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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 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden to sign major climate orders, setting up clash with oil industry

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden will sign new executive actions today that provide the clearest signs yet of his climate plans — elevating the issue to a national security priority and kicking off an intense battle with the oil industry.

Driving the news: One move will freeze issuance of new oil-and-gas leases on public lands and waters "to the extent possible," per a White House summary.

Heat wave grips U.S. this week from coast to coast

Computer model projection from the GFS model showing an unusually hot airmass across the western and Central U.S. on Thursday, June 29, 2021. (Weatherbell.com)

A widespread heat wave has begun across the contiguous U.S., with at least 30 million people likely to see temperatures reach or exceed 100°F by the end of the week.

Why it matters: The hot weather, which comes courtesy of another heat dome building across the Southwest, Rockies and then sliding into the western Plains, will only aggravate drought conditions and worsen many of the western wildfires.

VA first federal agency to require COVID vaccines for employees

A medical doctor gives the thumbs-up sign to a COVID-19 patient who is no longer using a respirator at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York City. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday it would require its frontline health care workers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus within the next two months, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The VA is the first federal agency to mandate that employees receive the vaccine. The decision comes as cases of the Delta variant in the U.S. have increased dramatically.