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Can China Help Africa Become a Clean Energy Powerhouse?

Africa needs to decarbonize its energy industry in a hurry. The continent's population is rising sharply at the same time that countries across Africa continue to industrialize. As a result, total African energy demand is projected to increase by a full third over the next decade. Meeting that demand will require current levels of energy generation capacity to increase ten-fold by 2065. This means that Africa has absolutely no time to waste in installing clean energy generation capacity if they hope to avoid skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury.

Ideally, Africa will be able to 'leap-frog' over what is traditionally the next step in a country's economic development - burning huge and indiscriminate amounts of cheap and abundant fossil fuels in the interest of industrialization - straight to clean energy buildout. The scale of this challenge is enormous, as Africa currently does not have enough built-out energy capacity to meet the needs of its current population - at present, about 600 million Africans lack access to electricity altogether. And the population of Africa is expected to fully double by 2050, severely exacerbating the gap between energy supply and demand. 

Achieving this clean energy leapfrog will therefore require an enormous amount of investment in the African energy sector. The question is where all that money is going to come from. Rich countries around the world have broadly recognized that financially supporting the decarbonization efforts of developing countries will be paramount to achieving global emissions goals, and for years now have promised to provide such funding in a unified effort to prop up global climate finance. Those promises have been broken across the board

But a new study from Boston University contends that there is still hope for greening Africa's development. According to that research, the continent's potential savior is none other than China. After decades of neglecting green energy investments in Africa, the study contends, China could almost single-handedly instigate a clean energy revolution on the continent. 

"Given current economic challenges and future energy opportunities, China can play a role in contributing to Africa's energy access and transition through trade, finance and FDI (foreign direct investment)," said the report from Boston University's Global Development Policy Center and the African Economic Research Consortium.

China is already Africa's biggest bilateral trading partner. Since 2000, China "has financed billions of dollars worth of large-scale infrastructure projects" across the continent, thanks to China's assertive Belt and Road Initiative. However, very little of China's investment in Africa has been directed toward clean energy development. "Lending for renewables, such as solar and wind, from China's two main development finance institutions constituted just 2% of their $52 billion of energy loans from 2000 to 2022, while more than 50% is allocated to fossil fuels," Reuters recently reported.

But experts argue that it would be in Beijing's best interest to start throwing its financial weight behind expanding green energy instructure and production capacity in Africa's emerging economies. It makes good economic sense for Chinese and African leaders alike to forge strong partnerships in the clean energy sector, as Africa boasts some of the strongest green energy growth potential on the planet. 

Africa is poised to be one of the most major players in the global energy sector going forward, and getting in on the ground floor is almost sure to be an economic boon. As Oilprice reported last year: "The continent is extremely rich in natural gas (considered to be a stepping stone away from dirtier fossil fuels like coal and oil), as well as abundant sunshine, wind, and highly sought-after rare Earth minerals such as lithium and cobalt which are essential components of renewable technologies including photovoltaic solar panels and lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage." 

By Haley Zaremba for

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More