In this twenty-first century, climate change is beyond challenge the most pressing issue facing the entire world, causing sea levels to rise, Ice sheets of Antarctica to melt, Jakarta to submerge, forcing tens of thousands of people to migrate. At a time when global warming concerns are at their peak, the recent announcement by the Chinese to not subsidize coal power plants abroad certainly merits attention.
This announcement by China in the United Nations General Assembly on September 21st was a surprise to many countries because Chinese private enterprises had yet to finish some coal projects and China is the most ardent coal supporter as the world’s largest domestic producer and investor in coal projects. Currently, China is financing coal projects out of a total of 36,680 Megawatt, much above the 6400 megawatts invested in ongoing coal projects by Japan, the Czech Republic, Russia, South Korea, and South Africa combined. The entire value of Chinese-funded coal projects is 50.019 billion dollars, which in itself is a huge amount. According to data from the Boston University global development policy center, twenty Chinese-funded Coal-fired Plants are under construction in Serbia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, and United Arab Emirates, and seventeen more countries are in the Joint planning stage.
Last year, Japan and South Korea made the same decision, which may have influenced China’s decision not to expand coal plants in other countries. Despite the fact that Japan has already decided not to sponsor coal projects abroad, it still enables private sector institutions to finance them for geopolitical reasons since they do not want China to be the sole option for regional energy projects. However, Japan will no longer have a justification to allow it’s private sector institutions finance such projects abroad.
According to the ‘center for research on energy and clean air (CREA),’ China plans to build 43 new coal-fired power plants and 18 new blast furnaces by the end of this year. If this occurs, there will be a 1.5 percent increase in global carbon emissions. Earth cannot withstand even a 0.01 percent increase in “greenhouse gases,” thus 1.5 percent is a massive increase that will exacerbate climate change problems in the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global CO2 emissions in 2018 totaled 33.5 gigatons, with China alone emitting 9.52 gigaton, accounting for 28.5 percent of global emissions.
China claimed in September 2020 that it will achieve ‘Net-Zero Emission by 2060.’ This was a huge claim because China had not made any decisions on coal projects at the time. Transition Zero is a London-based organization that publishes reports on energy generation as well as the study of finance and investment in these energy sources. Matthew Gray, the Co-Chief Executive of Transition Zero, said that if China fails to meet its target, the entire world will pay a high price. The reason he stated that was because according to Global Energy Monitor, almost 50 billion US dollar funds of China have been used in 44 plants or sanctioned to be funded. If these plants could be shut down, carbon dioxide emissions would be decreased by 200 million tonnes in the future.
Chinese investment in renewable energy is also large in terms of scale. According to ‘UN Environment program’s report 2020’, from 2010 to 2019 China has invested more in renewable energy than the combined investment of all ‘European Union Countries’. However, it’s investment in renewable energy fell by 8% in 2019 compared to 2018, while the United States raised its investment by 28% and Taiwan expanded its investment by 390%.
China’s own coal plants are responsible for the emission of CO2, which is also a huge contributor to climate change. The impacts of such greenhouse gas emissions are being felt even in China. In July of this year, China’s Henan province had the worst flood in 1000 years, forcing about ten lakh people to flee their homes. This is a problem that affects not only China but the entire world. This year, we were able to witness floods in West Germany as well as other parts of Western Europe. According to the British Columbia wildfire authority, the fire in Vancouver, Canada this year was larger than the wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
The major question that arises is, whether this decision to not fund coal plants abroad is the Chinese national interest or is it truly motivated by concerns about climate change? There is a huge procedure behind importing and exporting coal which ultimately leads to more funds and problems for China, but geopolitically as well China wanted to compete with the USA and Japan, who have already reduced their investment in coal facilities in favour of renewable energy plants. China was being pressurised by United Nations to follow sustainable development goals for a better future also led to this decision. It’s more about the country’s own national interest rather than its concern for climate change. As more countries prioritize renewable energy, BRI investment will shift from coal plants to renewable energy plants, which will benefit the humanity at large in terms of tackling challenges posed by climate change. Combined with the slew of announcements coming out of the recent COP26 summit, there’s certainly a lot of developments in this space to watch out for.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.