UNITED NATIONS — Chinese leader Xi Jinping said on Tuesday that China would not build new coal-fired power projects abroad, using his address at the United Nations General Assembly to add to pledges to deal with climate change.
Xi provided no details, but depending on how the policy is implemented, the move could significantly limit the financing of coal plants in the developing world.
China has been under heavy diplomatic pressure to put an end to its coal financing overseas because it could make it easier for the world to stay on course to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement to reduce carbon emissions.
Xi's announcement followed similar moves by South Korea and Japan earlier this year, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry have urged China to follow the lead of its Asian counterparts.
"China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad," Xi said in his pre-recorded video address at the annual U.N. gathering, in which he stressed China's peaceful intentions in international relations.
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Kerry quickly welcomed Xi's announcement, calling it a "great contribution" and a good beginning to efforts needed to achieve success at the Oct. 31-Nov. 12 COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
"We’ve been talking to China for quite some period of time about this. And I’m absolutely delighted to hear that President Xi has made this important decision," Kerry said in a statement.
Alok Sharma, the head of COP26, also hailed the announcement.
"It is clear the writing is on the wall for coal power. I welcome President Xi’s commitment to stop building new coal projects abroad — a key topic of my discussions during my visit to China," he said on Twitter.
In a measured speech, Xi made no direct mention of China's often bitter rivalry with the United States, where the Biden administration has made policies on climate change mitigation a top priority and sought to cooperate with Beijing.
Xi repeated pledges from last year that China would achieve a peak in carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060.
Some experts have criticized those targets as not ambitious enough, though it allowed Beijing to claim moral high ground on the issue after then-U.S. President Donald Trump, who had called climate change a "hoax," withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.
China, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, is still heavily reliant on coal for its domestic energy needs.
One of Biden's first moves after assuming office in January was to reassert U.S. leadership on climate change and return the United States to the Paris agreement, the goal of which is to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels.
"China was the last man standing. If there's no public finance of coal from China, there's little to no global coal expansion," Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, a group advocating a global transition from coal and fossil fuels, said of Xi's promise.
Guterres welcomed both Xi's move on coal and Biden's pledge to work with the U.S. Congress to double funds by 2024 to $11.4 billion per year to help developing nations deal with climate change.
"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," he said in a statement.