Towards a Solutions-Oriented Approach: China, Africa and Energy Transition Narrative Building

Tunisia. Photo by Anastasia Palagutina via Unsplash.

By Maureen Heydt

Africa is bearing the brunt of the climate crisis despite having done little to contribute to it, at 3.8 percent of global emissions. Against a backdrop of devastating floods and drought, Africa receives approximately 5 percent of global climate finance flows. Meanwhile, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine, rising levels of sovereign debt and interest rate hikes around the world have hamstrung governments from making climate resilient investments.

In terms of China-Africa climate and energy transition narrative building, there are several issues currently clouding this space, including the type of energy sector finance provided by China to African countries, rumors of Chinese ‘debt trap diplomacy’, the role of natural gas and zero-sum power competitions between China and the West.

By debunking some of these narratives, challenges and opportunities for a future direction in China-Africa climate discussions become clear, as do implications for where communications professionals can go next in partnership with research and policy colleagues.

Let’s first dig into the type of energy sector finance provided by China to African countries.

Amid low levels of finance from Western institutions or traditional development finance institutions to Africa, China has helped fill a critical finance gap. But how much of this finance has supported fossil energy rather than renewables?

The Boston University Global Development Policy Center maintains a suite of five interactive public databases that collectively track hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese loans and investment to a variety of sectors, including energy and power plant development. These databases are managed and updated in a bid to provide transparent information to aid research, education, policymaking, journalism and accountability with regards to China’s overseas development finance and projects around the world.

According to the China’s Global Energy Finance (CGEF) Database, from 2000-2021, the China Development Bank (CDB) and Export-Import Bank of China (CHEXIM) committed $49 billion in loans to African governments for 128 energy projects, representing over a third of CDB and CHEXIM’s overseas energy projects.

In terms of the type of energy these loans supported, the loans went to oil ($18 billion), hydropower ($13 billion) and coal ($6 billion), followed by gas/LNG ($3 billion), wind ($611 million), geothermal ($480 million) and solar ($367 million). Unspecified sectors accounted for $7.5 billion.

Looking at what the policy banks have done in the energy sector writ large, they have generally supported a large amount of fossil energy, though hydropower makes up a significant portion of China’s policy bank lending to African energy projects.

Additionally, according to the China’s Global Power (CGP) Database, Chinese policy bank loans and foreign direct investment from Chinese firms have financed 56 power plants in Africa with an overall 173 units. These units represent 25 gigawatts in power generation capacity. Most Chinese-financed power plant units in Africa are hydropower (60 percent), gas (17 percent) and coal (9 percent) -powered units. Solar and wind units account for 8 percent.

When looking at just the power sector, and adding in foreign direct investment,  most Chinese-supported power plants are hydropower projects, and only 9 percent are coal. FDI supported nine wind and solar projects in Africa, while policy banks only supported five projects.

In all, the research team has concluded that while China has taken steps to decarbonize its overseas investments and shift towards a green Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), more can be done to support the development of renewable energy in African countries.

On the second issue of Chinese ‘debt trap diplomacy’, research by Deborah Brautigäm, Professor of Political Economy and Director of the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, has shown that there is no evidence to support the Chinese debt trap diplomacy narrative. Specific to Africa, a recent study proved that Kenya’s Mombasa port does not serve as collateral for the Chinese loan funding Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway.

Even though this narrative has been disproved, alarm among African civil society and media has put pressure on some African governments to be more transparent and judicious about borrowing from China.

Third, the role of natural gas in energy and development is also making headlines. Many African leaders are uniting behind the idea that they cannot develop without natural gas and that it is unfair of the US to ask them to not use it, given the historical disparity in emissions between Africa and the West. China, too, is seen as justification for other Global South countries to follow a fossil-fuel heavy development path before decarbonizing down the road.

If African countries unite to push for financing for domestic gas development, would China step up?

Research by the Boston University Global Development Policy Center has shown China is unlikely to lend a helping hand – or any money at all. Indeed, China has financed less natural gas overseas than major multilateral development banks, and its primary interest in overseas gas is to secure its own domestic supply. However, according to Cecilia Springer, “China has emphasized that it follows host country demand, and if African countries truly unite behind a pro-gas platform, the status quo may change.”

The final aspect of the China-Africa energy transition narrative is that influence in Africa is part of a zero-sum competition between China and the US and Europe.

The reality is that Africa is a diverse continent of 54 countries with varied interests and positions in the energy transition. As Africa, more than any other region, tends to vote as a block in international institutions like the UN, they also can wield quite a bit of influence, particularly when it comes to UN votes over Russia’s war in Ukraine or whether or not to recognize human rights abuses in Xinjiang. African countries and Africa as a bloc should be seen as actors with agency.

Additionally, the challenge of climate change is inherently international – the solutions to shared problems must be collaborative. There is so much to gain for supporting the renewable energy transition in Africa that using a zero-sum narrative forecloses not just the agency of African actors, but also hope of a collaborative solution to the climate crisis.

Support is needed from both the West and China to fill the demand for clean energy access in Africa. The need is great – around 600 million people in Africa lack access to electricity or clean cooking, “making energy and sustainable development deeply intertwined.”

On climate, China is a bit of both the best and the worst – they are currently the biggest emitter, but they are also number one in solar, electric vehicles and wind. They have the best technology and suppliers ready to export China’s renewable know-how around the world.

The West also has a key role to play in stepping up support for renewable energy finance. Like the BRI, the Group of Seven (G7)-led Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) is prioritizing support for projects that address climate change needs.

This is where a different narrative emerges – a narrative that positions renewable energy as a foundation for economic growth in Africa. Because many African countries have not yet invested heavily in fossil fuel-based infrastructure, there is the potential for African countries to build innovative and green energy systems that support economic growth without damaging the climate, to get it right where the West and China got it wrong by building off hydrocarbons.

A 2020 report by the Boston University Global Development Policy Center the SADC Development Finance Resource Centre (SADC-DFRC), the SADC Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (SACREEE), the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the University of Pretoria Centre for Human Rights explored opportunities for financing renewable energy in Southern Africa. The report authors found that, “In Africa, which has some of the lowest rates of energy access and electrification worldwide, renewable energy can be one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to improve access, and a means of contributing to economic development, greener energy consumption and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” Further research by Miquel Muñoz Cabré, Kevin P. Gallagher and Zhongshu Li found Africa as a region has the second-greatest opportunity for renewable energy investment at $210 billion, based on what has been put forward in countries’ Paris Agreement commitments.

The renewable energy transition in Africa could be the world’s best opportunity to develop a new model and approach to sustainable, economic development.

And there is space for China, Western countries and the private sector to support that new approach. What would start to happen in international discourse and media if the more positive narrative about Africa as a first mover, a chance for the world to finally get this right, caught on?

Communications professionals must be cognizant of how narratives make people feel. When people see bad news story after bad news story, increasing climate disasters with incomprehensible devastation, they can feel overwhelmed, and when people feel overwhelmed, there is a tendency to disengage. This is a problem, because again, the challenges of climate change are a shared challenge, and we need stakeholders – including the general public – to stay engaged if we are to find equitable and sustainable solutions.

At the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, we strive to maintain a positive and solutions-oriented approach to communications. For every policy problem identified, we posit solutions derived from our evidence-based research. We push our researchers and policy professionals to identify solutions or policies that could correct the imbalances they have observed in the global economy and international financial system. With this model, we hope to help audiences stay engaged by seeing that there are policies, there are solutions to these problems, and change is possible. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t criticize or point out serious problems or failures when they occur, but that criticism without solutions isn’t very helpful or productive.

Communications professionals must work with research and policy colleagues to support solutions-oriented analysis and commentary and to think about how using more positive narratives around the energy transition can open pathways for new thought or innovation.


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