One major source of concern is the Belt and Road Initiative — an infrastructure and investment program widely seen as an attempt by China to construct a massive, multi-national zone of economic and political influence that has Beijing at its center.

The coal investments come in various forms: Chinese banks and companies provide financing, construction and equipment, said Huang. That is even as China continues to invest and promote renewables such as wind and solar energy.

“It is a complicated web of involvement, but ultimately all investments in coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, are bad for everyone involved — recipient country, China and the planet as a whole,” Huang said in an email to CNBC.

A more recent report by Greenpeace and counterparts Sierra Club and Coalswarm shows the extent of Chinese involvement in coal plants overseas, revealing that Asia leads the world in new coal power building even though overall coal plant construction is falling globally.

CoalSwarm, which describes itself as a network of researchers studying fossil fuels and alternatives, estimated Chinese firms are involved in the construction, ownership, or financing of at least 16 percent of all coal-fired power stations under development outside China.

By the end of 2016, Chinese companies and banks had been involved in 240 coal-fired power projects in 25 of the 65 countries along the Belt and Road, according to research released in May 2017 by the Beijing-based Global Environment Institute.

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