Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 19 November 2019


China financed more than a quarter of all coal plants announced outside the country last year according to a new report, putting its clean energy image at risk as Chinese institutions fund coal-fired projects in emerging markets. 
Chinese institutions last year provided $36bn of financing for coal plants outside the country, 26 per cent of the 399 gigawatts of such plants planned or committed last year, according to a report published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a US-based non-profit. 
As development banks scale back or completely halt their investment in coal-backed energy projects, China has emerged as a chief lender for such power plants, putting its international policies at odds with its domestic agenda to cut coal use, reduce carbon emissions and boost consumption of renewable energy.
“We’re at a juncture where the rest of the world has shifted to renewable energy investments, but we’re seeing a whole set of legacy patterns for coal — patterns of the last generation — are being clung to and subsidised by Chinese institutions,” said Melissa Brown, a report co-author. 
In the past two years, China has pared capacity in steel production and coal-fired industries by shutting outdated facilities and capping polluting activity. 
China’s coal consumption has dropped steadily since 2013, with the exception of a short-term jump in late 2018 as the country increased industrial activity to boost economic output. 
China has also taken a leadership role in global climate talks designed to cut carbon emissions, filling a void left by the administration of Donald Trump, who notoriously described global warming as a “hoax”. 

But some of the cut capacity has shifted abroad to developing countries, particularly in countries formally partnering with China’s Belt and Road Initiative
In the past four years, the Chinese steel industry, a coal-consuming sector, has funded 32m tonnes of annual capacity in new steel projects in Indonesia and Malaysia, according to a FT analysis last year, equivalent to more than 40 per cent of steel consumption in 2016. 
Chinese bankers and project planners like coal-backed projects because they are cheap. While they are restricted by Chinese pollution and emissions targets at home, they are free to fund coal-backed projects abroad. “They see the long-term financial, environmental and health consequences of these projects as the responsibility of the other side,” said IEEFA’s Ms Brown.
Chinese funding for coal projects is especially evident in south and south-east Asia, where energy demands are growing quickly. Last year, Chinese institutions committed or offered to finance 13.8GW of coal-fired capacity in Bangladesh, for example, equivalent to just under 90 per cent of Bangladesh’s power capacity. According to the US Department of Energy, 1GW can power about 9,000 compact electric vehicles. 
“Chinese investment has the potential to shape south-east Asia, but in doing so, it must invest in clean renewable energy, not weigh us down with dirty coal,” said Khanh Nguy Thi, director of Vietnamese environmental organisation GreenID.

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