Xi Jinping speaks at UN General Assembly

China commits to ending foreign coal projects

Image credit: Mary Altaffer/Pool via REUTERS

In a major step towards eliminating the most polluting of fossil fuels, Chinese President Xi Jinping has used his anticipated address at the UN General Assembly to pledge an end to building new coal-fired projects abroad.

As the world’s largest carbon emitter, China has been under considerable diplomatic pressure to end its sustained expansion of coal projects. In the first half of 2021, the country committed to a series of carbon-intensive steel and coal projects – 18 new blast furnaces and 43 new coal plant units – which could collectively emit carbon emissions equivalent to the total emissions of the Netherlands.

Now, Xi has promised an end to foreign coal-fired projects, following similar moves by South Korea and Japan earlier this year. China has been under pressure by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and US climate envoy John Kerry to follow with its own commitment. The three countries collectively account for more than 95 per cent of all foreign financing for coal-fired plants.

As an end to coal financing could make it considerably harder to kickstart projects in the developing world to expand power capacity and sustain economic growth, Xi added that China would increase support in other areas such as renewable energy.

“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,” said Xi, in a pre-recorded video address.

He reiterated China’s pledges to reach a peak in carbon emissions before 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions before 2060. This is not in line with the Paris Agreement, which would require the world to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 in order to keep warming within 1.5°C.

Both Xi and Biden, who spoke directly before him in his first UN General Assembly address, made measured addresses which highlighted areas of co-operation between the superpowers in spite of recently reignited tensions between them.

Kerry immediately welcomed the commitment as a “great contribution” ahead of COP26. In a statement, he said: “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.”

Guterres echoed this sentiment, adding: “Accelerating the global phase-out of coal is the single most important step to keep the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement within reach.”

Alok Sharma, who is heading the upcoming COP26 summit, wrote on Twitter: “It is clear the writing is on the wall for coal power. I welcome President Xi’s commitment to stop building new coal projects abroad; a key topic of my discussions during my visit to China.”

Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, told Reuters: “China was the last man standing. If there’s no public finance of coal from China, there’s little to no global coal expansion.”

While the announcement has been roundly welcomed, it may not be the death blow for foreign coal projects that environmentalists have hoped for. The Chinese government is the largest public funder of coal projects, but German researchers Urgewald have found that Western and Japanese institutional investors and commercial banks funded 87 per cent of coal power projects outside their own nations. US investors currently hold 58 per cent of institutional investments in the overseas coal industry.

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