Understand the reality of energy poverty before pointing the finger at China

Photo taken on July 3, 2017 shows the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant in Sahiwal in Pakistan's eastern province of Punjab. (Xinhua/Liu Tian)

Earlier this month, The Financial Times did a report on the Belt and Road Initiative and the development of new coal-fired power plants outside China, citing unnamed environmental groups and academics who have argued that China’s goal to promote green development does not match the reality of its international investments. The report criticized China for its international investments, but failed to consider the stark reality for many people around the world living without energy.

China has made no secret of its commitment to green development. In a speech at the opening ceremony of the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in April 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of green development in the process of building the Belt and Road.

“We need to pursue open, green, and clean co-operation,” Xi said in his keynote speech, adding that the Belt and Road Initiative aims to promote green development and that China should launch green infrastructure projects, make green investments, and provide green financing to protect the planet.

Xi again underscored this commitment to green development in a congratulatory letter sent to the 2019 World New Energy Vehicle Congress, which kicked off on July 2 in Bo’ao, Hainan, China.

In the letter, Xi said China is committed to green, low-carbon, and sustainable development, and that China is willing to work with the international community to accelerate innovation in new energy vehicle technologies and the development of related industries in order to make greater contributions to building a clean, beautiful world and a community with a shared future for humanity.

There are two things to understand here. First, energy poverty is still rife in the developing world, that is, many people still lack access to energy and many more have unreliable access. Second, China is committed to green development, but access to energy is at the heart of development. Developing countries have the right to develop and, while not a perfect solution, building coal-fired power plants bring a solution.

Global demand for energy remains strong and China is filling a void left by The World Bank and other international institutions to provide energy infrastructure. As the report pointed out, the appeal of new coal-fired power plants as part of the Belt and Road Initiative is straightforward: China is providing badly needed reliable power supplies in developing countries.

Energy markets are changing, but coal still plays a major role in the energy mix of both developed and developing countries and the decision to build a coal-fired power plant is based on a country’s conditions, including its energy needs and natural resource endorsements, and of course, the environmental and social impacts it may bring. It is still not feasible to rule out the option of coal.

What is important is access to affordable and reliable energy. This is not only essential for development, but more importantly, it is also essential for survival. Last year, a heatwave killed 65 people over a three-day period in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi. The people who died were mostly poor and lacked reliable access to energy. Worse, intense heatwaves continue to terrorize many people trapped in energy poverty.

Perhaps some journalists sitting in London or New York and the groups and people who have argued against China’s efforts to help developing countries are not interested in or do not understand suffering from energy poverty. Indeed, for the developed world, access to energy is generally not a problem and reducing emissions is often more about lifestyle than survival. Many people from the developed do not know what it is like to be trapped in energy poverty.

What is more, the issue of climate change we face today is largely due to the developed countries, who benefited greatly from the burning of fossil fuels, as fossil energy was a fundamental driver of the Industrial Revolution. A study by the Center for Global Development found in 2015 that developed countries are responsible for 79 percent of the historical carbon emissions from 1850 to 2011, with the EU accounting for 40 percent and the US accounting for 22 percent of that total.

Thus, developed countries shoulder a historic responsibility to do more. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is widely accepted in the global efforts in addressing climate change. It takes into consideration the concerns of developing countries and acknowledges that developed countries—having contributed so much to the problem—should assume greater responsibility for addressing climate change. However, this should not be done at the expense of developing countries’ right to development.

With the Belt and Road Initiative, China is bringing real solutions to the developing world. It is a shame that developed countries are dragging their feet in ending energy poverty and battling climate change while pointing the finger at China for its efforts that bring many benefits to developing countries.

Editor: 王若寒