China finances most coal plants built today – it’s a climate problem and why US-China talks are essential

As nations gear up for a critical year for climate negotiations, it’s become increasingly clear that success may hinge on one question: How soon will China end its reliance on coal and its financing of overseas coal-fired power plants?

Jeff Nesbit Research Affiliate, Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, Yale University

China represents more than a quarter of all global carbon emissions, and it has spent tens of billions of dollars to build coal power facilities in 152 countries over the past decade through its Belt and Road Initiative. Roughly 70% of the coal plants built globally now rely on Chinese funding. That’s a problem for the climate. The International Energy Agency warns in a new analysis that if the world hopes to reach net zero emissions by 2050, widely seen as necessary to meet the Paris climate agreement goals, there should be no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects or in new coal-fired power plants that don’t capture their carbon emissions. Shortly after that report came out, the G7 group of leading industrialized democracies called for an end to international financing of unabated coal projects on May 21, 2021.

US presidential special climate envoy John Kerry was asked pointedly about China’s progress on climate change when he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in mid-May.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had called climate change a “crisis” during a world leaders’ summit on climate change a few weeks earlier, but Kerry said talks between the two countries grew “very heated” over China’s continued insistence on financing coal-fired power plants around the world.

While he stopped short of saying it explicitly, Kerry made the US position clear: China’s climate pledges won’t be credible or legitimate until it stops overseas coal financing. “We’ve got five more months left to get them to embrace something we hope you will view as legitimate,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”

China and the United States together represent 43% of global carbon dioxide emissions. They worked together to make the Paris Agreement happen. They will have to push each other to make it a success.

Closing some coal at home, but building overseas

China has been the world’s largest carbon emitter for 20 years. It’s been responsible for 28% of the world’s carbon emissions for the past decade. That number hasn’t budged, despite rapid growth of China’s renewable energy and clean tech industries. One of the central reasons is coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Coal accounted for 58% of China’s total primary energy consumption as recently as 2019 – even as coal use was collapsing elsewhere. China currently operates 1,058 coal plants, roughly half of all coal plants worldwide. To meet even its modest climate goals, it will have to shut down more than half of them, according to a recent analysis by TransitionZero, a U.S.-based thinktank.

But will it?

China has incentive to cut emissions. With air pollution choking some of its largest cities, it has shuttered dozens of old coal facilities in recent years, and has subsidized renewable energy projects, both domestically and globally. But despite this progress, China is still building new coal plants.

It has also made a strategic decision to export its industrial and manufacturing might across the globe under its Belt and Road Initiative. Japan and South Korea, which traditionally financed overseas coal projects, have started to abandon them, and China sees opportunity. Nearly all of the 60 new coal plants planned across Eurasia, South America and Africa –70 gigawatts of coal power in all – are financed almost exclusively by Chinese banks.

It’s clear that China is juggling energy security and economic growth concerns. That’s why analysts were surprised when Xi announced in late 2020 that China would be carbon neutral by 2060, a decade earlier than planned, and make sure its carbon emissions peaked before 2030.

Such an effort would require huge investments in renewable energy, electric cars and technology like carbon capture and storage. None of this will be easy for China. The country has made little progress on reducing emissions, according to recent reports from organizations including the International Energy Agency.

US-China talks

Seasoned climate negotiators are watching what China does with coal today – not just the pledges it makes that are 10 or even 20 years in the future.

The U.S.-China climate relationship was central to reaching the Paris climate agreement, Todd Stern, former U.S. climate negotiator, has said. Failure to revive such engagement “would have grave national security consequences in the United States and around the world.”

Shortly before the recent world leaders’ summit on climate change, the United States and China agreed to work together again on the climate issue, and U.S. President Joe Biden announced ambitious new climate plans

But talk isn’t action. The world will expect both to commit to measurable actions ahead of the United Nations climate summit in November. Countries are expected to strengthen their pledges this year – hopefully enough to keep global warming in check. I worked in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations and have been involved in climate change issues for several years. It’s clear that if China and the US don’t lead the way, the world won’t get on track to meet the Paris climate goals.

China has reason to cooperate on climate change

China is already planning for a world in which fundamental natural resources like water and food grow scarce because of climate change. For example, when China saw a looming threat to its ability to grow enough soybeans, due in part to climate change, it went from importing virtually no soybeans to importing more than half the soybeans sold on Earth. I outline the reasons for this tectonic shift in my book “This is the Way the World Ends.”

China also sees economic opportunity in solving the climate crisis. It is mining raw materials essential to battery storage solutions at the heart of a global renewable energy industry; building cheap electric vehicles as fast as it can for domestic and foreign consumers; and aggressively subsidizing solar panel manufacturing and exporting those panels worldwide.

China lost the tech revolution race that defined the global economy of the 20th century. It does not intend to lose the renewable energy and clean tech revolution that will define the 21st. But even that imperative has not kept China from financing the world’s reliance on coal-fired power. Which is why climate negotiators hope China does more than make promises for the future. Ending coal financing overseas would be a serious first step in that direction.

Courtesy: The Conversation

Jeff Nesbit is affiliated with Climate Nexus, a not-for-profit communications group dedicated to highlighting the impacts of climate change and clean energy solutions in the United States.

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Developing countries need to chart their own course to net-zero emissions

Translating complex climate science into language people understand has always been difficult. At various times, the aim of different climate policies has been holding average global temperature rise to 2°C or 1.5°C or ensuring emissions peak by a particular year. Net-zero targets are the most recent attempt to simplify the climate crisis in order to make it manageable.


The Paris Agreement called on countries to balance greenhouse gas sources, such as cars and factories, with ways of removing emissions from the atmosphere, such as forests and carbon capture technology, in the second half of this century. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in 2018, examined how temperature rise could be limited to 1.5°C and urged the global community to reach net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Framing the effort to tackle climate change this way has proved useful. More than 30 countries have net-zero targets set or proposed in law and existing policies, while more than 120 countries are discussing their own net-zero targets. Some of these targets concern all greenhouse gas emissions, others just carbon dioxide, and most set 2050 as the deadline.

Same goal, different paths

There is a risk that the call for global emissions to reach net zero by 2050 is seamlessly translated into a call for each country to announce net zero by 2050 targets. In recent months, leaders from the US and the UK and the UN Secretary-General have suggested that a net-zero emission target consistent with reaching global net-zero carbon by 2050 is an important yardstick by which climate pledges by major economies are to be judged.

Yet how much each country has to do depends on how fast other countries reach net zero. So how should the international community decide the relative pace of change? Here, the hard-won agreement at Paris provides some guidance. It recognises that emissions will take longer to peak in developing countries because addressing poverty is an overriding challenge. For the whole world to reach carbon neutrality in 2050, developed countries have to reach net-zero carbon emissions earlier.

The Paris Agreement formulation makes sense. It would hardly be fair to ask a country like India to reach net zero at the same time as the UK. India has yet to peak its emissions and currently emits less than half of global average emissions per capita, while the UK peaked its emissions two decades ago at a much higher GDP and its emissions remain above the global average.

The Paris Agreement also requires that developing countries receive support – in the form of money or green technology – to speed up their transition. Net-zero targets are a powerful way to signal common cause between nations. But retaining that sense of solidarity requires these targets to be consistent with demands for climate justice.

This is not only fairer, but also makes for smarter politics and so increases the chances of real action. The Paris Agreement broke a long-standing political deadlock by allowing each country to develop its own nationally determined contribution to cutting global emissions. This let national governments tailor climate policy in order to maximise its appeal to people at home. In countries such as the UK, the idea of reaching net zero emissions as soon as possible has considerable support. In other countries, winning political support may require climate action to be embedded in other goals.

In South Africa, there is crippling inequality and unemployment stood at 43% in late 2020. Emissions cuts can only proceed if jobs are created during a transition from a coal-based economy to a low-emissions one, particularly for young people.

In India, too, job creation is paramount. So are environmental concerns like air pollution and unequal access to reliable energy. This may require action in the electricity sector to address these development challenges and prevent the future economy becoming locked in to high-carbon energy sources.

Both South Africa and India’s domestic priorities can be translated over time into a clear formulation for reaching net zero emissions. But that translation between domestic development narratives and global obligations has to be undertaken, not presumed. Instead of a single net zero transition, there must be space for multiple transitions, consistent with climate justice and tailored to different national contexts.

Net zero targets have to be credible to be meaningful – long-term statements of intent are not enough. Doing more, earlier, is necessary. Recent pledges by leaders for action by 2030 are a step in the right direction. These declarations should be embedded in Paris Agreement processes to ensure countries are accountable. Equally important is addressing the often ignored “net” in net zero. National plans should not be over-reliant on the future existence of technology to remove emissions. Any pledges based on purchasing emissions credits from other countries must be credible.

Net zero can be an important focus for climate action. But it must not become a set of blinkers that seeks to compel all countries down a single path. Instead, we need credible, just transitions to net zero.

Courtesy: The Conversation

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‘Sacred forests’ capture carbon and keep soil healthy

Michele Francis | The Conversation

In parts of West Africa, patches of forest have been preserved for long periods of time because of their cultural or religious significance. These “sacred forests” are believed to be inhabited and protected by gods, totem animals or ancestors. Local communities have their own rules prohibiting reckless harvesting of timber and game, which have protected the sacred forests over many generations.

Unpaved road with large trees on either side
Giant old trees in the rainforest at Campement de Kloto, Missahoe, Agomé in Togo, West Africa. Getty Images

The forests cover several hundred square kilometres, and may be the remnants of a once continuous forest along the West African coast. The historically dense forest ecosystem in West Africa has been reduced by over 80% since 1900. The age of the remaining patches means they often contain more biodiversity than surrounding areas of agricultural land. They are the last remnants of ecological niches.

Not only are they culturally valuable and biodiverse, but these ancient forest remnants are also crucial to the fight against climate change. They also improve agricultural output. These were the findings of a recent study I co-authored, looking at the soil types in and around a sacred forest in northern Togo. The parent material of these soils is not calcareous, (are not lithogenic carbonates), thus making them an important carbon sink.

I calculated that one hectare of forest is able to permanently remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as is released by a power station burning nearly 16 tonnes of coal.

Organic matter – dead leaves and remains of trees – which has been on and in the soil for a long time and decomposing that makes the difference both to soil fertility and to carbon storage. As the trees and plants die, or the dead leaves drop down, these are slowly worked into the soil by the tiny creatures that live in it.

This stable ecosystem of organic matter can help fight climate change because of its potential for carbon sequestration – the capturing and storing of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is relevant in global climate change policies.

The soil in the area is also important because it could contribute to yields in agricultural production. Adding organic matter to farmland areas surrounding these forests can increase the agricultural yields by “copying” the nature of these sacred forest soils.

Litter processors capture carbon

Forests remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bind it into their leaves. When trees die and eventually decompose on the forest floor, this carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere, unless it’s captured and stored in a more permanent form. My research showed that this carbon capture was taking place on the floor of a sacred forest on a farm in Northern Togo.

Soils under the sacred forest are extremely biodiverse and high in nutrients and organic matter, in contrast with the surrounding soils. The agricultural lands are affected by soil erosion and carbon losses.

In the forest soil, I found evidence of the activity of litter processors, such as oribatid mites. They decompose the organic carbon and their biological activity helps to form a mineral called calcite in the soil. Calcite forms when root respiration and microorganisms decomposing organic matter generate carbon dioxide. This process reacts with soil moisture to form dissolved inorganic carbon and later precipitates as calcite.

The calcite in the floor of the sacred forest is formed like needle fibres and rods. These shapes are typical of biological origins.

None of these features are present in the soil from the degraded lands surrounding the sacred forests. The surrounding soils are very low in organic matter. They are non-calcareous and show very little microfaunal activity.

Calculations show that the soil under the sacred forest in Northern Togo stores 227 tonnes of organic carbon per hectare, and permanently captures atmospheric carbon dioxide at a rate of at least 8.64 tonnes of recalcitrant inorganic carbon per hectare.

That’s why one can say that one hectare of forest removes as much carbon dioxide as a power station releases when burning nearly 16 tonnes of coal.

Because this area of Togo is dry, this mineral form of inorganic carbon remains in the soil and doesn’t dissolve.

Improving crop yields

Woody savannah and crops including peanuts, corn, rice, millet, soy and cotton surround the sacred forest I studied in Togo. Crop yields are low because of the low fertility of the soils and a lack of fertilisation.

The farming centre at Tami, has a remnant of only a quarter hectare of the sacred forest. The sacred forest has sharp and straight boundaries, strongly suggesting that its size is controlled by long-term cultivation. The properties of the surrounding soil are completely different.

The farm is developing techniques that put organic matter back into the depleted soils, for example by adding leaf litter as compost. This adds nutrients to the soils that increase food yields. It also mirrors the processes in the sacred forests. It potentially increases carbon sequestration relevant to global climate change policies such as “4 per mil” – an initiative to increase the carbon in agricultural soil by 0.4% or 4 per mil ‰ per year.

Efforts to improve soils are particularly important in areas where these forests are becoming more fragmented because of population growth, expansion of buildings, construction of roads, and erosion of traditional religious beliefs.

Preserving the old-growth forest remnants and restoring degraded farmlands has two benefits: increasing food yields and reducing global CO₂.

Its important that land users, whether in the agricultural and forestry sector or urban gardeners, know of the benefits of conserving organic carbon.

Author
  1. Michele Francis Researcher, Department of Soil Science, Stellenbosch University
Disclosure statement

Michele Francis does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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