Lamu Island, located close to Kenya’s northern coast, is set to become the location for Kenya’s first coal plant, one of many such projects that are part of China’s exported coal industry. Favoured for its remote location and coal shipment accessibility, Lamu is a prominent locus of the ‘The Kenya Vision 2030’ plan that “aims to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 in a clean and secure environment”.
Infrastructural development is thought to be an important factor in the facilitation of trade, regional and economic integration and interconnectivity between countries all of which is in line with Kenya’s 2030 plan. The Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) project, with major Chinese financial backing, will include amongst other things, the LAPSSET Corridor consisting of a port and coal plant in Lamu County.
Although China has so far been successful in meeting targets for the Paris Climate agreement, it has reaped considerable benefits from a loophole that places no restrictions on projects abroad. It now has a surplus of labour, technology and other infrastructure from coal and coal-related industries due to a lack of requirement corresponding to clean energy targets. As a result, China is eager to export coal industries and has thus invested in coal projects in several countries that show interest in industrialisation across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In the last year alone, it has approved more than $6.64 billion worth of new coal mining projects despite having closed old and more-polluting coal mines domestically. According to data collected by Global Coal Plant Tracker, China has more than 200 coal projects in 34 countries. The carbon emissions from these Chinese funded plants will likely have destructive consequences in the near future and will especially affect areas like Lamu that have had negligible coal produced energy in the past.
Coal related projects will also hurt Lamu Archipelago’s henceforth untouched, unique biodiversity and multicultural heritage that makes it a UNESCO Heritage site. In addition to the inevitable pollution, overpopulation due to migration is also a potential danger in terms of resource scarcity that would elevate poverty in Lamu.
Critics of the project fear the possibility of a debt trap that Kenya could find itself in as a result of overburdening loans from China. After almost a decade of China overtaking the US as Africa’s biggest trade partner, it has been involved in a series of development projects across the continent and continued lending credit. Kenya’s currently stands at a debt of $7.3 billion with China as its biggest lender accounts for 72 percent of bilateral debt. Even though the economic consequence of this building debt is worrisome on its own, some people have also pointed out political dimensions in the form of ‘neo-colonialism’ similar to what Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port witnessed when China acquired a 99 year lease to it in exchange for loan forgiveness.
China’s hypocrisy while dealing with Paris agreement goals, is now coming to the limelight and global pressure is needed to deal with it. Are the repercussions of China’s involvement in coal related industries surpassing its work towards clean energy back home? What will the extent of this Chinese coal expansion be?
Update: A Kenyan environmental tribunal has delayed the license for the Lamu plant because of failure to consult residents and demanded a fresh environmental study to be submitted by the builders.