Cascading climate impacts and Africa’s engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative

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Cascading climate impacts and Africa’s engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Michael Addaney

11 Jan 2021

7min min read
  • Climate

African countries are responding to traditional and emerging security threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic, global climate crisis and political crises. The increasing level of internal unrest, evident in the recent #EndSARS protests in Nigeria and emerging civil war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in the middle of a wicked pandemic, aggravate existing risks on the continent. Although Africa has been largely spared by the COVID-19 pandemic despite a second wave in selected countries, national and pan-regional responses have so far exposed the continent’s existing vulnerabilities and preparedness for natural and human-induced emergencies. Furthermore, existing traditional developmental challenges such as endemic poverty, socioeconomic inequalities, food insecurity, unsustainable public debt, poor social and public infrastructure delivery (eg healthcare, energy and water provisioning set-ups) put a lot of African countries on the edge. As concerns regarding the rollout, affordability and availability of the COVID-19 vaccines in Africa abound, countries continue to battle the pandemic. However, it should not lose sight of other major development and security threats, with climate change being one of the main ones.

Climate change is an acceptable reality with consequences for current and future generations. Finding a lasting solution to this environmental crisis requires reducing greenhouse emissions, but this will not happen fast enough to prevent serious and irreparable damages. The earth has already warmed by 1°C above pre-industrial levels and current scientific evidence reveals that, at the current rate of emissions, warming will reach 1.5°C by 2050. This will be more dangerous to human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, energy production, housing and economic growth. The devastating Cyclone Idai in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe; locust invasion in East Africa, dangerous mudslides in Sierra Leone and flooding in Ghana are a few examples of the negative impacts of a changing climate in Africa. As these impacts are already being felt across Africa, which has been one of the earliest and hardest hit regions due to its low capacity to respond, finding ways to adjust and adapt human and ecological systems to the changing climate is obligatory.

Decades of dealing with the impacts of disasters indicates that, although humans have some ability to absorb and recover from extreme weather events, losses and damages can set economies and development back years, even decades. Due to this, there is a recognition that strategic and deliberate measures are needed to ensure that countries are able to progress despite climate change. For instance, to address unreliable rainfall and water scarcity, the City of Cape Town in South Africa recently imposed emergency measures in response to the worst drought in the country in living memory which has been attributed to climate change. People in Africa are mostly helpless in dealing with the negative effects of climate change because of overreliance on agriculture, poor infrastructure, underdevelopment and low technology.

In 2013, the Chinese Government adopted the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which focuses on infrastructural investment in contributing countries including those in Africa. This article argues that this initiative may help participating African countries to build much-needed strategic infrastructure and to industrialise, thereby potentially enhancing their ability to cope with the devastating impacts of climate change. Here is why.

Proven links between climate change adaptation and infrastructural investment

Even though Africa’s uses only 2% of greenhouse gas emissions, it suffers disproportionately from climate change and its effects. The effects of climate change were seen in flooding in West Africa, the locust invasion in East Africa, changing rainfall in the southern Africa and the drying up of lakes such as Lake Chad. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the unsustainable nature of public debts in Africa, which seriously undermines the external loan-dependent infrastructural investment on the continent. Conversely, studies show that effectively implementing regional and national responses to enable societies adapt to climate change in Africa depends on the quantity and type of investment finance that is available. In addition to this, research shows that fruitfully executing the African Union (AU) and its member states’ policy responses to climate change adaptation requires good governance, strong institutional capability and financial capacity. Thus, addressing the negative effects of climate change in the face of decreasing international support requires responsible investment in priority sectors. Despite the potential benefits of the BRI, the AU and African governments must strengthen their agency, negotiation approach and policy framework for mutually beneficial cooperation. How can the BRI strengthen Africa’s adaptive capacity to climate change bearing in mind that the initiative primarily advocates for China's national interests, not Africa’s?

Limited infrastructure, opportunities from the BRI

Climate change is likely to have huge impact on almost all infrastructural sectors. These effects are direct and indirect involving roads and transport, power and energy, water resources and agriculture and industry. For example, extreme climatic events such as flooding pose challenges to already stressed hydro-electric dams. Because about 70 per cent of the continent’s electricity supply is generated from hydroelectric power sources, this worsens the situation on a continent where nearly 620 million people do not have access to electricity. Most African governments are not able to address this ongoing problem due to inadequate financing leading to high transmission losses, outmoded and poor maintenance of equipment. For instance, a report of the African Progress Panel in 2015 showed that Africa’s energy infrastructure needs $63 billion to fully serve the continent. This finding implies that African states have to utilise other multilateral and bilateral avenues such as the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) linked to the BRI to secure the much-needed funding to address its climate change challenge.

How can this be done? During the 10th BRICS Summit held in South Africa in July 2018, the Chinese government explained that the BRI will support participating countries to improve their transportation, energy infrastructure and trade. In his recent remarks during the 12th BRICS Summit in Russia on 17 November 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping encouraged national governments and the international community to pursue green and low-carbon development as climate change will not stop due to COVID-19. He further reiterated China’s preparedness to honour its international responsibilities and to continue to undertake critical efforts to address climate change. This indicates that China, at least, is committed to the global fight against climate change.

Furthermore, the HSBC estimates the BRI to cost more than $1 trillion and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing and the Silk Road Fund are dedicated to lending for projects associated with the initiative. However, there is ample evidence to show that BRI spending has fallen sharply over the past years, making it difficult to imagine that the Chinese will ever reach that magical $1 trillion figure. African governments must closely monitor the projected spending as it may be this high but because there is no transparency in the Chinese system, it is difficult to know how much they’ve spent or are spending. Evidence, however, suggests that China’s foreign direct investments (FDIs) on the African continent grew by 21.7 percent between 2010 and 2015. Although FDI includes both public and private investment which is not necessarily connected at all to BRI, together, they could both contribute to diversify the economies of both developing and emerging economies in Africa and consequently enhance their resilience to impacts of climate change. Thus, on the face of it, the BRI seems ready to transform a number of economic, social and strategic landscapes that African countries can tap into to strengthen their ailing infrastructure, industrial and energy sectors. Already, some 46 African countries have joined the BRI including Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa and Mozambique, with Botswana being the latest to officially sign to join the initiative.

Pitfalls to avoid and avenues for gains

Despite the development opportunities presented by the BRI, the debate on its impact is usually framed around winners and losers. One may correctly observe that the BRI is an effort by China to expand its global influence at the expense of the United States. That is not necessarily to say it is a zero-sum equation but there is definitely something to this and African stakeholders must be mindful of this in their engagement with the Chinese government. With regards to the China exporting its infrastructure development model, there is a lot of academic research that supports the notion that BRI is very much about absorbing excess Chinese capacity and leveraging a state-led capitalist development model in places with weak legal and governance regimes like Africa. African stakeholders who are interested in job creation, modernising agriculture and boosting local industries should therefore be very strategic in negotiating loans and investments linked to BRI if they are to mutually gain from the initiative without killing their local industries and creating job opportunities of Chinese citizens at the expense of their own teeming youth population.

The BRI can potentially help African countries avoid the challenges related to climate change, but at the moment an estimated 90% of BRI investments are in the energy sector with 72% in fossil fuel energy sources. For instance, the China-backed Lamu coal plant in Kenya would have increase the country's greenhouse gas emissions by some 700%. Indeed, the initiative incorporates key objectives to ensure that infrastructure projects are socio-economically and environmentally sustainable across the participating countries. It was clearly articulated during the 2017 Beijing BRI summit that the BRI is guided by the Chinese principle of ecological civilisation and green development concepts. Thus, the BRI follows the principle of being resource-efficient and environmentally friendly, and embeds the concept of 'green' into efforts in policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds (known as the Five Goals’), and incorporates eco-environment protection into all aspects and whole process of the ‘Belt and Road’ building. African stakeholders should thus familiarise themselves with these policy imperatives underpinning the BRI in order to negotiate for projects from an informed position. It must be noted that the combined carbon emissions of African countries is still negligible (less than 5 percent) compared to China (27 %), US (14.6), India (6.8) and the European Union (9%) and thus, the Draft African Union Strategy on Climate Change prioritises adaptation over mitigation due the continent’s low per capita emissions.

Climate change, uneven development, unsustainable public debt and resource scarcity have become the subject of growing policy attention even as the African region grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. African governments who are still interested in engaging the Chinese government must do so in a more responsible and strategic manner. Indeed, climate change will force all countries to take action in some way, whether it is through mitigation, adaptation or transformation of each country's development trajectories. This transformation can take place in many different places and scales as addressing climate change head-on requires international and pan-continental approaches.

This piece was first presented at the Writing for Impact Workshop organised by the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies from 11th – 12th October 2019 in Washington DC, USA.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (3rd R) speaks during his bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 15 May 2017. – Etienne Oliveau/AFP via Getty Images)