China Funds Africa’s Fossil Fuel Renaissance—To Africa’s and the World’s Peril

China is pushing major advances in Africa’s energy sector. It will inevitably use the African fossil fuel sector as security for its own future energy needs. The geopolitical consequences could be serious.

Countries in Africa are in dire need of economic uplift for which a fossil-fuel supported energy sector is indispensable. In a world of growing opposition to fossil fuels, China has become Africa’s key fossil fuel enabler.

Africa Must Move Forward, and Fossil Fuels Are an Absolute Necessity

The African continent is at a critical phase of development. Decades of slow economic development are proving to be a major hurdle in tackling poverty, expanding access to basic utilities, and overall improvement of living standards.

To break free from this persistent lack of growth, Africa countries must adopt the tried and tested method of economic growth and industrialization used in Europe, North America, and Asia: a strong energy sector that aids a budding industrial economy.

Developed economies across the globe achieved phenomenal success during the 20th century by using fossil fuels to provide the energy required for the industries, households, and transportation.

But the anti-fossil fuel lobby threatens Africa’s ambitions. Even Africa’s primary funders, like the African Development Bank, have stopped funding fossil-fuel projects. This is a big blow to Africa’s ambitions to break free from centuries of poverty and the existing $50 billion per annum investment gap in Africa’s energy sector.

Denying African countries’ energy sovereignty will perpetuate widespread poverty and delay economic progress. China is stepping in to aid African countries with fossil fuel development.

The Fossil Fuel Genie: China

Despite signing the Paris climate agreement, and even aiming to achieve “Net Zero target by 2060,” China has been an active enabler of fossil fuel production and technology deployment in Africa.

Since 2000, China has funded $51.8 billion for coal projects globally, and its total contribution to foreign energy is valued at $245.8 billion. Through its $1 billion “Belt and Road” initiative, China is involved in fossil-fuel projects with over 70 countries and international organizations, including in Africa. China’s trade with Africa is already worth $200 billion per year, and its fossil fuel investments are expected to take this number higher.

China’s interest in Africa’s fossil fuel sector helps secure its imports for the future. Beijing’s own oil reserves are depleting rapidly, and the power demand from fossil fuels is projected to surge in coming decades. China has provided funds for at least 13 coal projects in Africa and plans to fund nine more.

In Nigeria alone, China’s investment in oil and gas is estimated to be more than $16 billion. It is expected to help Nigerian authorities achieve their target of producing three million barrels a day by 2023.

Three-fourths of the revenue for Nigeria’s federal budget comes from its oil industry. Continued Chinese interest (since 2005) is helping the country’s race against poverty. Around 40 percent of the population in Nigeria lives in poverty. Nigeria has also been benefiting from domestic interest in fossil-fuel expansion. Nigeria’s richest man is building a multi-billion dollar oil refinery that will process 650,000 barrels per day and create 230,000 indirect jobs once it starts operating in the first quarter of 2022.

Oil reserves off the coast of South Sudan hold a promising future and are considered the third largest in Africa. Again, China is the leading oil and gas operator in the region despite its sociopolitical instability. To make itself immune from that instability, China has hired private security to help expedite its oil and gas installations in Africa.

Chinese energy interests in South Sudan date back to the mid-1990s It has maintained a near monopoly in the region since then. Dr. David H. Shinn, adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University, noted, “China wants to retain its substantial petroleum investment in South Sudan to take advantage of current oil production and on the assumption that better days will come ….When that happens, Chinese companies will be well placed to develop new oil fields in the country. This is part of China’s long-term strategy even if it means tolerating short-term losses.”

In poverty-stricken Zimbabwe, Chinese investment in a coal project has raised hopes for a brighter future. Zimbabweans have experienced power blackouts as lengthy as 18 hours a day, because the government has not been able to produce more electricity and lacks funds to import it. The $4.2 billion Chinese investment in a coal project near Lake Kariba will improve the energy and economic situation.

Zimbabwe’s neighbor South Africa has been battling its own problems with the aging and underperforming Eskom, the state power utility company. China has stepped with a $4.5 billion investment in a power plant.

The list of China’s energy investments in Africa is quite long. Beijing has invested in most other countries in Africa, including some of the poorest like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Niger, Ethiopia, and Mozambique.

The anti-fossil lobby in Europe and North America has been observing China’s fossil fuel enablement in Africa. The powers in Brussels and Washington may see China’s carbon footprint in Africa as an impediment to their global renewable energy mandate.

But for those who are concerned about the development of Africa -- the conquest of poverty there -- like Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru, “China is already winning the hearts and the minds of Africans.” He argues that China has enabled the “African governments to meet their people’s rapidly growing demands for services and infrastructure more quickly… China has lifted about 800 million people out of poverty through its untraditional path of development.”

China’s growing presence in Africa and the increasing indebtedness of African nations to it could prove a geopolitical threat to Western powers and to democracy in Africa. The last thing the world needs is a Chinese-controlled African continent. International funders should resume funding fossil-fuel projects, providing economic and democratic stability in the region.

Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and resides in Bengaluru, India.

Image: Raminagrobis

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