China has made a push to promote clean energy domestically in response to complaints about polluted skies and waterways. When it comes to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Africa, however, many projects still run on coal.
Chinese banks and companies have a hand in financing at least 13 coal projects across Africa with nine more in the works, according to Greenpeace.
Since 2000, China has invested more than $50 billion in coal overseas. The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China alone have pumped $6.5 billion into African coal projects, according to data from the Global Development Policy Center at Boston University.
Observers point to the diminishing need for China’s coal expertise, infrastructure and equipment at home as a reason for exporting it.
“It’s a fading industry,” Han Chen, a manager of the international energy policy program at the U.S.-based National Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg. “So they are going places where the environmental standards are low so they can use more polluting equipment that is cheaper to operate.”
Launched in 2013, the BRI is an infrastructure plan to connect Asia, Africa and Europe. Critics contend its purpose is to spread Chinese influence abroad while fueling its economy and loading developing nations with unsustainable debt.
New coal projects create reliance on China, according to Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development. She says China offers below-market loan rates while imposing conditions such as using Chinese companies and workers.
“It is worrying that these projects are locking so many new countries into a cycle of coal dependency for decades to come,” Nacpil told German environmental nonprofit Urgewald.
A vicious debt-trap cycle looms for most newly built coal plants, which have an average life expectancy of about 40 years. The falling cost of renewables and energy storage has made some new solar and wind cheaper than coal.
“Coal investments may increasingly become ‘stranded assets’ as the price of alternatives decreases and the social costs of coal are more realized,” according to the Global Development Policy Center.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has joined the chorus against new coal-burning plants. In a virtual meeting with students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University in July, he criticized ongoing coal projects, although he diplomatically avoided calling out China.
“It is deeply disturbing that new coal power plants are still being planned and financed, even though renewables offer three times more jobs and are now cheaper than coal in most countries,” he said.