Environmental Impact

China’s experience of economic development has been closely tied with heavy environmental cost at home. China’s rivers and canals are often heavily polluted and much has been made of the smog which is a feature of all China’s large industrial cities. Over the past few years, somewhat catalysed by the Beijing Olympics in 2008, there has been recognition in China of the importance of environmental management. This has involved a reappraisal of the country’s energy needs, while also positioning the Chinese economy to provide for a growing worldwide renewable energy market.

Uranium is a growing concern of China in Africa. There was news this week that China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Corp would look to invest in Namibia’s uranium mines. Fission generation is increasingly attractive to China in offering a replacement for coal power plants to provide the country’s baseline needs. The Chinese bidder will find competition from western firms also eager to get a stake in the growing industry.

China is also looking to Southern Africa for help in other energy areas with continued speculation over the state of investment in South Africa’s Sasol coal to liquid technology. This polluting technology allows for the conversion of coal resources into liquid fuels such as diesel. However for developing countries with large coal resources such as South Africa and China, this is vital to energy security and increasing poverty alleviation.

The implications for Africa’s environment are mixed. Chinese companies now regularly announce solar and wind power plants across Africa, looking especially to take advantage of abundant renewable energy resources across Africa. As has been discussed in previous blogs, this has also caused problems by overstressing already stretched water resources on the continent.

Africa’s solar potential also offers great opportunity, although the cost of photo-voltaic cells and the potential need for repair and improvement weaken the case for rolling out across Africa. Wind power has also been an increasing trend with a major array off the coast of Egypt. China in its attempts to be at the head of the world market is heavily involved in delivering renewable energy to Africa. This interest is a market interest rather than an ideological one. Positive messages around the environment are incidental to a vibrant and growing renewable energy industry.

Apart from high output hydropower plants, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are still in the experimental stage. Large wind power farms require huge investment, and the resulting networks require careful management. While they have clear emissions benefits they are difficult to implement and often result in an impact on biodiversity. Dirty coal power dominates China’s energy generation because it is cheap, easy and available, and suits the needs of a developing country. It could be argued that pressing the case for emissions limits in Africa misses the point in a continent which produces miniscule emissions per capita, but desperately needs development.

Therefore the West demonstrates its own continuing ‘neo-colonialist’ tendency by pushing its agenda for reduced emissions on the continent rather than making the painful cuts themselves. In my own opinion the only fair measure for emissions on a global scale, is to calculate a per capita threshold each country should target which is the same the world over.

By exerting pressure on developing countries to ignore cheap and available technologies and processes in favour of greener options, developed nations effectively limit these countries development, in the knowledge that to do the same at home would be politically un-passable.

This is exemplified by complaints over China’s environmental impact in Africa. In many cases there remains a choice between Western and Chinese firms in some investment areas. Where the western firm bears in mind deleterious long term effects of erosion from deforestation, and effects on biodiversity, this focus is certainly justified. Western companies have had the experience to develop sophisticated environmental and social management techniques, and native governments should be wary of encouraging a race to the bottom based only on price. However criticism of Chinese and African actors for transferring polluting industries like tanneries, to Africa is very different.

Ethiopian news this week picked up in the opening of a new tannery adding to a growing industry in the country, for export to Europe. The number of tanneries has grown from 22 to 30 in recent years, the largest of which employs 600 local people. While the industry brings with it environmental side effects, value added employment is the priority. The role of developed countries should be to deliver aid programs which help to mitigate these problems, and provide solutions which provide environmental benefit without impinging on development.

While China’s policies seem callous in environmental terms, they are much more closely aligned with economic development needs. It is little wonder that African governments find Chinese actors more aligned with their needs.