In a rare address to the UN General Assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday made a major new climate commitment on behalf of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
China will not build any new coal-fired power projects abroad, Xi said in a pre-recorded speech. The vow marks a shift in policy around its sprawling Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which had already begun to draw down its coal initiatives.
China will also increase financial support for green and low-carbon energy projects in other developing countries, he said.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres had appealed to world leaders earlier in the day to show solidarity and act on the climate crisis, warning that humanity was on track for a “hellscape” of temperature rise that would bring “catastrophe.” At the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York, Guterres asked nations to end subsidies on fossil fuels, end the use of coal, invest in renewable energy, and tax carbon and pollution “instead of people’s income.”
“The climate alarm bells are also ringing at fever pitch,” he said. “The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a code red for humanity. We see the warning signs in every continent and region — scorching temperatures, shocking biodiversity loss, polluted air, water and natural spaces.”
China still has work to do on climate at home, Xi Jinping acknowledged, reiterating a prior pledge to “strive” to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
“This requires tremendous hard work and we will make every effort,” the Chinese leader said.
China’s 2060 decarbonization target is still a decade behind those of the US and European Union.
Coal is also still China’s primary energy source by a long shot. China consumed more coal than all other countries in the world put together in 2020, a study by the research group Ember showed. It accounted for 58% of the country’s energy demand in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
In his own speech to the assembly, US President Joe Biden announced he will work with Congress to double again the United States’ financial commitment to support developing nations. Biden pledged in April the US would increase its contribution to global climate financing to $5.7 billion per year, putting his new commitment around $11 billion per year.
“In April, I announced the US will double our public international financing to help developing nations tackle the climate crisis, and today, I’m proud to announce that we will work with the Congress to double that number again, including for adaptation efforts,” Biden said.
More than a decade ago, world leaders from developed countries agreed to contribute $100 billion a year to support countries in the Global South that are facing the most direct impacts of climate, a goal that was missed. In 2019, developed countries contributed $79.6 billion for developing countries, around $20 billion short of the $100 billion annual goal, according to a recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report.
The US was also criticized for failing to transfer any money under the Trump administration; Trump pulled the US out of its global climate financing commitments when he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. Under the Obama administration, the US paid $1 billion of a $3 billion commitment it originally made in 2014.
Even with Biden’s new commitment, US allies contribute more to the effort. For instance, the European Union transfers around €25 billion a year (the equivalent of $29.3 billion).
The assembly is the last major international event before world leaders meet again at the G20 in Rome in October, followed immediately by the UN climate conference in Scotland.
“We are weeks away from the UN climate conference in Glasgow, but seemingly light-years away from reaching our targets,” Guterres said. “We must get serious and we must act fast”.
Guterres’ speech revealed his increasing impatience and frustration with leaders. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — whose government has allowed rampant deforestation in the Amazon — is also speaking Tuesday.
The UN chief’s speech and newly strident tone comes as Guterres prepares to launch his next five-year term as UN Secretary General. It also comes amid a global political landscape that has itself grown more moderate in tenor since the exit of former US President Donald Trump.
The Secretary General and President Biden met briefly on Monday evening at Biden’s Manhattan hotel, with a discussion that “reaffirmed the strong partnership between the United Nations and the United States, anchored in shared principles and values,” Guterres’ office said.
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