Most South Africans want foreign investment in electricity generation to focus on renewable energy and not on coal, according to an international survey released on Wednesday.
Asked to choose between fossil fuels or renewable energy as the better investment option for the long-term development of the country, 80% of South Africans chose renewables and 16% fossil fuels.
The findings were part of the first multi-country survey of public opinion to foreign investment in energy in six recipient countries of China’s Belt and Road investment initiative (BRI).
The BRI is a development strategy adopted by the Chinese government involving infrastructure development and investments in 152 countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.
Coal investment, little support
The survey was undertaken by UK-based climate change "think tank" E3G, which released the results on the eve of China’s second Belt and Road Forum, which kicks off in Beijing on Thursday.
Around 5 000 foreign officials and business delegates, including a delegation from South Africa, are expected to attend.
The six countries surveyed are among the top 10 countries – outside of China – earmarked for the construction of proposed coal-fired power plants.
Alongside South Africa, the citizens surveyed in the other five countries – Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey – all had a strong preference for clean energy over coal.
E3G said the poll results highlighted that government energy policies and foreign investment packages, which currently favoured coal, were at odds with citizen preferences for clean energy.
Solar and wind tops
According to Boston University’s Global Development Policy Centre, the largest share of China’s overseas energy financing in 2018 was in coal power plants, accounting for 42%.
In the six countries E3G surveyed, the majority selected renewable energy as best for the long-term development of their country, ranging from 61% in Pakistan to 89% in Vietnam.
When asked in which type of energy production their governments should encourage foreign investment, over 90% in all six countries said solar energy. Wind energy was the second most popular.
Other key findings were:
- the public in all six countries ranked coal as the lowest investment priority;
- they saw foreign investment in coal as contributing to increased climate change and pollution;
- they saw foreign investment in coal power as more associated with corruption than investment in renewable energy;
- the majority in all six countries said they were be "very favourable" to foreign investment in clean energy, ranging from 57% to 76% of respondents;
- a minority said they would be "very favourable" to foreign investment in fossil fuels, ranging from 13% to 32%.
Good for environment, good for growth
Given a multiple-choice selection regarding why they supported renewable energy, 69% of respondents said it was good for the economy long-term, 57% said it helped stop global climate change, 55% said that it created jobs and 51% said it decreased air and water pollution.
In all countries surveyed, more people associated investment in coal with corruption than they did with investment in renewable energy. This corruption link was the strongest among South Africans surveyed.
Those surveyed in Vietnam made the strongest connection between coal power and climate change (53%), followed by the Philippines (51%) and South Africa (50%).
Nick Mabey, CEO of E3G, said in a statement that China should now work with Belt and Road initiative countries in this week’s forum to make sure citizens preferences were met.
"This polling provides clear evidence that the citizens of the Belt and Road initiative countries prefer clean energy investment over coal.
"The upcoming Belt and Road Forum in Beijing provides an opportunity to signal an end for international support for coal investment. Citizens across the member countries know that coal will only continue to exacerbate air pollution, climate change and corruption issues," Mabey said.
He said energy choices made now would have long-term impacts on economic development. Donor countries must do more to support governments to "leapfrog" to clean energy that citizens were calling for.
Last year South Africa signed an agreement with China to build a 4 600MW coal-fired power plant in Limpopo, while the China Development Bank has given a R19.6bn loan to Eskom. This loan made headlines recently due to a delay in the funds materialising.
China’s Belt and Road initiative, launched in 2013 by president Xi Jinping, has been controversial among some Western governments that view it as a means to spread Chinese influence, while other critics believe it could result in poor countries being saddled with unsustainable debt.
However, the Financial Times reports that China is set to defend its Belt and Road initiative this week against claims that it creates debt traps.
It reports that China’s ministry of commerce recorded $90bn in direct investment in Belt and Road projects between 2013 and 2018, with "a $600bn pipeline of initiatives".
Among heads of state that are expected to attend this week’s forum are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, the first G7 country to endorse the project.
The World Bank says the aim of the initiative is to strengthen infrastructure, trade and investment between China and 65 countries that account for over 30% of global GDP, 62% of the population and 75% of known energy reserves.