July 5, 2017 - When China halted plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants this year, even as US President Donald Trump vowed to "bring back coal" in America, the contrast seemed to confirm Beijing's new role as a leader in the fight against climate change.
However, new data on the world's biggest developers of coal-fired power plants paints a very different picture: China's energy companies will make up nearly half of the new coal generation expected to go online in the next decade.
These Chinese corporations are building or planning to build more than 700 new coal plants at home and around the world, some in countries that today burn little or no coal, according to tallies compiled by Urgewald, a Berlin-based environmental group. Many of the plants are in China, but by capacity, about a fifth of these new coal power stations are in other countries.
Overall, 1,600 coal plants are planned or under construction in 62 countries, said Urgewald, which uses data from the Global Coal Plant Tracker portal. The new plants would expand the world's coal-fired power capacity by 43 percent.
The fleet of new coal plants would make it virtually impossible to meet the goals set in the Paris climate accord. Electricity generated from fossil fuels such as coal is the biggest single contributor globally to the rise in carbon emissions, which scientists agree is causing the earth's temperatures to rise.
"Even today, new countries are being brought into the cycle of coal dependency," said Urgewald director Heffa Schuecking.
The United States may also be back in the game. Last Thursday, Mr Trump said he wanted to lift Obama-era restrictions on US financing for overseas coal projects as part of an energy policy focused on exports. "We have nearly 100 years' worth of natural gas and more than 250 years' worth of clean, beautiful coal," he said. "We will be dominant. We will export American energy all over the world, all around the globe."
The frenzied addition of coal plants underscores how the world is set to remain dependent on coal for decades, despite fast growth in renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power.
In China, concerns over smog and climate change have prompted a move towards renewables, as have slowing economic growth and a gradual shift in the Chinese economy away from heavy manufacturing and towards consumer industries. But overseas, the Chinese are playing a different game.
Shanghai Electric Group, one of the country's largest electrical equipment makers, has announced plans to build coal power plants in Egypt, Pakistan and Iran with a total capacity of 6,285MW - almost 10 times the 660MW of coal power it has planned in China.
The China Energy Engineering Corp, which has no public plans to develop coal power in China, is building 2,200MW worth of coal-fired power capacity in Vietnam and Malawi. Neither firm responded to requests for comment.
Of the world's 20 biggest coal plant developers, 11 are Chinese, according to a database published by Urgewald. Overall, Chinese firms are behind 340,000MW to 386,000MW of planned coal power expansion worldwide, Urgewald estimated. A typical coal plant has a capacity of about 500MW and burns 1.4 million tonnes of coal each year, enough to power almost 300,000 homes.
Much of China's overseas push has come under the Belt and Road initiative, which calls for up to US$900 billion (S$1.2 trillion) in infrastructure investments overseas, including high-speed railroads, ports, gas pipelines and power plants.
To be sure, China is also a big player in renewables. It is a major exporter of solar panels and wind turbines, and is leading the construction of the Quaid-e-Azam solar park in Pakistan, one of the world's largest. Chinese wind and solar firms are "among the leading renewables companies around the world and play a key role in the dramatic fall of wind and solar power prices", said Mr. Alvin Lin, a Beijing-based climate and energy expert at the Natural Resources Defence Council.