Something very unexpected happened in a Kenyan court-room on the 26th June 2019. A fossil fuel mega-project, which has the political and financial backing of China, was refused a key permit and now lacks a necessary licence for construction to begin. The first coal plant for East Africa has now been held up and it shows that China’s projection of coal infrastructure in Africa faces significant local opposition, and it may be a sign of more to come.
The proposed project is from Amu Power, which hopes to build a 1050 Megawatt coal plant in Kwasasi, Lamu County. The proposed project will be situated about 21 kilometers north of the town of the UNESCO protected town of Lamu, along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.
On Wednesday, June 26th the National Environment Tribunal (NET) of Kenya revoked the license previously issued by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to Amu Power. The lack of effective public participation combined with social and environmental risks were cited among other reasons for the licence being withdrawn. Amu Power has been ordered to undertake a new Environmental Social Impact Assessment study in accordance with the tenets of the law, raising huge questions about the viability of the project, something that must concern its financial backers.
Globally, many people have looked at China as the new world leader on the climate emergency, given its government’s intention to pursue an ambitious initiative to reduce emissions domestically. After Trump’s controversial decision to abandon the Paris climate pact, this only reinforced the perspective that China was the world’s best hope for confronting climate breakdown. While China seems to be determined to meet its Paris climate agreement targets at home, it undermines those efforts to reduce global emissions by simultaneously investing in coal projects across the world.
The cancelation and delays of coal projects in China left a desperate Chinese coal industry looking elsewhere to use its coal equipment and it is assisted by Chinese financial institutions. The formula is clear: China’s banks provide the loans while the Chinese coal industry get the construction contracts. In Lamu, the Industrial Commercial Bank of China has financed $1.2 billion out of the 2$ billion estimated building costs for the recently halted coal plant and, of course, Power Construction Corporation of China was contracted to build the plant.
In Africa, China has invested in coal projects in eight countries. Most of these countries have no coal power plants or coal infrastructure. If these projects are completed they will generate 102 gigawatts. While the rest of the world embraces the benefits of clean and affordable renewable energy, China’s finance will lock these communities into dirty, dangerous and expensive coal infrastructure that is outdated now and will be antiquated within a few years. The long-term costs to the local communities of this obsolete technology will pile up for decades.
Though Chinese diplomacy has once again affirmed on Tuesday that it supports “sustainable” development projects in Africa, concern is growing among African public opinion as to who really benefits from these deals between Africans countries and China. The recent halt of East-Africa’s first coal plant should send a strong signal to the government of China that coal is unwanted by many communities. At his meeting with civil society group on June 28th the Chinese ambassador to Kenya Wu Peng acknowledge the need to develop a different approach that will see the public voice heard before approval of Chinese projects. Mr. Wu Peng also said that “You know the problem is who represents your people. As a country, how do we engage bilaterally? We cannot talk to each individual person. It is impossible. You have about 50 million people but you have one administration elected by your people. That is the only way as government to government”. Like many other large scale lenders, Chinese lenders must adopt a policy that take into account civil society concerns before committing to finance fossil fuels projects. Lamu itself has been the site of fraught local protests that have been targeted by police and engagement from the Chinese Embassy with locals has been limited.
Climate change is the greatest threat to international development and human prosperity. This is true in Africa, just as it is in China. If the Chinese Government is serious about being a global leader on reducing emissions and tackling the climate crisis, it must apply the same restrictions that it applies domestically to coal financing outside of China. The decision in Lamu might well indicate that if the Chinese authorities don’t develop such a policy themselves it will be implemented for them by local communities concerned about local pollution and global climate breakdown. No country has put itself in a better position to become the world’s renewable energy superpower than China. China could use its superpower to help African’s countries to leap-frog the fossil fuel era and to generate their own power from an abandoned renewable energy sources.