HomeOpinion & AnalysisWhat China’s overseas coal exit plans could mean for Zimbabwe

What China’s overseas coal exit plans could mean for Zimbabwe

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By Mitchell Mahachi

THE announcement by China at the recent UN General Assembly meeting to withdraw from financing overseas coal power plants evokes memories of a burly fullback rugby opponent who is ruled out from playing in a major tournament, effectively handing the victory to the other team.

In this case, the statement presents a major breakthrough in lowering carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the energy sector.

However, the statement may have a profound impact on countries such as Zimbabwe with large coal deposits and which were hoping to reduce their energy deficits despite growing opposition to coal power plants.

China has been cited erroneously at times as the most climate-unfriendly nation on the planet.

It has vehemently tried to deny this charge but the sticker has kept hovering over it. Its denial is not made easier by the fact that it has over 1 000 coal-fired power plants, while India in second place globally has a distant 281 plants.

In 2019, it is reported that China emitted 10,2 billion metric tonnes of CO2 — nearly twice as much as the United States (5,3 billion metric tonnes) — representing nearly 28% of global emissions. But there is more to it than meets the eye.

To be fair, most of the products that we use have a Made in China tag on them, implying the greenhouse gas would still have been emitted from any one of our nations if we had produced them ourselves.

Hence, others argue that statistics on carbon emissions should also take into account not only the producer principle, but also the consumer principle.

The same sources argue that when the imported goods are taken into account, the countries in sub-Saharan African region would reflect high levels of CO2 through importation.

In fact, when one looks at 2019 data from the global carbon project and our world in data, one may very well feel like exonerating China from being the bad guy. This data actually shows numerous States from the Caribbean and the Persian Gulf at the top of the emissions per capita list.

The US sits at 14th place, with just over 16 tonnes of CO2 per capita while China takes a distant 48th place and emits less than half of that per capita, tallying 7,1 tonnes CO2 per capita.

Not much hype is given to the efforts made by China to work towards climate change mitigation.

In less than 10 years, China has moved from 3,3Gw of solar energy to over 250Gw, though this represents 3,5% of its energy requirement.

To this end, the Chinese have also announced plans to ramp up renewable energy to over 1 200Gw by 2030.

Also not mentioned at times is that, since 2015, China is still the world’s biggest national market for electric vehicles (EVs).

In 2020, total EV sales in China were 1,3 million, reflecting an increase of 8% compared to 2019, and accounting for 41% of all EVs sold worldwide.

China also recently imposed a mandate on automakers requiring that EVs make up 40% of all sales by 2030.

Therefore, while the timing of the Chinese statement could have been dramatic, the statement was evidently coming and it would appear it was a case of when not if.

This is more apparent when one considers that the announcement also comes hard on the heels of the IPCC AR6 Physical science basis report released recently and just on the eve of the COP26 in Glasgow (October 31 to November 12, 2021).

Still early days

Some have welcomed this as a great move given that US$50 billion worth of projects were on the cards, representing more future CO2 emissions.

Others say the announcement is a welcome development, but are concerned that it does not touch on the Chinese domestic coal power plant which accounts for more than half of all the coal-powered plants under construction throughout the world, according to think tank E3G.

Where to for Zimbabwe and other countries?

The Chinese announcement on coal power plants funding is likely to put a dent on a number of electricity poor countries which were hoping to make power cuts a thing of the past.

One such country is Zimbabwe where projects such as the Zimbabwe ZhongXin Electrical Energy (ZZEE) thermal power plant have reached completion stage.

Work on its substation is said to be currently 99% complete.

The completion of phase one was expected to produce 25MW by last month and a further 25MW this month.

Phase two involved the commissioning of two 135MW units, bringing the coal-fired power plant’s total capacity to 270MW.

It is not clear whether the announcement also could affect the $1,5 billion expansion programme for the Hwange Thermal Power Station, which is currently at 66,73% completion and expected to generate 300MW by 2025.

What is clear, though, is that the announcement is a wake-up call that funding for coal projects has dwindled as the largest financier has pulled out.

The strong message from the Chinese announcement at the UN General Assembly is that funding for coal power plants will no longer be available and that leaves renewable energy financing as the viable option to escape the persistent power shortages.

Who or what shall fill in China’s shoes?

Another question that arises from this announcement is whether China will still finance renewable energy projects to the same level of investment that it was going for coal or not.

Given that China has the world’s largest solar power capacity, it still remains a big player in the energy sector globally.

What remains to be seen is whether other financiers will step up to work with developing countries in Africa at the same level of investment in energy as China was doing with coal.

Perhaps the most important development from the Chinese announcement is that it will lead to undivided attention on renewable energy.

This could lead to a rapid growth of renewable energy as seen in China between 2011 and 2020.

The Chinese announcement may sound like a huge blow to Zimbabwe’s energy prospects, but there could be a silver lining in increased investment in renewable energy and reduced CO2 emissions thereby marking significant progress in decarbonising the energy sector.

  • Mitchell Mahachi is a masters student in climate change management at the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences (HSWT) in Germany. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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