Reuters A general view shows a coal-burning power station at night in Xiangfan, Hubei province, September 15, 2009.

China's Coal Problem

How It Undermines the Fight Against Climate Change

Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump became president, China has taken every opportunity to present itself as a new global leader on climate change. Most recently, President Xi Jinping convened official delegates from more than 50 countries for the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May, and got 29 heads of state to join him in declaring support for the implementation of the Paris agreement, a feat that proved too challenging for G7 leaders to repeat weeks later in Italy.

First revealed in 2013, Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative (recently rebranded as the Belt Road Initiative or BRI) promises nearly $1 trillion for infrastructure and energy development in more than 60 countries. Given that China is the world’s largest producer of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, the BRI would seem a natural complement to the country’s averred commitment to climate action.

But Beijing’s foreign energy investments so far paint a drastically different picture. Despite commitments to reducing domestic coal use, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are looking to build coal projects abroad—often in BRI countries. Countries along this new Silk Road should be wary of Chinese investment and prevent China from prioritizing its own economic self-interest over global environmental needs.

THE COAL CONTRADICTION 

In response to the growing public outcry among Chinese citizens over hazardous air pollution levels, Chinese policymakers have made great strides in limiting domestic carbon emissions. Beijing has canceled the construction of 103 coal power plants in this year alone, and its efforts have resulted in decreased coal consumption for three consecutive years. China is also working to increase efficiency standards for both new and existing coal plants to further slash emissions. At this rate, Beijing is expected to hit peak carbon emission levels by 2025—five years earlier than planned—and has been heralded as the new leader for global climate action.

Yet at the same time, Chinese companies are on track to build roughly 140 coal plants in other countries, including Egypt and Pakistan, scarcer.

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