Last year the US Government announced plans to set up a Clean Fossil Alliance, with the aim of helping poorer countries that need fossil fuels to develop to use those resources in the cleanest possible way. But the US is late to the party. The Chinese government has long been exporting clean coal to the world’s energy poor, as part of its flagship One Belt One Road policy.
One Belt One Road is a massive programme of infrastructure investment spanning 65 countries that China regards as key strategic partners. While Beijing says it merely wants to improve trading links with these countries, many analysts say the real aim of the policy is to create a zone of Chinese economic and political influence to rival that of the US.
Sherry Madera, a former Director at the British embassy in Beijing, is advising China on how it can “green” these Belt and Road projects, which include telecoms, road, rail, and crucially energy. She says the Chinese government views clean coal as a legitimate form of power generation for countries that struggle to provide energy to all their people, a context that richer countries need to understand: “Western countries can get quite worried about the use of coal in any shape or form”, Madera says, “that comes from the right place; renewable energy is now tumbling in price, pulling any of the black stuff out of the ground will end up with some level of pollution. But we need to be alive and harmonised to the fact that these countries along the Belt and Road are in a very different place economically to where we are. Actually having access to energy at all is the primary objective.”
Clean coal in this context means modern, “ultra-supercritical” coal plants that produce lower levels of pollution by operating at higher efficiencies. In a bid to tackle their own air pollution problem, the Chinese have become experts in the technology, with strict emissions standards forcing the closure of older, dirtier models. China’s coal fleet is regarded as significantly cleaner than its US counterpart, which has only one ultra-supercritical plant in the whole country.
It’s estimated that China has invested $44bn in coal projects overseas since 2000. Despite the fact that the fuel is out of fashion (though still widely used) in the West, energy poor countries like Pakistan, Kenya, and Malawi, where millions still lack electricity, have welcomed this investment and the jobs and growth it brings.
This all means that when it comes to delivering cheap, reliable energy to the world’s poorest Washington has a lot of catching up to do with Beijing.