Written by Jackey Shen and Lily Xu
In the context of globalization, China insists on building as “open, green, and clean” “Belt and Road”. More and more Chinese companies are building renewable energy plants such as solar power plants in Africa.
However, in Africa, some Chinese companies are investing in and building coal-fired power plants, violating China’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions.
According to the Global Development Policy Center of Boston University (GDP Center), since 2000, the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China have provided $6.5 billion in funding for coal projects in Africa. Today, relying on Chinese companies’ investment, there are still 7 coal-fired power plants in Africa operating in an orderly manner, and 13 coal-fired power plants are under construction.
Most of these power plants are located in southern Africa because “some African countries have few or no policies to promote renewable energy projects.” In these countries, the spring breeze of sustainable development concept is far from blowing, and only the coal blocks light up a single spark.
Therefore, what impact will coal power generation have on southern Africa? What role do Chinese companies play in this?
Sengwa coal-fired power plant: exacerbating the local drought
The Sengwa coal-fired power plant in Zimbabwe was established in 2019 by the local Rio Zim company and a Chinese company.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe stated that the construction of the coal-fired power plant is very significant. By 2019, there will still be power outages in some areas of Zimbabwe for more than 12 hours a day, and this power plant can fill the current power shortage. Besides, the power plant can also provide employment opportunities for locals and help the Zimbabwe government open up the market and attract foreign investment.
Zimbabwe needs electricity, Chinese companies have the money and experience, and coal is cheap and easy to obtain, so the two countries reached agreements.
However, the construction of coal plants is not all profitable and harmless. In addition to emissions of greenhouse gases that affect the climate, coal-fired power plants also consume a lot of water resources.
Sengwa itself is a drought-prone area. Today, the drought in Zimbabwe has lasted for more than two years, and the lives of nearby residents and agricultural production are facing many difficulties. The establishment of a coal-fired power plant that consumes a lot of water at this time is undoubtedly worse.
In this regard, Nqobizitha Ndlovua, a constitutional and human rights lawyer who is the legal adviser to Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), said: “Coal investment involves many violations of human rights. There are many complaints in Zimbabwe and throughout Africa. These projects do not respect people’s access to a safe environment and clean water’s right.”
Therefore, the situation of the Sengwa coal-fired power plant in Zimbabwe is very embarrassing. On the one hand, it is the government’s welcome, and on the other hand, the resistance of the people: many social organizations and local activists in Zimbabwe have been at the forefront of opposing the project.
Hwange coal-fired power plant: shrinking wildlife habitat
In Hwange, another town in Zimbabwe, coal-fired power plants backed by Chinese companies are eroding the homes of wildlife.
The Hwange coal-fired power station, currently under construction, is the largest project in Zimbabwe in the past 30 years. A Chinese company is responsible for the investment, design, procurement, and construction of this project. In October 2020, the company brought 223 Chinese employees to Hwange to accelerate the Hwange coal-fired power plant’s expansion.
Unfortunately, the Hwange National Park is located in the same town as the coal-fired power station.
The Hwange National Park is the largest wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe. Many wild animals, including about 85,000 elephants and about 500 lions, live here.
Some wildlife protection organizations pointed out that coal mining has already threatened the normal life and biodiversity of wildlife in the park.
Moreover, the impact caused by mining has spread to human beings. China leads many coal companies near Hwange’s Wildlife Sanctuary. These factories’ noise often disturbs animals, causing them to enter human settlements by mistake when avoiding the noise. Some environmentalists worry that this may intensify the conflict between humans and animals.
Such concerns are not unreasonable. From January to August 2020, 50 Hwange people were killed by wild animals, 25 were older women. The direct reason is that extensive mining activities have driven wild animals to the forest where women pick up firewood. Those areas that were initially safe have suddenly become forbidden.
Given this, the Center for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) emphasized that the Zimbabwe government must stop issuing mining licenses in national parks; if necessary, it should revoke mining licenses granted to companies operating in animal habitats. The CNRG also believes that coal is disastrous for local communities and the world; the Zimbabwean government should start to reduce the scale of coal mining and focus on renewable energy.
Despite the controversy, the construction of the coal plant continues.
Environmental protection solutions for coal-fired power plants
It is undeniable that coal-fired power plants can solve the power supply problem and increase employment opportunities. However, once the economy has developed, and jobs have been created, can it be possible to sacrifice the environment with peace of mind?
If the environmental impact assessment of coal-fired projects is not carried out, then for the country, such unsustainable large-scale energy projects will do more harm than good.
Therefore, before starting the project in Africa, Chinese companies should cooperate with the local authorities to conduct environmental protection assessments and pay attention to local rules. In the event of pollution, Chinese companies should actively maintain communication with stakeholders such as local governments, villagers, and environmental NGOs and actively discuss solutions and compensation issues.
The key to solve the current problems is to deal with the pollution caused by existing coal-fired plants on time, such as using new technology to treat carbon dioxide emitted by coal plants.
Of course, a more sustainable alternative is to convert coal power plants into clean energy power plants. There is also a Chinese company that is building coal-fired power plants in Zimbabwe, but during the same time, it is concerned about the development of sustainable energy. In March 2020, the company signed the fifth photovoltaic power generation project in Zimbabwe. Given that photovoltaic power generation can effectively reduce carbon emissions, this project is a good example of promoting the local energy structure’s upgrading. Taking this as an example, in the issue of investment and construction of renewable energy systems in southern African countries, China is very likely to open up a new path in the future.
However, although the energy transition is crucial to environmental protection, its high cost has discouraged many southern African countries. These countries have abundant natural resources, and it is not realistic not to use fossil fuels. Fossil energy is cheap and easy to obtain, and Chinese companies have low construction costs. These have attracted local governments to choose to destroy nature to meet energy needs.
Moreover, because southern Africa has lower environmental protection requirements than China, this has also prompted some Chinese fossil energy companies to relocate their factories to southern Africa for development.
According to Global Energy Monitor (GEM), although China has promised to achieve its carbon-neutral goal by 2060, the number of African coal power plants funded and built by Chinese companies will triple.
Promoting the use of renewable energy is inseparable from the support of national policies. The government should attach importance to the development and utilization of new energy and introduce more industrial support policies and green recovery plans to accelerate the transformation of the energy structure to low carbon modes.
Simultaneously, governments in southern Africa should also raise environmental standards and formulate stricter environmental protection policies, such as raising the threshold for issuing permits for some projects.
Companies should also pay more attention to social responsibility and think about making the project have a positive impact on the local community.
Therefore, Chinese companies should pay more attention to promoting energy transition with African governments, NGOs, and enterprises in the future. From coal to renewable energy, we still have a long way to go.
 Eoin McSweeney, C. (2021). Activists are fighting for a renewable future in Sub-Saharan Africa. Chinese coal projects threaten to dirty those plans. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/12/09/business/africa-coal-energy-goldman-prize-dst-hnk-intl/index.html
 Mishra, A. (2021). China’s green promise in Africa: The case of Zimbabwe’s Sengwa coal power plant | ORF
 Union of Concerned Scientists. (2017). Coal and Water Pollution. Retrieved from
 PowerChina. (2021). The performance of the Hwange project in Zimbabwe was praised by the owner.
 Mlevu, S. (2020). Coal Mining Fuels Human Wildlife conflict in Hwange. Retrieved from