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Coal-fired power's persistence in Asia is a big climate problem, but the reasons some countries can't quit coal — even as other parts of the world are gradually breaking up with the fuel — aren't always so obvious.

Driving the news: Enter a new paper in Energy Research & Social Science that explores what's driving demand for China's financing of coal-fired power plants in the region, even as other power sources are cost-competitive.

Why it matters: It notes building coal plants that lack CO2-trapping tech is "incompatible" with holding global temperature rise to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels — the very longshot goal of the Paris agreement.

  • And the International Energy Agency's main projection shows coal demand growth in India and Southeast Asia over the coming decade, even as it levels off in China and falls elsewhere.

The big picture: Here are some findings from the study led by Tufts University scholars and focuses on India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh...

  • China is a willing source of finance, even as multilateral development banks have moved away from coal-fired power, and Chinese policy does not push investors and companies to go beyond host-country environmental standards.
  • There's a suite of existing relationships between Chinese financiers and suppliers on one hand and countries' energy ministries and power companies.

Yes, but: Looking only at Chinese decisions provides a very incomplete picture, because countries receiving finance tend to have several characteristics that favor coal.

  • The list includes absent or limited emissions control policies tailored specifically to the power sector.
  • There are also "monopolistic utility structures," protections for coal-related jobs, and more.
  • Costs for clean power sources are "perceived to be a barrier," though India's posture is changing.

The intrigue: The analysis also explores wider socio-political forces.

  • For instance, they see policymakers in countries building new plants acting under a "stop rule" mindset in which they make decisions "once a minimally-acceptable option emerges."
  • In these cases, that means readily available Chinese finance and cheap tech that helps provide a solution to fast-rising demand.

The bottom line: China's Belt & Road Initiative could do more to unlock markets for Chinese clean energy tech while also meeting the needs of developing countries in a climate-friendly way.

  • But this will only happen if countries "exercise more agency and/or if Chinese overseas investment policies change," the paper argues.

What we're watching: The incoming Biden administration. Per the Financial Times, President-elect Joe Biden has "vowed to hold China accountable for coal investments through its Belt and Road programme."

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Jan 26, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The rise of corporate renewables

Data: BloombergNEF; Chart: Axios Visuals

Companies worldwide are buying more renewable power than ever, and now some of the biggest U.S. corporations say the Biden administration can help decarbonize the nation's power more quickly.

Why it matters: Corporate procurement of renewables — especially wind and solar — is becoming an important deployment driver as companies take advantage of lower prices and look to meet sustainability pledges.

Dave Lawler, author of World
Jan 26, 2021 - Health

Israel leads in global race to vaccinate

Israeli Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives the coronavirus vaccine. Photo: Miriam Alster/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Israel has administered one vaccine dose to a a remarkable 44% of its population, with the UAE (26%), Seychelles (19%), U.K. (10%), Bahrain (8%) and U.S. (7%) following behind, per Our World in Data.

The flipside: Just 2% of EU residents have received their first shot, leading to consternation across the continent about the slow rollout.

Jan 26, 2021 - World

Former Google CEO and others call for U.S.-China tech "bifurcation"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new set of proposals by a group of influential D.C. insiders and tech industry practitioners calling for a degree of "bifurcation" in the U.S. and Chinese tech sectors is circulating in the Biden administration. Axios has obtained a copy.

Why it matters: The idea of "decoupling" certain sectors of the U.S. and Chinese economies felt radical three years ago, when Trump's trade war brought the term into common parlance. But now the strategy has growing bipartisan and even industry support.