A new generation of coal power in belt and road countries would be toxic for the environment and for China’s reputation
At the first ever “Belt and Road” forum hosted in Beijing in 2017, President Xi Jinping pledged the US$900 billion infrastructure project would “seize new opportunities … and achieve green and low-carbon development.”
Yet as analysis last month demonstrated, Chinese funding is responsible for more than a quarter of all new coal plants outside its borders, many of which are using outdated technology no longer allowed in China.
President Xi must swiftly reconcile rhetoric and reality. The consequences of a new generation of coal will be toxic for the environment, toxic for financial institutions involved and toxic for China’s reputation.
Failure will be a green dream-turned-nightmare. With the US destined for at least two more years of the energy policy equivalent of trying to remarket the horse and cart, success will mean reinforcing China’s place as the global renewable superpower.
Even leaving aside the health and climate impacts, without subsidies coal can no longer compete with renewable energy on cost
A case in point is Pakistan, a country on the brink of expanding its electricity generation capability with power plants financed and built by China. China’s role in Pakistan’s infrastructure roll-out, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a key part of its belt and road strategy.
Central to the power construction plans is a fleet of new coal-fired power plants some of which will be fuelled by imported coal.
However, there is growing concern over the burden fossil-fuel imports would place on the country’s current account balance and foreign-currency reserves. Indeed, the 1,320MW Rahim Yar Khan imported coal-fired power proposal was shelved only last month.
With the rupee already weakened, Pakistan is alert to the problem and is reportedly focusing on extending its hydropower buildout.
However, a faster, cheaper and more energy-secure alternative is available.
Even leaving aside the health and climate impacts, without subsidies coal can no longer compete with renewable energy on cost.
Given new plants have a lifespan of over 30 years, a bet on the dirtiest of the fossil fuels is a guarantee of billions of dollars in stranded assets Pakistan can ill afford.
This is not lost on some of Pakistan’s provinces. Sindh, for example, is forging ahead with wind and solar. Nationally, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis estimates that reaching a 30 per cent share of electricity generation from renewables by 2030 is highly achievable.
The cost-driven transition to renewables is of course a global trend set to hasten. While the coal price has soared over the past two years, scale combined with technical advances mean renewables will continue to get cheaper.
The impact on the coal industry is stark. According to financial analyst Carbon Tracker, 42 per cent of the world’s coal fleet is already losing money, with this number estimated to rise to 96 per cent by 2030.
In South Africa for example, the China Development Bank’s issuance of a US$2.5 billion loan to the country’s energy utility, Eskom, failed to stop its unsustainable debt levels increasing tenfold over the past decade as it doubled down on coal. There, the price of mismanagement will be paid by families and businesses, who face a 45 per cent increase in energy prices.
This may not break the bank in China, but the reputational damage of supplying high-cost, outdated equipment will be longer lasting. Already, belt and road countries such as Malaysia are pushing back against deals viewed as more in China’s interest than their own. In terms of energy, this centres around the suspicion China is providing concessional finance overseas to provide a soft landing for a dying domestic coal industry.
This can be avoided, and China has the opportunity and the capacity to employ its unique domestic experience to genuinely catalyse ‘green and low-carbon development.’.
Let’s not forget that China has already exceeded its 2020 solar target by more than 50 per cent. While there are still flaws, China’s massive expansion gives it unparalleled insight into the policies, investment and research and development required to create energy infrastructure fit for the next generation, rather than one which should be consigned to the last.
Switching its emphasis firmly away from coal would be a win-win.
It would be good news for countries like Pakistan and the millions of other people living along the belt and road who will avoid decades of high-pollution, high-cost power, and good news for China’s reputation as a trusted partner.
Simon Nicholas is an energy finance analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis