In 2021, China unilaterally announced that it would stop building new coal-fueled power plants overseas, which was lauded as an important climate milestone. However, this decision stands in contrast to the nation’s continued support for the domestic use of coal plants. In a Policy Forum, Christoph Nedopil discusses this dichotomy and provides new insights into how these decisions were made. According to Nedopil, the findings could inform efforts to improve environmental cooperation with China. China has become the world’s greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and its international influence through trade, finance, and investment – which is among the biggest in the world – has tremendous implications for global biodiversity and climate. According to Nedopil, addressing global environmental risks cannot succeed without transforming China’s domestic and international economy. However, China’s decision to nix overseas coal while supporting domestic use seems incongruent with the plans of other nations and even appears at odds with the common view of China’s “authoritarian environmentalism” approach to the environment. Here, Nedopil provides an analysis into how China’s coal strategy came to be. According to the author, short-term economic and financial considerations, rather than environmental considerations, determined the decision-making surrounding an overseas coal exit, which was enabled by a small number of influential pro-exit stakeholders and international partners. On the other hand, complex stakeholder pressures made domestic coal exit politically riskier, which determined the domestic environmental agenda, which supports the expansion of both coal and renewables. The findings suggest that environmental cooperation with China needs to distinguish between domestic and international engagement due to the different perceptions of Chinese risks. According to Nedopil, international environmental engagement with China should build on economic and financial risks, and domestic engagement needs to focus on stakeholder complexity and knowledge diplomacy.
Lessons from China’s overseas coal exit and domestic support
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