China’s oil-based investment drive is failing to deliver for Africans

During his tour of Africa this week, Li Keqiang should focus on low-carbon opportunities, like the continent’s largely untapped renewable energy potential

Chinese officials have said that premier Li Keqiang’s tour of Africa this week is not simply about oil deals. That would be a turn up for the books. Sadly, China’s past involvement in the continent has been marked by big oil and the pursuit of other valuable natural resources – an interest which has exploded in recent decades.

China, through its cooperation and investment in Africa, has played an important role in the continent’s development: foreign direct investment has surged from US$392 million in 2005 to US$2.5 billion in 2012. But the fossil-fuel-based China-Africa cooperation is not fulfilling the full development potential of Africa, nor delivering long-term health and resilience for China’s economy.

In fact, Africa is missing out on the purported benefits of its fossil-fuel resources. Mining companies say they are pro-poor and anti-energy poverty, but currently 600 million Africans lack access to electricity, while 80% of the population relies on traditional biomass for cooking and heating.

And, despite this grinding energy poverty, the climate is changing, driven largely by greenhouse-gas emissions from the global energy sector. The effects for millions of Africans, whose crops are failing and who are hungry and thirsty, are disastrous. Of these fossil-fuel emissions, Africa is responsible for about 2.3%, while China is responsible for 10%.

Of course, compared to rich countries historically, per-person emissions in both Africa and China are low. But since the focus of China’s interest has been Africa’s (dirty) energy resources, we might as well talk about the failures of this fossil-fuel-based cooperation to deliver for Africans. We must face up to the choices that have already been made, including the extent to which China and Africa have contributed to the climate crisis we are suffering. And we must highlight the hard decisions both sides must take to get onto an alternative path to sustainable and resilient development.

The question is this: what choices do China and Africa have as they discuss and strengthen their cooperation while we face the greatest challenge of modern times – the challenge of climate change?

In addressing their “strategic interests” (whatever they may be), both Africa and China can also play their part in combatting climate change. In China’s focus on Africa’s energy resources, premier Li may be minded to note Africa’s – largely untapped – renewable energy potential. With the right investment, Africa can transition onto a low-carbon development path, and leapfrog to a green future.

If China is serious about building partnerships with Africa beyond oil, it should signal loudly and clearly that it is now ready to support Africa, building solidarity within the global south, to expand its energy access, without increasing its emissions. 

Building solidarity and cooperation between Africa and China based on an alternative low-carbon path would help realise Sino-African economic ambitions in a sustainable way. Chinese engagement in Africa can and must be a force for good, both for the people and the planet.

In addressing China’s energy problems, we need not gamble with the lives and livelihoods of poor Africans already impacted by a climate crisis they had no hand in causing. And we cannot allow Africa to follow a dirty energy route. We need a new model of cooperation, one that delivers real climate actions at home, while ensuring global partners, particularly industrialised countries, honour historical climate responsibilities and take the actions required to build a safer and fairer future for all.