For more than two decades, Zimbabwe has been trying to break ground on a giant coal-power complex by the world’s biggest man-made reservoir. China just agreed to get the $4.2 billion project underway.
The development near the southern shore of Lake Kariba is good news for Zimbabwe, where a collapsing economy and erratic policies have deterred foreign investment for the past 20 years.
But it flies in the face of a growing global consensus that has seen financial institutions from Japan to the U.S. and Europe shun investments in coal projects. That retreat leaves the way open for Chinese companies—many with state backing—even at the risk of undermining the spirit of China’s international commitments to fight climate change.
“We are very pleased that the project is going ahead, especially as major banks in the world are forced to stop financing coal-fired power stations,” Caleb Dengu, chairman of RioZim Energy, the company that owns the project, said in a response to questions. “This is testimony of Chinese commitment to development projects in Africa. The Chinese are interested in joining hands.”
China is certainly in need of friends: A global backlash is building over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan—evidence of a deficit of trust that was compounded by incidents of racism toward Africans in the southern city of Guangzhou last month. Yet pumping money into coal just underlines China’s creeping isolation in backing plants that generate large quantities of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.