Glasgow.”

But Mr Kerry added that China needed to do more on reducing emissions or “we can’t get where we need to go to be net-zero by 2050”.

In confronting the global crisis, Dr Mann said that American leadership is important.

“China was decommissioning coal-fired power plants during the Obama years. Then Trump came in, scuttled our global agreements, and that took pressure off of China, and they started to build more coal-fired power plants,” he said.

“What we’re seeing here now is a good sign that American re-engagement is making a difference here, and bringing China back to the table where we need them.”

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