In a rare address to the UN General Assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday made a major new climate commitment on behalf of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
China will not build any new coal-fired power projects abroad, Xi said in a pre-recorded speech. The vow marks a shift in policy around its sprawling Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which had already begun to draw down its coal initiatives.
China will also increase financial support for green and low-carbon energy projects in other developing countries, he said.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who had appealed to world leaders earlier in the day to show solidarity and act on the climate crisis, hailed China’s announcement alongside a US commitment to increase climate financing for developing countries.
“I am encouraged by the important announcements made today at the General Assembly by the leaders of the world’s two largest economies regarding their commitment to climate action,” he said.
“I welcome President Biden’s announcement that the United States of America will significantly increase its international climate finance to approximately US$11.4 billion a year. This increased contribution from the United States will bring developed countries closer to meeting their collective commitment to mobilize US$100 billion a year in climate finance.”
“I also welcome the announcement made by President Xi that China will end all financing of coal fired power plants abroad and redirect its support to green and low carbon energy. Accelerating the global phase out of coal is the single most important step to keep the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement within reach.”
In his earlier speech to the assembly, US President Joe Biden had announced he would work with Congress to double again the United States’ financial commitment to support developing nations. Biden pledged in April the US would increase its contribution to global climate financing to $5.7 billion per year, putting his new commitment over $11 billion per year.
“In April, I announced the US will double our public international financing to help developing nations tackle the climate crisis, and today, I’m proud to announce that we will work with the Congress to double that number again, including for adaptation efforts,” Biden said.
Both the Chinese and US commitments were part of a day of leader speeches that marked the beginning of the UN General Debate among member states, and which Guterres had kicked off by warning humanity was on track for a “hellscape” of temperature rise that would bring “catastrophe.”
Guterres had asked nations to end subsidies on fossil fuels, end the use of coal, invest in renewable energy, and tax carbon and pollution “instead of people’s income.”
“The climate alarm bells are also ringing at fever pitch,” he said. “The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a code red for humanity. We see the warning signs in every continent and region – scorching temperatures, shocking biodiversity loss, polluted air, water and natural spaces.”
More than a decade ago, world leaders from developed countries agreed to contribute $100 billion a year to support countries in the Global South that are facing the most direct impacts of climate, a goal that was missed. In 2019, developed countries contributed $79.6 billion for developing countries, around $20 billion short of the $100 billion annual goal, according to a recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report.
The US was also criticized for failing to transfer any money under the Trump administration; Trump pulled the US out of its global climate financing commitments when he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. Under the Obama administration, the US paid $1 billion of a $3 billion commitment it originally made in 2014.
Even with Biden’s new commitment, US allies contribute more to the effort. For instance, the European Union transfers around €25 billion a year (the equivalent of $29.3 billion).
China has invested heavily in new coal projects abroad in the past. According to the Green Belt and Road Initiative Center, which analyzes the BRI, China had announced or planned $160 billion worth of coal-fired plants globally between 2014 and 2020.
While reducing involvement in coal abroad, Beijing also has significant climate work to do domestically, where coal remains the primary energy source by a long shot. China consumed more coal than all other countries in the world put together in 2020, a study by the research group Ember showed. It accounted for 58% of the country’s energy demand in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Though Beijing has repeatedly pledge to “strive” to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, that 2060 decarbonization target is still a decade behind those of the US and European Union.
The assembly is the last major international event before world leaders meet again at the G20 in Rome in October, followed immediately by the UN climate conference in Scotland.
“We are weeks away from the UN climate conference in Glasgow, but seemingly light-years away from reaching our targets,” Guterres said in his initial address. “We must get serious and we must act fast”.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Richard Roth in New York.