The development of the One Belt, One Road Initiative has raised concern that the infrastructure-building program will be used as a way to prop up regimes accused of human rights abuses and may undermine international efforts to curb climate change. Last week, China announced that it will be ending the construction of three coal-fired power plants in Kazakhstan that have been built with funds from the Beijing-led investment and lending program. The move, which is symbolic of Beijing’s efforts to lead in energy reforms, brings in some welcome new momentum for climate action.
China has plenty of domestic, economic reasons to continue to expand its coal-fired power plants. The country uses the energy source for about half of its power, and investment in coal plants have risen in both 2015 and 2016. That trend is expected to continue. It is estimated that China’s net coal consumption rose by about 3.5 percent last year — the equivalent of 550 million tons of coal, or about 6 percent of its total consumption. (It has, however, reduced its overall coal consumption since its peak in 2014.)
But more than anything, economic growth is one of the main reasons why Beijing wants to increase its coal consumption, not cut it. Coal uses about one-third of China’s electricity and provides the country with a competitive export alternative to energy-intensive industries. It is used in more than 95 percent of the steel and iron production as well as in about a third of the copper mines in the country. It is also what powers domestic cities and villages, such as Harbin, Heilongjiang province, where over 60 percent of the total electricity generated in the country is coal-fired.
In recent years, China has begun to aggressively push its coal industry toward cleaner energy technologies, such as hydroelectric power and renewable sources. That’s an effort that has already been producing benefits for the country and the climate. But the government is also concerned about a broader risk to its economy. There has been a wave of anti-Chinese protests across much of the country in recent months over the Belt and Road Initiative. The anti-Beijing sentiment seems to have fueled widespread accusations about human rights abuses in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam — countries that are important parts of the project.
The decision to stop funding the construction of power plants in Kazakhstan — and potentially other countries — is an obvious signal that China is taking steps to address these concerns. But it’s also clear that the country still has plenty of room to improve its environmental performance and will be holding the rest of the world accountable to its commitment to combat climate change.
Read the full story at The Times of London.
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