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The United Kingdom and the United States should collectively invest far more into developing renewable energy production infrastructure in Africa. First, this would aid the world in its push for carbon neutrality by preventing the industrialisation of Africa from being driven by Chinese backed fossil fuels. Second, it would enable the UK and the US to grow western influence in Africa, provide developing nations alternative options to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and economically combat a growing Chinese hegemony on the continent. 

As part of the BRI, China’s ambitious global trade network with itself at the centre, China has begun the construction of energy infrastructure in Africa to power both future consumer energy needs and Chinese-funded construction projects, such as ports, railways, and water supply systems. 

Despite proclamations from Beijing, this energy infrastructure is largely dependent on fossil fuels. From 2014-2017, 43% of state policy bank loans by the China Development Bank and the Export Import Bank of China went towards oil, gas, and petrochemicals, while 18% went towards coal. Just 3.4% of the loans went towards solar energy production, and only 2.9% were meant for wind production. One could hardly call the energy investment of the BRI “green” or keeping with “the ecological civilisation” promised by the Chinese government. 

This all carries significant implications when we look ahead to Africa’s projected population and energy demand forecasts. Africa’s population is the youngest and fastest growing in the world. One-in-two people added to the world’s population between today and 2040 is set to be African, and with this impending population boom comes a sharp rise in energy demand. Projections based on current stated policies predict that oil demand will grow by 86% and natural gas demand will nearly double in Africa by 2040. Green alternatives could prevent this fossil fuel demand from being met. As the world struggles to meet its current climate targets and limit global average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees C, we cannot afford an industrial revolution in Africa that follows the same path taken by major powers in the mid 18th century. 

It’s true that increasing foreign direct investment (FDI) in African clean energy infrastructure may not seem like a high priority in the wake of the immediate challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, and we’d be forgiven for thinking some of the money given to African nations from the UK and US, totalling more than £8.45 billion in 2019, can simply be earmarked for wind and solar farms. But this money is already sorely needed for humanitarian aid and health programs, and FDI intended for stability cannot be redirected to green energy production without jeopardising all regional investments. Seeing as increasing investment into African clean energy infrastructure is sure to be a difficult sell, how do we do it? 

Instead of framing climate change as a moral failing of developed countries, it should instead be framed as a financial cost borne by the taxpayers. Estimated future costs of damages from global warming are severe, with rich countries such as the UK and the US likely to foot a disproportionate share of the tab. Global losses from climate change are projected to exceed £17 trillion annually by 2050 on if the Paris climate targets are not met and £41 trillion annually from 2100 even if temperature increases are limited to 1.5 degrees C

Additionally, there are political reasons for the UK and US to offer green energy investment in Africa: countering China’s growing influence in the region. China has gained strategic port locations through giving out targeted loans and has expanded the reach of numerous state-owned companies in Africa. Working to meet energy needs on the continent has contributed to a positive image of China in the area, needed for its continued cooperation. 

Developing countries in Africa have no special love for China’s political ideology, nor do they want to doom the planet with massive carbon emissions; they simply want enough electricity to provide for their populations. Most BRI recipient countries are not in the position to turn down coal power plants with the environment in mind, but the UK and the US are able to provide an alternative to the BRI while generating good will and spreading western soft power as a counter to China. FDI spent on mitigating climate change by providing Africa a greener energy alternative is more akin to an investment than a donation. In the case of a looming African fossil fuelled industrialisation and its potential damage to our planet, we can take advice from Benjamin Franklin: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Christian Steffen is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Pexels]