Greening the BRI: China facing new challenges

In 2017, the pursuit of the BRI project became a part of the principles of China’s constitution, reinforcing the Chinese will of shaping its future on the international scene.[i]

The whole project includes the building of large infrastructure links: ports, airports, highways, pipelines, dams, etc. However, the project has the potential to create various environmental problems.

For instance, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has exposed these risks in its 2017 report, explaining that BRI roads are being constructed over the territories of 265 threatened species, 81 of them are considered as endangered species, and 39 of them as critically endangered. Besides, it overlaps over 46 biodiversity hotspots, and 32% of the total area of all protected areas in BRI countries are potentially affected.[ii]

Figure 1.WWF's map of threatened speciesTHE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE WWF Recommendations and Spatial Analysis”. May 2017. Accessed July 30,2018.http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/the_belt_and_road_initiative__
_wwf_recommendations_and_spatial_analysis___may_2017.pdf
.
 

While the entire project could be a strong economical asset for various countries, it has been presented for many years as not considering its environmental impact. Thus, some institutions have presented recommendations for greening the BRI, and Chinese government has presented a will to deal with it, but is it enough?

BRI as a “grey” project: environmental and human issues

When Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the BRI project in 2013, some institutions started to think about how it could impact environment. In the first year, very few official statements were mentioning the environmental and human issues: it was a “grey project”.

The proposed transportation routes linking the Chinese provinces Jilin and Heilongjiang with Russia’s eastern seaports of Primorsky, thus connecting them with the Trans-Siberian railway, are planned to cross ecologically sensitive areas. These zones include the habitats of the Amur tiger and Far Eastern leopard, both listed as endangered species. [3]

Despite the environmental hazars, his project is fundamental for Russia’s eastern region, lacking of foreign investments. China on the other hand could save up to $1 billion of annual spending through these infrastructures.[4]

Likewise, the proposed transportation bridge across the Amur River in Heilongjiang, is mapped for open exploitation in unique old-growth forests.[5]This massive removal of vegetation is not one-off. The degradation and eventual destruction of the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, the Central Forest Spine of peninsular Malaysia, or the tropical forest in Myanmar, and even the mangroves in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could cause soil erosion, water cycle disruption, and greenhouse gas emissions, impacting both nature and human beings.[6]

The lack of transparency and of coherent maps to locate the presence of sensible areas in the BRI’s plans and protect them could lead to haphazard development, and ecological disasters.

For its part, the Maritime Silk Road could strongly impact local agriculture, fishing activities, or mangrove swamps, as it involves constructions in natural habitats, as in the Bagamoyo port, located in Tanzania.[7]

Thus, considering local habitats while mapping is strongly recommended facing the disastrous impact it could involve if not.

Dams and roads construction

The BRI project involves the constructions of dams, and China has expertise in this type of buildings: in 2010, it was already involved in over 200 dam projects, in 49 countries.[8]

On one hand, the hydropower energy saved almost 3,200 million tons of greenhouse gasemissions in 2006.[9]However, dams have a negative impact on river ecosystems and biodiversity, and moreover on social habitats. The Chinese Three Gorges Dam, world's largest power station built from 1994 to 2012, led to the relocation of 1.3 million inhabitants. Altogether, Chinese dams have displaced a total of 23 million people, while affecting water availability and environmental quality.[10]

Furthermore, while construction of roads is primordial to develop economic development and connect isolated areas, those planned through sensitive areas can have a disastrous impact on biodiversity. This includes wildlife mortality, restrictions of animal movement, pollution (chemicals, noise, light) and the spread of invasive species. Furthermore, by facilitating access to tropical forests, it can encourage illegal logging, poaching and fires.[11]

While hydroelectricity is a great source of energy and development for the whole country, local habitats are here again the ones suffering from it, as is the local environment, that is strongly affected.

Risks of over-rating benefits

When the benefits of infrastructures are overrated, it can lead to constructions badly exploited or not exploited at all. This phenomenon often occurs when a city or a country build constructions for a punctual event, like the Olympic games. As China helped Sri Lanka to build its $1-bn port located in Hambantota as a part of the Maritime Silk Road, this building is now almost unused, as a result Sri Lanka gave China a 99-year lease for debt relief.[12]

In the same vein, the $209 million Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Southeast Sri Lanka was designed for one million passengers per year, but it welcomes now 12 passengers per day.[13]Those facts need to be balanced as numerous of other projects happen to fail in other countries or in Europe (as the infamous Berlin’s airport[14]). However, according to a study, less than 60% of capital projects in China were delivered as planned, since 1997, resulting in $9,84 trillion worth of ineffective investment.[15]

This example highlights one more time how a high-quality planning is essential for economic and environmental reasons.

Gas and concrete

As these constructions will consume huge quantities of concrete, sand, metal and other raw materials, the BRI project is about to become a major source of greenhouse gases. As a matter of fact, the limestone present in concrete has to be baked at high temperatures, which is very energy consuming and making concrete one of the most energy and carbon-expensive products.[16]Thus, producing a ton of cement requires about 4.7 million BTU of energy, generating nearly a ton of CO2.[17]

As a 2014 article has already suggested, Chinese raw materials overproduction can conduct it to engage in constructions overseas.[18]Along these lines, considering that one of the aims of the BRI is to deal with this overcapacity, this solution encourages overproduction, instead of finding active solutions to solve it, or using this asset to promote renewable energy, especially when wind and solar energy are falling in price.[19]

However, China National Building Material (world’s largest cement producer) announced it is about to construct 100 cement factories in the three next years in the Belt and Road countries, what lets us wonder what will be the aim of these factories once the infrastructure projects will be completed.[20]

Coal

As coal industry remains one of the most pollutant source of energy for human and planet (1 million human lives are shortened every year due to the impact of the coal industry[21]),China had been involved in 240 cold-fired power projects by the end of 2016, in 25 of the 65 countries along the BRI.[22]In fact, the amount of investments in coal constructions overseas has seen a pick in 2013, with the launch of the BRI project.[23]

As gas, concrete and coal remain ones of the cheapest materials for building infrastructures, they are also the most pollutant. Generally, a “grey” project highlights what should not be done: always considering the cheapest way as the better option, and not taking in account the negative impacts while planning.

Going from grey to green: renewable energy on the way

In its report, WWF stated a range of suggestions to deal with the environmental impact of the BRI, through ecological infrastructure for example. Ecological infrastructure can be defined as «naturally functioning ecosystems that deliver valuable services to people, such as water and climate regulation, soil formation and disaster risk reduction».[24]

The main asset of ecological infrastructures is their ability to perform several functions in the same spatial area, by creating a network of artificial and natural systems. This multifunctional characteristic (while basic infrastructures have usually only one purpose), encourages win-win solutions for investors and for the wider public.

Other recommendations made by the WWF include the constructions of renewable energy infrastructure, of natural capitals, and encourages more transparency in the BRI’s projects (establishing transboundary national parks, cross border ecological corridors and infrastructure, strengthening monitoring and evaluation by identifying key indicator)[25]

Some of these suggestions are highlighted in «China’s BRI challenge» report made by the bank HSBC:

Figure 2 HSBC's proposals for a greener BRI.

"China's BRI Challenge." Greening the Belt and Road Initiative. Accessed August 08, 2018. https://www.sustainablefinance.hsbc.com/our-reports/chinas-bri-challenge.

Various options could be proposed to make BRI an eco-friendly project. Governments and private building companies should enhance collaborations with institutions providing this type of solutions, without dramatically increasing the costs.

 Going green: China on a half-step

Although China is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, diminishing it remains not that simple. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank estimates that 460 million people in Asia lack access to electricity, while coal is simply the cheapest available source of power for many poorer BRI countries.[26]

Thus, it is hard to imagine the whole project without the consumption of this energy. However, China displays its ambitions to minimize its negative environmental impact. For example, the government aims to obtain 58% of coal consumption by 2020, instead of 64% in 2015.

Notwithstanding, while China commits to reduce its coal energy, its nuclear power is in expansion. This source of energy is dangerous for environment and human safety. Most of all, China has been criticized for its low safety standards.[27]

This involvement also takes place in finance, through «green-financing». In 2016, 40% of green bonds where Chinese[28](even though some investors consider them being «not-so-green»[29]).

In addition, Chinese government has recently released various guidelines and statements for a greener BRI:

  • In 2013, China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Environmental Protection jointly issued the Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and Cooperation, but those are only guidelines without any legal force.[30]
  • In 2016, Xi Jinping called for a « green, healthy, intelligent and peaceful » Silk Road, while addressing the Uzbek Parliament.[31]
  • In 2015, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China announced an action plan on the Belt and Road Initiative, declaring: «We should promote ecological progress in conducting investment and trade, increase cooperation in conserving eco-environment, protecting biodiversity, and tackling climate change, and join hands to make the Silk Road an environment-friendly one.»[32]

However, this vision remains «just a framework» according to Ruilian Zhang, a researcher with Queensland University in Australia studying the environmental and social impacts of the Belt and Road. He argues that «China must still translate its vision into myriad policies, regulations, and measures guiding the implementation of a “green Belt and Road”».[33]

Furthermore, in spite of this good will, for many BRI countries, increasing social and economic standards is what appears to be the main goal, without putting any priority on the environment. Moreover, this is one of the reasons explaining Chinese trading success: it is flexible. China is flexible in negotiating payment terms, and is flexible in negotiations less stringent requirements, to the delight of poorer countries.[34]

We need also to highlight the concrete measures that have been developed, as listed by the ministry of ecology and environment of China.[35]In 2016, China Nuclear Engineering Group Corp signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy. The same type of agreement has been signed with Serbia, relating to new energy projects including hydro, wind, solar and biomass.

Furthermore, Chinese participation in the high-speed railway linking Serbia and Hungary can be seen as an initiative introducing more environmentally-friendly processes to Europe, as said by Peter Medgyessy, former prime minister of Hungary.

Various other BRI official documents display the will for a greener BRI. However, “clear policy guidance on exactly how to ensure that projects are pursued in an environmentally sustainable way are largely absent from official statements on OBOR”.[36]In 2018, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe has joined the International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road, co-initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China, giving to BRI environmental issues more visibility of the international scene. This coalition promotes «policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds.», still without mentioning any concrete legal measures or sanctions.[37]

Not considering the environmental cost of the BRI project can affect Chinese international trades perspectives, but most importantly it will have strong consequences on the biodiversity, human safety, and pollution. During his visit to China in January, French president Emmanuel Macron announced he wanted France to engage in China’s BRI project, but not without Green Silk Roads, and more transparency.[38]More strictly, British Finance Minister Philip Hammond stated: “For China, the new Silk Roads are also a tool to promote new international standards, rules and norms that are different from those currently used by France and other European countries”.[39]

In April 2018, a very critical report by 27 of the 28 national EU ambassadors to Beijing has been unveiled, criticizing the low standards and the lack of transparency of the New Silk Road.[40]

According to Dominique Moïsi, advisor at the French Institute of International Relations, a Chinese dream is emerging, related to prosperity. Flowing from west to east, this dream becomes materialistic, and more illiberal.[41]

Thus, we should re-focus on what matters, and what not. Even an illiberal dream cannot be planned on a long-term vision without considering on what it is constructed. This a recommendation we should continue to learn and teach through reports, papers, institutions, so it become our mindset, so it become laws, so it become a long-term vision.

Conclusion

As highlighted by the WWF, environmental risks of a «grey» BRI (without any green improvements) remains largely unknown to a large part of the public, leading to inadequate attention among stakeholders and institutions.[42]Acknowledging it and demonstrating the sustainable business opportunities is one of the strongest recommendations to make.

It remains to be seen, whether during the next few years BRI will emerge as an innovative green development model, or prosperity and growth will remain as the preeminent idea of this project.

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[1]Shepard, Wade. "Why China Just Added The Belt And Road Initiative To Its Constitution." Forbes. May 18, 2018. Accessed July 30, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2017/10/25/why-china-just-added-the-belt-and-road-initiative-to-its-constitution/#767b766a42ab. 

[2]“THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE WWF Recommendations and Spatial Analysis”. May 2017. Accessed July 30, 2018. http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/the_belt_and_road_initiative___wwf_recommendations_and_spatial_analysis___may_2017.pdf.

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[7]Léautier, Frannie A. "The Port of Bagamoyo: A Test for China's New Maritime Silk Road in Africa." The Diplomat. December 01, 2015. Accessed August 02, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2015/12/the-port-of-bagamoyo-a-test-for-chinas-new-maritime-silk-road-in-africa/.

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[12]Ian Marlow. "China's White Elephant: $1-bn Sri Lanka Port Shows What's Wrong with BRI." Business Standard. April 18, 2018. Accessed July 31, 2018. https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/china-s-white-elephant-1-bn-sri-lanka-port-shows-what-s-wrong-with-bri-118041800800_1.html.

[13]Larmer, Brook. "What the World's Emptiest International Airport Says About China's Influence." The New York Times. September 13, 2017. Accessed July 31, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/magazine/what-the-worlds-emptiest-international-airport-says-about-chinas-influence.html.

[14]Gavin Haines. 2018. "The Farcical Saga Of Berlin's New Airport – Whatever Happened To German Efficiency?". The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/the-crazy-saga-of-berlins-long-delayed-airport/.

[15]"'One Belt' Infrastructure Investments Seen as Helping to Use up Some Industrial Over-capacity." South China Morning Post. November 02, 2015. Accessed August 01, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/business/article/1874895/one-belt-infrastructure-investments-seen-helping-use-some-industrial-over.

[16]Nexus Media. "China's Global Infrastructure Initiative Could Bring Environmental Catastrophe." Nexus Media. May 22, 2018. Accessed July 31, 2018. https://nexusmedianews.com/chinas-global-infrastructure-initiative-could-be-an-environmental-catastrophe-25a40e2d1000.

[17]"Emissions from the Cement Industry." State of the Planet. June 18, 2018. Accessed July 31, 2018. https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/05/09/emissions-from-the-cement-industry/.

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[20]"China to Build 100 Cement Plants in Belt and Road Region." China Aims to Boost Industries along Yangtze River. Accessed August 02, 2018. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201712/13/WS5a3015c8a3108bc8c672b094.html.

[21]Pariona, Amber. "What Is The Environmental Impact Of The Coal Industry?" WorldAtlas. February 27, 2017. Accessed August 03, 2018. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-environmental-impact-of-the-coal-industry.html.

[22]Peng, Ren, Zhang Liwen, and Liu Chang. "China’s Involvement in Coal-Fired Power Projects along the Belt and Road." May 2017. http://www.geichina.org/_upload/file/report/China's_Involvement_in_Coal-fired_Power_Projects_OBOR_EN.pdf.

[23]"China's Belt and Road Initiative Still Pushing Coal." 中外对话Chinadialogue | China and the Environment. Accessed August 01, 2018. https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/9785-China-s-Belt-and-Road-Initiative-still-pushing-coal.

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[26]"AIIB Plans to "conditionally" Support Coal Power." 中外对话Chinadialogue | China and the Environment. Accessed August 01, 2018. https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/9648-AIIB-plans-to-conditionally-support-coal-power.

[27]Borderlessmovement. "What Might "Globalisation 2.0"mean for the Environment? Why China's One Belt, One Road Is a Cause for Concern." Borderless Movement. July 24, 2017. Accessed August 02, 2018. https://borderless-hk.com/2017/07/24/what-might-globalisation-2-0mean-for-the-environment-why-chinas-one-belt-one-road-is-a-cause-for-concern/.


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[29]"Why Some Chinese Green Bonds Fall Short of International Standards." South China Morning Post. July 03, 2018. Accessed August 01, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/business/global-economy/article/2121438/why-are-some-chinese-green-bonds-not-so-green-eyes.

 [30]"MINISTRY OF COMMERCE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA." Statistics of FDI in China in January-July 2017 -. Accessed August 02, 2018. http://english.mofcom.gov.cn/article/policyrelease/bbb/201303/20130300043226.shtml.

[31]"President Xi Calls for Building 'green, Healthy, Intelligent and Peaceful' Silk Road." Customs around the Mid-Autumn Festival. Accessed August 02, 2018. http://www.scio.gov.cn/32618/Document/1481477/1481477.htm.

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[33]"How Will China's Ambitious New Silk Road Impact Climate Change?" IRIN. October 31, 2017. Accessed August 02, 2018. https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2017/10/31/how-will-china-s-ambitious-new-silk-road-impact-climate-change.

[34]"China's Belt and Road Initiative: Five Years Later." The New Southbound Policy | Center for Strategic and International Studies. July 31, 2018. Accessed August 03, 2018. https://www.csis.org/analysis/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-five-years-later-0.

[35]"Xinhua Insight: Belt And Road Initiative Needs To Be Green". 2018. English.Mep.Gov.Cn. http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/media_news/201607/t20160712_360517.shtml.

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[38]Goulard, Sebastien. "France and China's Green Silk Roads." The Diplomat. January 13, 2018. Accessed August 03, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/france-and-chinas-green-silk-roads/.

[39]Rose, Michel. "China's New 'Silk Road' Cannot Be One-way, France's Macron Says." Reuters. January 08, 2018. Accessed August 03, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-france/chinas-new-silk-road-cannot-be-one-way-frances-macron-says-idUSKBN1EX0FU.

[40]"EU Ambassadors to Beijing Band against China's Silk Road in Critical Report." Handelsblatt Global Edition. April 20, 2018. Accessed August 03, 2018. https://global.handelsblatt.com/politics/eu-ambassadors-beijing-china-silk-road-912258.

[41]Moïsi, Dominique. "Le Regard Sur Le Monde De Dominique Moïsi : Le « rêve Chinois » Et Le Déclin De L'« American Dream »." Lesechos.fr. July 10, 2018. Accessed August 03, 2018. https://www.lesechos.fr/idees-debats/editos-analyses/0301936248347-le-regard-sur-le-monde-de-dominique-moisi-le-reve-chinois-et-le-declin-de-l-american-dream-2190453.php.

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Published 30 August 2018

Author Serge Lévitski