How a Liberal Think Tank Did China's Bidding on Climate Change

Everything CAP thought it knew about coal in China was wrong

A Chinese factory in 2016 / Getty Images
June 24, 2021

In 2017, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a report praising China's "truly impressive" shift away from coal. The report came after the liberal think tank's energy experts met with Chinese government officials to "find out what is really happening" with the communist nation's emissions trajectory. China's leaders, those experts concluded, had made the "strategic choice" to crack down on coal-fired power and "grab the clean energy bull by the horns."

Fast forward four years, and the opposite has occurred. In the months following CAP's visit to China, the country began rapidly growing its coal power capacity as government officials prioritized economic growth over "intermittent and unstable" renewable energy sources. The think tank has since acknowledged this trend, debunking its own report—and the Chinese regime's promises—in the process.

CAP often holds "staff research trips" to China to work with organizations in the country, including the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a registered foreign agent backed by the Chinese Communist Party's foreign influence arm.

Shortly after CAP released its report, Beijing repeatedly loosened its restrictions on coal projects from 2017 to 2019, sparking a mad dash to build new power plants. China's coal consumption went on to reach a record high in 2020, and the expansion isn't slowing down anytime soon. The nation is now in the process of constructing an additional 246 gigawatts of coal power—nearly six times Germany's entire coal fleet, according to a Global Energy Monitor briefing.

CAP acknowledged China's "deeply concerning" expansion of coal power in a 2021 assessment, noting that the trend contradicts "many expert opinions that China's economic growth had already decoupled from coal consumption." The think tank, however, did not cite its own experts.

CAP's 2017 report also touted China's efforts to shut down old, inefficient power plants in exchange for "next-generation clean coal," an "integral" part of the government's plan to "overdeliver" on its emissions reduction commitments. By 2020, the think tank contended, "all coal-fired units nationwide" would be "shut down" if they didn't achieve the increased emissions standards.

That, too, did not come to fruition. Beijing has made numerous exceptions to the policy, even going as far as reopening shuttered coal plants to deal with heating shortages. CAP conceded in May that "incremental gains in coal plant efficiency are not enough to significantly change China's emissions trajectory"—a direct contradiction of its 2017 report.

Heritage senior policy analyst Katie Tubb said China has not been "forthright or honest" when releasing emissions data and questioned the notion that the Chinese government's climate rhetoric should be trusted.

"China has every political incentive to tell one story and to do otherwise," Tubb said. "We've seen evidence of that over and over again, and not just on the climate issue."

CAP did not return a request for comment.

The think tank's liberal media allies were quick to use the report to attack President Donald Trump's criticism of the Paris climate accords. According to a 2017 Vox piece, CAP's report "utterly destroys the conservative argument" that "China is the real problem and it isn't doing anything" on climate change.

"In short, while the U.S. dithers along in a cosmically stupid dispute over whether science is real, China is tackling climate change with all guns blazing," the outlet wrote. "The U.S., not China, is the laggard in the relationship."

CAP has extensive ties to the Biden administration. At least 61 of the think tank's alumni are now working for the administration, according to a Business Insider analysis.

Included in the group is former CAP president and CEO Neera Tanden, whom President Joe Biden appointed as senior White House adviser in May. The appointment came after the Biden administration withdrew Tanden's nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.). Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, also served on CAP's board of directors for years.

Correction, July 2, 8:00 pm: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that CUSEF paid CAP founder John Podesta $900,000 to lobby Congress from 2015 to 2017. The Chinese group paid The Podesta Group. CAP says John Podesta had no financial ties to The Podesta Group at the time of its work with CUSEF. We regret the error.