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Slowing the Growth of Coal Power Outside China: The Role of Chinese Finance

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Published: November 25, 2015

Executive Summary

In recent years, China has grown into a major provider of coal power finance in overseas markets, replacing financing by major development institutions while providing potentially less stringent environmental guidelines. In September 2015, China made a surprise announcement that it would commit to “controlling public investment flowing” into high carbon overseas projects. This was followed by an announcement in November 2015 that OECD countries are committing to common standards for coal subsidies, also potentially significantly restricting international finance for coal power.

These announcements have been closely followed by the climate community, while information about overseas coal finance, particularly Chinese finance, has been lacking. Thanks to a new data collection effort, CPI has been able to identify China’s role in international coal power generation deployment and to provide the most complete estimate of Chinese finance for overseas coal projects to date.

In absolute terms, we estimate that USD 21-38 billion worth of Chinese finance went to overseas coal power projects over the last ten years and, prior to the commitment, USD 35-72 billion worth was planned to finance new overseas projects.

The USD 35-72 billion figure represents an estimated 11-21% of total overseas coal finance (after adjusting for projects that are unfeasible and likely to be cancelled, irrespective of the recent commitments). However, other nations, international investors and lenders also play an important role, with investment estimated at USD 272-307 billion. By comparison, local investment for coal power is estimated at USD 218 billion.

Recipients of Chinese coal power finance

In terms of where Chinese overseas coal finance is going, we find that most of the historical Chinese coal power financing went towards South Asia and Southeast Asia, with three countries – India, Indonesia, and Vietnam – representing around 60% of the total. China’s focus on Asian countries is in line with its overall direct investment trend in the region. More recently, China started diversifying the destination countries in its “portfolio”, with multi-billion dollar projects being planned in Pakistan, India, and Russia, together representing more than 50% of the total Chinese overseas coal finance that hasn’t yet reached financial closure.

Chinese public finance and support for state-owned enterprises

The vast majority of Chinese overseas coal finance to date is comprised of debt associated with equipment exports and engineering, procurement and construction contracts, provided by policy banks like China Development Bank and China Eximbank as well as Chinese commercial banks typically supported by China’s export credit insurer, Sinosure.

For projects still at the planning stage, however, the portion of equity has increased significantly to more than 20% of total Chinese financing – reflecting a greater interest in overseas investments by Chinese state-owned enterprises. Overseas public finance and guarantees on export and construction contracts facilitate the expansion of an overseas market and help the Chinese government foster its own domestic economic growth and address the coal power industry’s domestic overcapacity while working towards goals to reduce air pollution. To this end, the Chinese government has been providing financial and fiscal support to companies that are expanding their overseas investments, thus enabling Chinese engineering, procurement and construction companies to bid lower than the competition on project contracts and obtain a larger market share of overseas coal power development.

Of the USD 35-72 billion expected investment in planned projects, we estimate that the Chinese government could potentially discontinue plans to invest up to USD 18 billion in overseas coal power. This is in addition to the planned projects that are unfeasible and would not have gone ahead even without the commitment. The role of other international investors however is also critically important, given their even more significant role, compared to China, in financing overseas coal projects.