China’s Environmental Footprint in Africa

From CSR Asia:

China’s involvement in Africa has provoked much debate and discussion. These have usually been revolved around two core issues. On one side, China is viewed as the new colonizer out to exploit Africa’s natural resources, putting its own economic interests above environmental and human rights concerns. On another side, China’s engagement in Africa is regarded as an extension of ‘South–South solidarity’, bringing economic development to regions generally ignored by Western companies without the conditionalities and political interference of its Western counterparts.  

Whatever the intention may be, the consequences of Chinese investment in Africa have raised a lot of concern from civil society and academic observers. One of these concerns, which is not often addressed in media reports, is China’s environmental footprint on the continent. It was therefore very refreshing to read a Policy Briefing by Peter Bosshard, published by the South African Institute for International Affairs in April 2008, which focuses on the environmental impact of Chinese investment in Africa, but manages to go beyond the stereotypical views usually portrayed.

The debate about China in Africa should in no way negate the history of western involvement in the continent. China is certainly not unique in its disregard for Africa’s environment. Western exploitation of Africa’s resources both past and present has not set a good precedent and the history of natural resource extraction in Africa in general has had a very poor track record. However, as pointed out in Bosshard’s report, the nature of China’s current involvement in Africa is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, China’s investments in Africa are concentrated in sectors that are environmentally sensitive (such as oil and gas exploration, mining, hydropower and timber extraction). Secondly, China’s strategy is to access resources that have so far not been exploited by European or American companies, either because they were considered insignificant in size, geographically too remote or politically too risky. Projects are therefore being developed in remote, ecologically sensitive regions in countries with weak governance systems. Thirdly, China’s domestic policies have prioritised economic growth over environmental concerns and there is a risk that these practices will be exported to other parts of the world. Recent concerns over environmental exploitation in China itself and the setting of laws and regulations to protect its own environment may even see China’s worst polluters relocate their production to places like Africa. Fourthly, Chinese investors and financiers have not adopted the international environmental guidelines and standards that have been taken up by international financial institutions. [ more ]