Chinese-built Java 7 coal-fired power plant in Serang, Banten, Indonesia, October 2020. © 2020 RONALD SIAGIAN/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that the Chinese government would “not build new coal-fired power projects abroad” and would instead “step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy.” If implemented, this could mark the beginning of a shift by China to support clean energy and end coal plant construction in the Global South. It would be a major step forward for global efforts to address the climate crisis.

Coal-fired power projects are a major contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and the air pollution that takes the lives of millions prematurely each year. China remains the world’s largest emitter. Many of the world’s largest economies have committed to phase out coal and embrace cleaner energy. Yet Beijing has given coal a lifeline by providing over US$115 billion in support for overseas coal between 2000 and 2017, mostly in the Global South. Significant progress in tackling the climate crisis is hard to imagine without Beijing moving away from coal.

But major questions remain. Will the policy apply to the many coal projects that Beijing is already supporting overseas? And which financial institutions and enterprises are included in this pronouncement given the dozens of Chinese companies involved in overseas coal?

The Chinese government’s support for domestic coal also continues to be a major problem. There are few signs that the government is moving away from coal domestically as it commissioned 76 percent of global coal plant starts in 2020. China’s 38.4 gigawatts (GW) of new coal plants is more than all of those retired globally in 2020. Chinese cities regularly have some of the most polluted air on Earth, which caused the premature deaths of 1.24 million people in China in 2017 alone.

President Xi wants to be seen as a climate leader and this announcement is a step in that direction. His strong statement aligns with other major emitters who are phasing out coal and could mark significant progress for China’s climate ambitions. But to be a genuine leader, Beijing needs to confront its own domestic coal problem by not building new coal plants and phasing out existing plants, and raise the bar for major emitters to increase their own ambitions ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasglow in November.