Global Coal Power Emissions Compared to Coal Carbon Dioxide Budgets (Gigatonnes). Graphic: CoalSwarm

By Huileng Tan
6 April 2018

(CNBC) – Once globally vilified for extensive air pollution due to heavy coal usage, China now talks a big game about its environmental efforts after the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate pact.

But, beyond its borders, the country has been the world's biggest investor in coal power.

"Chinese banks' and companies' investments in coal abroad are a cause of major concern because of their potential to lock in more climate warming emissions in our carbon-constrained world," said Huang Wei, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.

Chinese financial institutions are the world's largest investor of overseas coal plants, pumping in $15 billion in coal projects from 2013 to 2016 through international development funds, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based non-profit environmental advocacy group. There's another $13 billion in proposed funding.

That is even as data from the International Energy Agency show a slowdown in coal power investment globally.

One major source of concern is the Belt and Road Initiative — an infrastructure and investment program widely seen as an attempt by China to construct a massive, multi-national zone of economic and political influence that has Beijing at its center.

The coal investments come in various forms: Chinese banks and companies provide financing, construction and equipment, said Huang. That is even as China continues to invest and promote renewables such as wind and solar energy.

"It is a complicated web of involvement, but ultimately all investments in coal, the world's dirtiest fossil fuel, are bad for everyone involved — recipient country, China and the planet as a whole," Huang said in an email to CNBC.

A more recent report by Greenpeace and counterparts Sierra Club and Coalswarm shows the extent of Chinese involvement in coal plants overseas, revealing that Asia leads the world in new coal power building even though overall coal plant construction is falling globally. […]

Globally, there was an increase in global coal consumption last year after two straight years of decline, according to data released last month by the International Energy Agency. The trend was driven by Asian demand, the IEA added.

East Asian economic powerhouses Japan and South Korea are also pumping money into the fossil fuel. [more]

China is massively betting on coal outside its borders — even as investment falls globally

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