Home / Articles / U.S.-China Sustainable Infrastructure Collaborative Opportunities: Green Partnerships Must Begin in Africa
Implementing sustainable farming practices and infrastructure development in Africa has been an ongoing challenge. Foreign resource extraction operations on the continent offer exchanges of raw materials for capital and critical infrastructure development. These infrastructure projects are crucial for cooperative economic development in Africa. However, the inattention to sustainability through the duration of projects is detrimental to biodiversity in the short run and to the habitat of all in the long run. While most nations agree that climate change is a serious problem and have taken steps to combat global emissions, there are still gaps in enforcement and a lack of effective partnerships due to security concerns and economic competition.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been the pillar of its foreign investment policy, focused on creating supply chains and fostering diplomatic goodwill worldwide. In Africa, many believe China’s vast investments in infrastructure projects are filling a gap in foreign capital that Western countries have slacked on completing in recent years. While some argue that China’s investment practices are predatory, others point to cases where Chinese debt taken on by African countries has been successfully managed. However controversial the management of infrastructure funding might be, the Chinese have taken advantage of a critical need for capital to build their global supply chains.
China’s BRI projects have had mixed success in sustainable implementation. Some projects, such as the Adama Wind Farm I in Ethiopia and the financed by the Exim Bank of China, have successfully created new sources for green energy. Other projects, such as the establishment of the Chambishi Copper Mine in Zambia, are major sources of air and water pollution. The Chinese company running the mine, Nonferrous China Africa Mining (NFCA), has expanded operations without properly containing toxic industrial waste, leading to the damage of local crops and pollution of local water supplies. This environmental degradation can occur because African countries often lack the capacity to enforce strict environmental standards on foreign companies.
Concurrent with this lack of capacity, African countries prefer not to seek capital from the IMF and World Bank for their heaviest infrastructure projects. This is due to the increased costs and time associated with adhering to the stricter environmental and social standards of these organizations. Instead, African countries turn to Chinese companies for funding and implementation, expecting a cheaper and faster turnaround without the imposition of such standards. While Chinese capital and project implementation may be more attractive, and therefore successful, unsustainable implementation now contradicts official Chinese government policies and international environmental initiatives. This past July, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China issued the “Green Development Guidelines for Foreign Investment and Cooperation.” The guidelines focus on both investment and trade, pushing for an environmentally friendly BRI where companies should “follow international green rules and standards” in their overseas economic activities.
The United States has an opportunity to work closely with African nations and China to implement new infrastructure projects sustainably. The US must take advantage of China’s rhetoric on adherence to new environmentally friendly practices. The ‘green’ way must become the only way to conduct infrastructure projects. Promoting partnership and collaboration among the major economic powers and African nations for sustainable development is critical to establishing uniform green global standards for infrastructure construction.
These new green infrastructure norms could include identifying alternative route options that avoid sensitive biodiverse areas while implementing environmentally conscious engineering. This engineering includes using bridges and underpasses to funnel wildlife toward safe crossings, employing tunnel-bridge-tunnel engineering to reduce landslide and erosion risks, working around mature trees, and timing the construction of projects to avoid important dates for animal migration. For companies taking on infrastructure projects on the African continent, cost-benefit analyses that account for pollution must become the norm. These analyses calculate the environmental risks to nearby human and animal populations based on the proposed infrastructure project. They can calculate, for example, that high-speed rails create less pollution than highways.
If America has a vested interest in improving its relations with African nations, it must understand where investment can be made in natural resources on the continent. Likewise, it must work with China as the world’s other major polluter to combat climate change—a three-way collaboration with Africa is paramount.
China’s “Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on Green Development” mirrors America and the G7’s “Build Back Better World” initiative to combat climate change. We have already seen pledges from both China and the US at this year’s COP26 to work together to combat rising global temperatures and decrease emissions. With this positive and collaborative rhetoric still fresh in mind, now is the time to change the norms for infrastructure development. One critical place to begin could be a US-Chinese partnership with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to kick-start the climate initiatives Biden and DRC President Tshisekedi have discussed.
The DRC is rich in natural resources but low in development capacity according to the Human Development Index (HDI), and there has been a frantic rush to obtain its vast mineral resources, particularly cobalt, over the past several decades. In 2016, America lost out on the DRC’s cobalt mines due to a lack of interest in what many viewed as a risky investment. American company Freeport-McMoRan sold its cobalt mining operations to China Molybdenum to keep the company afloat after a series of bad investments. Cobalt has extremely important geopolitical applications. It is a critical part of electric car batteries and, therefore, essential for any economy trying to shift to clean energy. However, no other American companies were willing to step up and contest the Chinese offer. Partnering with DRC and Chinese officials to improve sustainable infrastructure capacity could accomplish three goals: decrease the risk of investment in the DRC, improve financial conditions for American investors and the like, and further the pledged climate collaboration.
A public, joint initiative in the DRC will show the world that America and China are serious about climate collaboration. Framing the multilateral project as a partnership and focusing solely on common goals of sustainability and African investment are also steps toward tamping down escalating “cold war” rhetoric that increases hostilities and narrows the field for collaboration. To start such a green joint infrastructure project in the DRC, America might consider reaching out to both Congolese and Chinese leaders to form a committee and listen to where the DRC needs the most critical infrastructure. Then, plan projects around important environmental areas. The job of constructing such projects should be made available to Congolese workers, increasing employment opportunities and reinvesting in the community. American, Congolese, and Chinese engineers and scientists could work together as an advisory team for planning, training, and implementation. Though capital for a project would come from both the US and China, having an international institution such as the World Bank as part of the oversight process could add legitimacy and accountability in capital expenditures while lessening concerns of corruption.
Considering the other areas in which the United States and China have increasingly tense relations, it is more important than ever to capitalize on the shared goal of stopping climate change. Sustainable infrastructure development in Africa can provide an excellent starting point for green initiatives, and foster goodwill toward all in the process.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.