Few places in the world exude a sense of timelessness as Lamu, an island off of Kenya’s northern coast home to the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Lamu’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and an epicenter of Indian Ocean trade for centuries, is a maze of narrow winding streets that cut through neighborhoods of limestone and coral houses, past elaborately carved mahogany doors and several dozen mosques and churches. Only a handful of motor vehicles are allowed on the island; transportation is mainly the domain of donkeys or men pushing wooden carts through the tropical swelter.
Yet Lamu Island’s 24,000 residents are faced with what many here call an existential crisis. Some 15 miles north of town, on a sparsely populated seaside area of the mainland formerly used for growing maize, cashews, and sesame, a Kenyan company known as Amu Power is preparing to erect a $2 billion coal power plant, the first of its kind in East Africa.
Financed with Chinese, South African, and Kenyan capital, and built by the state-owned Power Construction Corporation of China, the plant is intended to add 1,050 megawatts of capacity to Kenya’s national grid and power operations of an adjacent 32 berth deep-water port. Both are part of an ambitious government plan to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country by 2030.
The project is controversial in part due to the risks it poses to Lamu’s delicate marine environment, which many fear will harm its two most vital industries: fishing and tourism. Yet it is also emblematic of Africa’s growing appetite for coal, the most polluting form of power generation, which until now has existed in significant quantities only in the continent’s most industrialized country, South Africa.
According to data compiled by CoalSwarm, an industry watchdog, more than 100 coal-generating units with a combined capacity of 42.5 gigawatts are in various stages of planning or development in 11 African countries outside of South Africa—more than eight times the region’s existing coal capacity. Nearly all are fueled by foreign investment, and roughly half are being financed by the world’s largest coal emitter: China.
This comes at a time when China and India, which accounted for 86 percent of global coal development over the last decade, are putting coal projects on hold at record rates due to existing overcapacity, the lowering cost of renewables, and crippling pollution that is thought to kill more than a million people a year in the case of China alone. Many of the world’s more developed countries are also in the process of phasing out the fuel as a power source.
“So many states are now withdrawing coal because of its emissions—because of its environmental destruction,” says Walid Ahmed, a member of Save Lamu, a local coalition that’s trying to stop the Amu Power project. “So we don’t see why they should bring it here.”
Africa’s embrace of coal is in part the result of its acute shortage of power. Although the continent’s economy has doubled in size since 2000, more than two thirds of residents south of the Sahara still live without electricity and most states lack the grid capacity to drive the expansion of job-creating industries.
The International Energy Agency projects the region’s electricity demand to triple by 2040, with roughly half of new capacity coming from renewables. Yet coal-fired plants, which generate 41 percent of the world’s electricity today, remain attractive because coal is relatively cheap and their operation isn’t subject to the whims of nature—unlike solar, wind, or hydro.
In Kenya, for example, the country’s 800 megawatts of hydropower, one third of its total capacity, has become increasingly unreliable due to recurrent drought and is virtually inoperable at present, according to Richard Muiru, an advisor to Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum. Although the country has extensive wind and geothermal resources, which it has started to exploit, these projects aren’t coming online fast enough, Muiru says, to keep up with Kenya’s projected demand.
“Coal will give us some breathing space,” he says. “We see it as a shot in the arm as we continue to develop our renewables.”
For those financing Africa’s embrace of coal, the continent also offers an opportunity to counter-balance diminishing investment opportunities elsewhere. This is particularly true of China, which saw 300 gigawatts of domestic coal projects put on hold in 2016, largely due to existing overcapacity. Chinese state-owned enterprises, abetted by low-cost loans from domestic financial institutions, have played a major role in building Africa’s renewable and fossil-fuel energy infrastructure since the Communist Party unveiled its “going abroad” strategy in the early 2000s.
Although Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in September 2015 that the country would limit public investment to overseas carbon-intensive projects, analysts say Chinese lenders are increasingly pushing cut-rate coal on African governments in order to support Chinese contractors and equipment manufactures impacted by the domestic slowdown.
“China built so many coal plants so quickly that there are now a lot of state-owned companies facing a lack of demand at home,” says Christine Shearer, a senior researcher at CoalSwarm. “We’re seeing coal being offered to African governments even if it’s not necessarily the energy source they would want.”
Smokestacks in Paradise
China’s push into the African coal market, ironically, comes as its shelving of domestic coal projects has injected a new sense of optimism into the battle against climate change’s most destructive impacts.
According to a report published in March by CoalSwarm, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, China’s cutback helped drive a near 50 percent reduction in the amount of coal power under development worldwide during 2016—a development, it argues, that has finally brought the international goal of holding global warming below 2° C from pre-industrial levels “within feasible reach.”
Africa, where warming temperatures have already contributed to rising food insecurity, may yet avoid the role of climate spoiler: its coal capacity under development, outside of South Africa, is just five percent of the global total, and more than half comes from projects in the most preliminary “announced” stage, which means they could easily be derailed by shifting government priorities or financing challenges.
Still, critics warn the continent’s growing use of coal for power will have other harmful consequences, including the environmental impacts of mining the continent’s previously unexploited coal reserves. These include deposits from Kenya’s Mui Basin, which will feed the Lamu plant once a proposed railway is in place. (Until then, the power station will rely on coal shipped to the new port from South Africa).
Individual coal projects, moreover, are likely to have an acute impact on the communities in their midst—especially those home to fragile ecosystems such as Lamu’s. In particular, residents here fear that the discharge of warmer water from the plant’s cooling system and seepage from its open air ash pit will prove ruinous to local fishermen—who support an estimated 75 percent of Lamu households—by driving fish away from the shallow waters that are accessible with traditional cast net methods. Fouling the adjacent bay would also impact vulnerable marine life, including coral reefs, mangrove channels, three species of sea turtles that nest in the Lamu vicinity, and the dugong, a manatee-like sea cow that feeds on sea grass near the shore.
An environmental impact assessment also warns of respiratory dangers associated with the release of fine particulates, which locals say will blow over town during the annual December to April kaskazi monsoon winds.
Opponents of the plant may still have a chance to stop it: In November, Save Lamu, a local coalition, filed a notice of appeal with Kenya’s National Environmental Tribunal contesting the granting of the environmental impact assessment license. Although a victory in a hearing scheduled for May 11th and 12th wouldn’t halt things outright, it could delay the start of construction until after Kenya’s August elections and, theoretically—if the country’s opposition were to win—a new regime less committed to the project.
Barring that, however, many Lamu residents say the prospect of thwarting such a high-priority project is unlikely.
“It’s very difficult to win against this government,” says Mia Miji, a local businessman, as he looks out over Lamu’s harbor, which pulses with children swimming in the water and dhows bobbing in the surf. “We are not opposed to progress. We just wish they would bring us power more safely.”
Jonathan W. Rosen is a journalist reporting from sub-Saharan Africa.