China Exports Coal Energy to Africa

Jason Li
November 22, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: A coal-fired power plant in Tianjin, China. State-owned energy companies have halted coal-fired plants in the country like this one but have ramped up investment overseas. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the United States exiting the Paris Climate Accords, China has been attracting global attention in its commitment to clean energy sources. Domestically, China has responded to public outrage over high pollution levels and is working on transforming its domestic energy infrastructure. Beijing was recently hailed as the new leader in the fight against climate change after scrapping a plan to build over a hundred new coal-powered power plants in the country. [1] (An example of an existing Chinese coal-fired plant is shown in Fig. 1). Indeed, Chinese coal production fell by 7.9% in 2016, which has been the largest decline on record. [2] At the same time, however, China has also exported its coal jobs and industries building and investing in coal plants throughout the world - especially in African countries.

Chinese Investment

Chinese companies have invested massively in the power sector of sub-Saharan Africa, financing 30% of these countries' new capacity additions in the last five years - with most of these plants powered by coal. [3] Indeed, China's energy companies will comprise of almost half of new coal power in the next decade, and over half of the 20 biggest coal plant developers globally are Chinese. [1] With 635 million in sub-Saharan Africa living without electricity, China seems to see this demand as a ripe opportunity for investing in and exporting coal power plants - plants that have been halted in their own country. [3] So far, the country and its state-owned companies have already lent $13 billion to African countries for power infrastructure. [3]


The Chinese-subsidized development of coal power plants presents significant challenges for the world. Many of the coal power plants built are low quality and quickly break down after months, prompting some voices to call China exploitative. [4] In addition, over 1 million Chinese migrant workers have moved to African construction sites. [4] Economically, research has shown that this large influx has limited local worker opportunities in jobs and trading and deepened their dependence on Chinese investment. [4]

Not only have these coal power plants affected local economies, but they also present environmental and health challenges. With such a rise in coal-fired energy, the Paris Climate Accord goals will be "virtually impossible to realize." [1] In addition, South Africa's 16 coal-fired power plants have polluted the air to levels often much higher than the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization - levels which have been linked to chronic diseases and premature deaths. [5]

Thus, when any country boasts of clean energy achievements domestically, one must look carefully at actions and investments abroad, China being no exception.

© Jason Li. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] H. Tabuchi, "As Beijing Joins Climate Fight, Chinese Companies Build Coal Plants," New York Times, 1 July 17.

[2] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017," British Petroleum, June 2017.

[3] "Boosting the Power Sector in Sub-Saharan Africa," International Energy Agency, 2016.

[4] D. Dollar, "China's Engagement with Africa," Brookings Institution, July 16.

[5] K. Siegfried, "South Africa's Coal-Fired Power Stations Carry Heavy Health Costs," The Guardian, 9 Sep 14.