Belt & Road linked Projects could boost Infrastructure Development and Industrialization.
A majority of Africans across the continent face numerous challenges in coping with the adverse effects of climate change. Droughts, El Niño weather patterns, flooding, poor infrastructure and low technology all play a role in the increasing threats to lives and livelihoods.
A number of studies suggest that climate change adaptation in Africa will depend heavily on external investment. Many African governments see projects initiated under China’s massive Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) as a way to help build much-needed infrastructure and help 46 participating African countries industrialize, strengthening their ability to cope with the effects of climate change.
My research, however, suggests that many other factors matter, too. Good governance, strong institutional capability and domestic funding are all necessary underpinnings to ensure successful climate change adaptation within any country. China’s initiative, however, does not directly support domestic actions toward institutional building.
My research, along with other political science research, suggests it’s important that the African Union and African governments strengthen their agency, negotiation approaches and policy frameworks to achieve the “win-win cooperation” that Chinese President Xi Jinping has reiterated as the BRI’s overall goal.
Many African Governments Lack Funds to Address Climate Threats
Can the Belt and Road Initiative strengthen Africa’s adaptive capacity and mitigate the effects of climate change? To find out, I analyzed relevant African Union laws, government documents, academic papers and other information on climate change, along with documents related to the BRI and BRI projects in Africa.
I found that climate change is likely to have a huge impact on almost all infrastructure sectors. From roads and transport to power and energy, water resources, agriculture and industry, virtually no area of life will be untouched. For example, extreme climatic events such as flooding pose challenges to Africa’s vital hydroelectric dams. With Africa getting about 70 percent of its electricity supply from hydroelectric power sources, the prospect of worsening droughts and floods poses a critical infrastructure threat on a continent where nearly 600 million people already lack access to electricity.
The consequences of potential climate-related electricity failures are significant, as Africa’s electricity grid already suffers from outdated equipment and inadequate maintenance. The Africa Energy Outlook 2019 report, for instance, notes that it will require an annual investment of $120 billion over the next decade to broaden access to electricity across the continent. African countries have thus looked to multilateral and bilateral sources to secure much-needed funding for traditional energy infrastructure as well as investments in renewables and other green energy sources.
Can China help Africa Meet its Energy Needs?
During the 10th BRICS summit held in South Africa in July 2018, the Chinese government explained how the BRI will support participating countries, with projects designed to improve transportation, energy infrastructure and trade.
The BRI’s initial promise of over $1 trillion in infrastructure lending around the world could certainly have an impact throughout Africa. Despite a slowdown in Chinese financing in 2019-2020, China’s policy banks reportedly lent more than $3 billion to energy projects in Africa.
At face value, the Chinese initiative seems ready to transform a number of economic, social and strategic landscapes that African countries can tap into to strengthen their ailing infrastructure and enhance the industrial and energy sectors.
Critics Point Out the Possible Pitfalls
Despite the development opportunities presented by the BRI, many analysts frame the debate on its global impact as creating winners and losers or caution that BRI projects could leave countries in debt to China, and encourage the construction of high-emission coal power plants over cleaner energy sources. But seeing the BRI as a threat to American influence in Africa, or an attempt by China to export its infrastructure development model, detracts from the numerous opportunities BRI-related projects present for African countries.
The initiative incorporates key objectives such as mainstreaming ecological civilization, supporting green development, firming up eco-environment protection and mutually building a green silk road to ensure that infrastructure projects are socioeconomically and environmentally sustainable for participating countries. During the 12th BRICS Summit in Russia in November, Xi reiterated this goal, encouraging national governments and the international community to pursue green and low-carbon development.
But if African governments are to successfully address climate change, it will take more than Chinese investment assistance. Preparing for the effects of climate change will involve negotiating the best transformative deals that stimulate socioeconomic development.
African governments will also explore further ways to utilize offerings from other investors, paying close attention to development effectiveness, and then agree on the best policy mix while firming up domestic good-governance structures.
Building a climate-resilient Africa will also require ambitious action across vital economic structures, fighting public sector corruption and addressing traditional development challenges such as conflict and poverty.
Scaling up sustainable food and land-use systems, for instance, could help create new agriculture and forestry opportunities, contributing an estimated $320 billion to annual gross domestic product across sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to protecting natural capital, these new businesses could boost food security and overall population health, as well as reduce rural poverty levels.
As pandemic recovery measures put added fiscal pressure on Beijing, will China’s commitment and funding to BRI projects in Africa continue at the same level? Addressing the negative effects of climate change in the face of decreasing international support for development finance from Africa’s traditional partners will therefore require careful investment in priority sectors.
African Energy Ministers, in a November meeting, called for renewed support for Africa’s energy sector to strengthen energy security and accelerate the transition to clean energy as a critical component of the region’s sustainable post-pandemic economic recovery.