The Environmental Challenges of the Belt and Road Initiative
Photo Credit: Greenpeace
By Gregory Coutaz

The Environmental Challenges of the Belt and Road Initiative

Jul. 05, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Ever since China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was first proposed in late 2013, it has increasingly attracted worldwide attention with its massive scale and immense potential economic impact. Described as the “project of the century” by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the initiative, which seeks to strengthen trade and investment partnerships across Asian, European and African markets, could affect over 4.4 billion people in some 70 countries and generate a GDP of over USD 21 trillion once completed.


The size of the proposed investments is truly unprecedented. Estimates vary, but China could invest up to USD 1.25 trillion in various infrastructure projects over the next decade or so. While many governments and businesses have unsurprisingly welcomed the implementation of the BRI for the lucrative opportunities that are likely to be provided and have already planned to act in order to extract the greatest benefits for the interests of their political elites and capital, the high cost to the environment is an issue that has so far been carefully set aside, attracting very little scrutiny from the mass media as well as the academic community.


Building new ports, railroads, highways, bridges, dams, power lines, and gas and oil pipelines across three continents is expected to cause significant environmental damage such as habitat loss and the deterioration of local ecosystems. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) carried out a rapid spatial analysis of the impacts that the six economic corridors of the BRI could have on terrestrial and inland water environments. It considers that overall 265 threatened species consisting of 39 “critically endangered” species and 81 “endangered” species, including Saiga antelopes, tigers, giant pandas, gorillas, and orangutans, will be directly affected. The major corridors of the BRI will also overlap 1,739 important geographic zones which are keys to the preservation of bird populations and 46 regional hotspots identified by the WWF as priorities for biodiversity conservation.


For example, the proposed transportation route linking the three provinces of Dongbei (Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang) with the Russian eastern seaports of Primorye, which connect China with the Trans-Siberian railway, will cut through ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) that are home to the Amur tiger and the Far Eastern leopard, both listed as “endangered” species. The construction of the route, primarily funded by Chinese banks, is supported by the Russian Ministry of Economic Development of the Far East, but opposed by regional environmentalists and scientists, whose voices, however, are completely dwarfed by the public discourse surrounding much-needed foreign investments in Russia’s depressed eastern region.


Other examples of environmental risk include the extensive removal of trees and vegetation. The degradation and eventual destruction of the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, the Central Forest Spine of peninsular Malaysia, the tropical forest in Myanmar, and the mangroves in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will cause wide-reaching problems such as soil erosion, water cycle disruption, and greenhouse gas emissions. Combined, these issues are likely to impact not only wild plants and animals but human beings as well. The lack of coherent and transparent planning mechanisms to identify and map the presence of ESAs will almost inevitably turn the BRI into an ecological disaster.


The construction of the avalanche of infrastructure projects themselves will be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Enormous quantities of concrete, metal, minerals, and other raw materials will be consumed for project construction. Concrete is one of the most energy- and carbon-expensive products that humans have created. Because of the heat involved in its manufacture, cement, which is the primary ingredient in concrete, is highly energy- and emissions-intensive. Thus, producing a ton of cement requires 4.7 million BTU of energy, equivalent to 180 kg of coal, and generates about a ton of carbon dioxide.

To achieve its ambition to be both a globally responsive and accountable economic actor and a new leader in environmental governance, China will have to go beyond the mere declarations of good intent and act decisively to mitigate the negative impacts of the BRI.

While the total cement industry is liable for a 6 percent share of global emissions, cement consumption is growing steadily at a rate of approximately 2.5 percent each year and is expected to increase at an even faster rate of up to 4 percent. In December 2017, China National Building Material, the world’s largest cement producer, confirmed the construction of 100 cement factories across Asia and Africa in the next three years to meet future concrete demand. There is also a reasonable risk that, once completed, a number of these infrastructure projects will be unnecessary or underutilized, becoming white elephants aimed mainly at absorbing some of China’s industrial overcapacity.

Finally, the BRI will facilitate the circulation and use of climate-damaging fossil fuels. On the one hand, China will be able to create new capacities and guarantee the security of its energy sources through greater access to Russian and Iranian oil and gas. As the world’s largest energy consumer, China is also keen to reduce its dependence on the sea lines of communication because of their vulnerability to disruption at maritime choke-points in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. By investing in pipelines from Gwadar — on the coast of Pakistan — to Xinjiang, and from coastal Myanmar to Yunnan, the Chinese government intends to diversify the transportation routes for its much-needed hydrocarbon supplies.

On the other hand, China is using its foreign energy investments as a means of outsourcing its coal-fired domestic activities and generating fresh markets for Chinese coal-burning power companies. According to the Global Environment Institute, between 2001 and 2016, China was involved in 240 coal power projects in BRI countries. China’s efforts to cut down its coal consumption have resulted in limited opportunities for its national companies, which are increasingly looking abroad for new markets. However, this involvement in overseas coal projects is widely seen as contradicting China’s promotion of a green energy transition at home, and potentially undermining its global ambitions on climate change.

While the leadership of the United States on climate issues has waned under the skeptical administration of President Donald Trump, China has been eager to step in and fill the void, becoming a leader in renewable energy and vowing to honor its climate commitments. Official documents and statements relating to the BRI have stated the need to tackle climate change and protect the environment. At the opening of the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, President Xi Jinping pledged to “set up a big data service platform on ecological and environmental protection. We propose the establishment of an international coalition for green development on the Belt and Road, and we will provide support to related countries in adapting to climate change.”

Regardless of the promises of the Chinese president, major environmental impacts from such a vast array of projects seem inevitable. The scope of the BRI, along with China’s past environmental record, are cause for deep concern. Despite a growing awareness of the necessity to get its economy to burn more cleanly, China remains the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, emitting more carbon from burning fossil fuels than the United States and Europe combined.

Clear policy guidance on exactly how to ensure that the construction of infrastructure projects is pursued in an environmentally sustainable way is largely absent from the debate on the BRI. While China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Environmental Protection jointly issued the Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and Cooperation as early as 2013, those have virtually no legal or binding force. The task of enforcing environmental standards is left to the respective host countries (many of which have weak environmental laws) and to individual companies’ own internal procedures and policies on environmental protection. There is little doubt that the implementation of the BRI poses a serious threat to local biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. Also, it is likely to result in the depletion of natural resources and increased pollution that will primarily affect the most vulnerable populations.

To achieve its ambition to be both a globally responsive and accountable economic actor and a new leader in environmental governance, China will have to go beyond the mere declarations of good intent and act decisively to mitigate the negative impacts of the BRI. The failure to consider the environmental cost associated with its “project of the century” will not only hurt China’s international image but will also have dire consequences for the world’s environment — the full extent of which is still difficult to assess. If the environmental challenges of the BRI turn into environmental crises, the promise of future economic benefits may appear less attractive for the supporters of the initiative.

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