by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
China made a big splash at the United Nations General Assembly, with President Xi Jinping announcing the country would stop building new coal plants abroad, which, if fulfilled, would cut off all international public support for the dirtiest fossil fuel.
But China’s decision to focus on overseas coal suggests Beijing is not ready to grapple with curbing its appetite at home.
“The new commitment indicates that China acknowledges the need to move away from coal. All eyes are now on China’s domestic efforts,” said Claire Healy, the head of the Washington, D.C., office of E3G, a European think tank.
Indeed, it is much more important for China (the world’s biggest consumer and producer of coal and thus largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions) to make a similar commitment domestically. If it doesn’t act to phase down coal use sooner than currently planned, analysts say the world stands little chance of fulfilling the most ambitious goal of the Paris climate change agreement of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“It’s an extremely tough target to meet without China addressing domestic coal consumption,” said Jane Nakano, a senior fellow in the Energy Security & Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In welcoming China’s pledge to stop building overseas coal, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the global phaseout of coal the “single most important step to keep the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement within reach.”
The United States and the European Union, two other top emitters, retired a record amount of coal-fired power plants in 2020, but the opposite is happening in China.
China commissioned 38.4 gigawatts of new plants last year, representing 76% of the world’s total new coal plant starts, holding back global progress, according to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis group.