Can Africa build greener infrastructure while speeding up its development? Lessons from China

This aerial photo taken on March 16, 2017 shows a high-speed train traveling on the railway in Anshun, southwest China's Guizhou province. Image: Getty, Johnston Earley/AFP

In 2013 China launched a global connectivity project known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Under its flagship agenda, China seeks to mitigate slowing growth at home while supporting growth abroad, especially in other developing countries. Global environmental pressures, combined with the recognition that China’s own development is energy and pollution intensive, mean that the race is on to both learn from China’s mistakes and identify new ideas for sustainable development that can replicate its development successes. China is the largest external investor in African infrastructure.

This paper shows how Africa can draw lessons from China’s own experience of development. These include how China made the most of its demographic dividend through the heavy use of low-cost labour at the early stages of its development. The paper uses examples of how China managed to improve initially polluting infrastructure to help Africa leapfrog directly into cleaner solutions. This includes adopting environmentally responsible transportation infrastructure, such as long-distance rail transport around larger economic centres, greener port infrastructure, and the pre-emptive development of mass transit in urban areas before private vehicles become dominant. By engaging proactively with China’s experience of development, Africa can make its own development process more efficient and less environmentally damaging.