President Xi Jinping says China will stop financing the construction of new coal-fired power plants abroad. The move could sharply limit the worldwide expansion of coal, which produces significant heat-trapping emissions.
The announcement provides some needed momentum as countries prepare to negotiate major new climate change commitments in November at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland. Globally, emissions are still rising, at a time when scientists warn that they need to fall almost 50% by 2030 to avoid more extreme storms, heat waves and drought.
Xi didn't give a timetable for ending the overseas coal financing, and didn't address China's plans to keep building coal-fired plants at home.
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Xi also said China will support the development of renewable energy abroad. China was the financial backbone for about half of the coal projects being planned worldwide, in countries such as South Africa, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, according to a report by the think tank E2G.
"This opens the door to bolder climate ambition from China and other key countries, at home and abroad, ahead of the global climate talks in Glasgow," Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
While renewable energy has grown significantly in China, coal power is still king and is expected to continue growing there. Many other countries are seeing the opposite trend. Natural gas and renewable energy like solar and wind have become significantly cheaper, causing many coal-powered projects to be cancelled worldwide in recent years.
Xi also reiterated China's overall climate pledge: emissions will peak before 2030 and the country will become carbon neutral by 2060. "This requires tremendous hard work and we will make every effort to meet these goals," he said.
The U.S. and other countries have been pressing China to make stronger commitments to cut emissions. China leads the world in producing greenhouse gases, a position the U.S. held until 2006.
Under current worldwide commitments, global emissions are expected to rise by about 16% in 2030, compared to 2010. That would put the planet on track for more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit of warming by 2100. At that point, rising sea levels would inundate coastlines, extreme heat waves would be significantly more common and more intense floods and droughts would potentially displace tens of millions of people.
"While today's announcements are welcome, we still have a long way to go to make COP26 a success and ensure that it marks a turning point in our collective efforts to address the climate crisis," UN Secretary-General António Guterres said.