China’s Belt and Road Initiative is big. Really big. Potentially the most ambitious and widespread international infrastructure development effort ever, involving rail lines, highways, power plants, pipe lines, ports, and more.
Seriously – ever.
Given the Chinese government’s penchant for obfuscation and lack of transparency, it can be a little hard to tell just how precise the term “BRI”, as it is known, really is; or whether it’s more of a branding label slapped on anything that might fit.
That said, BRI investment so far is estimated to be somewhere between $1 and $8 trillion, encompassing hundreds of projects, with 125 countries said to have agreements with China as of mid 2019 – though estimates now are around 140, involving projects worldwide.
Among the many concerns BRI is generating around the world are ones coming from the environmental community. That sector largely views a significant percentage of the wide-ranging BRI projects that have played out so far as having profound impacts related to climate change. And mostly they’re not talking good impacts.
Impacts on land use, wildlife, water quality and more
“What China is selling is the China development model, which was energy-intense, no holds barred,” says Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “But China’s not taking their war on pollution on the road even though that could be an opportunity.”
So while China is on track to meet its climate goals under the Paris agreement ahead of schedule, analyses undertaken by a number of government-backed interests, NGOs, and academic organizations worldwide point to direct and indirect environmental impacts – almost all of them harms – from BRI. The projects involve everything from land use to wildlife and habitat disruption to water concerns to mineral extraction to industrial effects to pollution.
But nothing engenders more concern than how the Chinese are using BRI to perpetuate the use of coal and other fossil fuels – pretty much everywhere BRI touches, except inside China itself. And that means increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Doing more good things … but not fewer bad things
“China is doing more good things but it’s not doing fewer bad things,” says Elizabeth Losos, senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. She was the lead author on the study “Reducing Environmental Risks from Belt and Road Initiative Investments in Transportation Infrastructure,” done in conjunction with the World Bank. “The bad things are still greatly outweighing the good things. And I think that’s the concern of the environmental community.”
Belt and Road – originally called One Belt, One Road, OBOR – was officially unveiled by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013, though China had already been engaged in heavy infrastructure investment around the world for a good dozen years at that point – as had other countries.
To clarify and confuse things simultaneously, “belt” actually refers to land-based connections, and “road” to maritime ones. The plan ostensibly was aimed at re-inventing the old Silk Road in a 21st century paradigm. To that end BRI encompasses infrastructure in its broadest sense including communications, manufacturing capability, and industry development. At the core of it – for building roads, rail lines, ports, and just about anything else – is the need for energy.
Most BRI projects are in under-developed countries in six of the seven continents (Antarctica being the exception) where mainstream financial institutions are reluctant to do business. Many China-watchers label BRI a geopolitical influence effort designed to make these nations beholden to China for, among other things, the loans they have to repay to Chinese financial institutions.
Exporting abroad China’s coal resources
But other China experts see things more in economic terms for China itself – now facing a slowdown. They say China is looking for markets for its resources – coal among them – and jobs for its own population.
Putting those factors together with the genuine Chinese decarbonization effort at home and the result in some cases has been literally to transfer China’s oldest, dirtiest, and least efficient coal technology to its BRI partners and provide a workforce to go with it. Cambodia is one place that got a disassembled coal plant from China and had it re-assembled.
“It’s the sort of elephant in the room,” says Lachlan Carey, associate fellow in the Energy and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When we look at any measure of global emissions or any scenario of how we reach the Paris targets, it relies a whole lot on China’s transitioning away from its reliance on coal. So the Belt and Road, to the extent it has really significant impact on climate change and its trajectory – is the extent to which China is using it to export its capacity in the coal sector.”
Carey says that China is also responding to market forces and that there’s no saying countries like Vietnam, where energy demand is growing at an astronomical rate, wouldn’t have built coal plants anyway.
China has been willing and able to help with that and do it quickly, he and others say.
Turner at the Wilson Center points to Pakistan, where 33 percent of people still don’t have electricity. “You desperately need economic development; you need electricity to make that happen; and here comes China, baby,” she says. “The Chinese come in and say – ‘do you want it next week?’ It’s the wild West out there. But they [China] have the biggest hat and the biggest boots.”
Because there is no official list of what China is planning with Belt and Road, or even a clear picture of just what is under its umbrella, numbers can be a little hard to come by. But Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center has crunched numbers on China’s Global Energy Finance, separating out what is and is not – or at least seems to be – Belt and Road.
Reaching back nearly 20 years, that research shows about $245 billion in energy sector financing, more than $186 billion of it considered BRI. More than 75% of it, covering scores of projects, involves fossil fuels. The largest segment is coal, followed by oil and natural gas. There is also hydropower, but classic renewables are barely a blip.
“China has ostensibly nullified their own goodness,” Turner says of that nation’s compliance with the Paris agreement.
And in that nullification, China’s BRI has locked in fossil fuels and their climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, not for years, but for decades.
Wide-ranging impacts, many ill- or not considered
But there’s more.
With a lot of BRI focused on transportation, energy concerns also extend to what’s required for construction. Then there’s what road building will mean for emissions – likely an increase. Rail is a major component, and efficient high-speed rail could help cut emissions. But there are concerns that older, inefficient train systems China no longer wants will find new life in BRI.
Hidden in plain sight throughout is one of the biggest energy users – cement, the key ingredient in the concrete used in nearly every aspect of construction. Beyond the energy intensiveness of its manufacture, likely to be coal-driven, it’s also disruptive to eco-systems that supply its sand and stone components.
Then there’s the disruptive nature of the roads and rail lines themselves, and of the impacts of an influx of people as a result of the development of areas around improved existing and new travel corridors and specific projects. Those impacts cascade as infrastructure begets development, which begets more infrastructure.
Richard Nash, technical lead, governance at the World Wildlife Foundation, points to a number of effects – most notably the pressures on water resources. Port development can disrupt coastal wetlands, whose eco-system and physical properties can help mitigate – and in some cases literally absorb – the effects of sea-level rise and warming temperatures.
He pointed to the Mekong River, where BRI development is exacerbating the drop in water table levels, potentially endangering drinking water, already under climate change pressure.
“People are just pumping out of the ground. Pumping out of rivers. And they’re just becoming more depleted,” he says. “Aquifers are becoming disconnected from the streams that are feeding into them. It’s not been a very singular project. It’s the nature of development as a whole and the BRI is supporting that.”
The Duke/World Bank study and a larger one by the World Bank alone offer long lists of potential direct and indirect impacts as BRI scoops up areas or transects them in ways that could exacerbate existing climate change stresses.
The World Bank report, for instance, points out that high-speed rail requires straight lines that can’t be routed around topographical and hydrological barriers. The report states: “Related risks include landslides, flooding, soil erosion, sedimentation in rivers, and interruptions of water courses. For some portions of the BRI, at-risk populations are large, as in Myanmar, where 25 million inhabitants down-slope from two proposed BRI road projects are vulnerable to any increased sedimentation and induced flooding.”
Among other impacts cited – deforestation that can diminish carbon sequestration. There’s habitat loss and fragmentation that could further harm wildlife, for instance increased collisions with motor vehicles and inability to transect things like rail corridors.
Many experts point to what happened in Kenya with a BRI plan for a rail line through Nairobi National Park. Activists delayed it for years and ultimately forced part of the line to be elevated so wildlife can cross underneath. A portion of it was scuttled, and objections to a coal plant caused its backer to pull out.
A common complaint is that the Chinese have not done the kind of integrated strategic planning the BRI should have warranted.
“The whole point is to figure all this out before individual projects are signed on to. It’s very easy to avoid sensitive habitat or a national park if you look at the map ahead of time,” says Losos of Duke. “Had they done an early plan, they could have avoided years of fighting and lots of money.”
China a leader on renewables … but irony of ironies
Among the ironies of the Chinese focus on coal and other fossil fuels as primary energy sources for Belt and Road is that China is a world leader in renewables. In addition to fulfilling its own renewable goals, it is the world powerhouse in particular in the production of components for solar power.
But solar has been conspicuously absent in Belt and Road. Building coal plants is easier and faster, observers point out. There is also a financial quirk in that the large traditional power plant companies tend to be state-owned enterprises while renewable companies tend to be private and a lot smaller, and therefore less under government control.
Lost opportunities for China to be the renewable good guys? Maybe.
The Chinese have gotten a certain amount of negative publicity for pushing BRI as a “green” program … and then not following through. At a BRI forum in April 2019, attendees say Xi redoubled his commitment to a green Belt and Road.
“If you listen to the talk and if you read the guidelines that the Chinese have put out over the last few years – if they did half of the things they said, it would be the biggest environmental global initiative ever undertaken in the world,” Losos says. “A quarter of the things would be amazing, but there’s not much detail in these guidelines and they’re virtually all voluntary.”
Losos and others, noting that China does not like getting bad press, broadly recommend a bit of psychology to convince officials in China they’ll be perceived as really bad actors if they don’t come around on environmental commitments.
One way to do that is to get China to follow its own tough climate standards in host countries even though the Chinese say they don’t interfere in local politics.
“Until China changes that, the rest is largely lip service,” Carey of CSIS says, quoting a Chinese proverb from his own report: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
Other reforms would be to get the financial and insurance institutions making the commitments to put environmental qualifications on them, insist on less secrecy, and disclose the carbon emissions of projects.
“Our theory of change is that you need both the transformation of the supply of finance – that is to say how Chinese institutions are seeking to deploy their money – and also the change on the demand side – what is being demanded at the country level on the recipient side,” says Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, global director of the Sustainable Finance Center at the World Resources Institute. That group works broadly to promote a shift of finance from unsustainable environment activities to sustainable ones. The WRI center has done its own working paper on BRI.
Martinez-Diaz says if China’s goal in BRI of connecting that nation to the rest of the world just winds up locking-in environmentally destructive technology, it’s going to undermine the creation of more favorable political conditions for Chinese investment. “That’s why we are underlining a green BRI would be not only good for the world, it also would be good for China,” he says.
“It’s going to be a lot easier for all of us, for civilization, to deal with climate change if we’re all pulling in the same direction,” says Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, noting that an absence of U.S. leadership has left the door wide open for China to make the rules. “I’m sure there are people in other parts of the world who say ‘great, that provides an opening for us.’ And that’s really unfortunate.”
Losos at Duke says it’s important to remember that BRI consists of enormous projects with long-term investments, so integrated planning is everything. “Once you’ve invested and you have it and it’s working and people are employed and depending on it, it becomes a commitment,” she says. “The decisions made, we’re going to have to live with for decades.”
Editor’s note: Want to learn more about this extraordinary Chinese global initiative? Here’s a resource that may prove useful: Belt and Road Initiative Studies.