Russia President Vladimir Putin received a red-carpet treatment in Beijing in late October at China’s 3rd Belt and Road Forum. The event marked the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative — an ambitious undertaking to boost connectivity and trade across the world via Chinese infrastructure projects.
At the forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping called Putin “a dear friend.” On the sidelines, the two leaders held a three-hour discussion over the Sino-Russian partnership.
China’s Foreign Ministry summarized what Putin said about China’s Belt and Road Initiative this way:
“…the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping 10 years ago has been a huge success and is now a widely recognized major international public goods.”
That is misleading.
The Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, has been controversial. While it has increased China’s presence on the international stage, multiple BRI projects have created socio-environmental and climate risks, as well as governance and corruption challenges, in partner states.
China launched the BRI in 2013 as a global infrastructure investment scheme to boost connectivity and cooperation on a transcontinental scale, while expanding China’s influence in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
It’s the world’s largest infrastructure program since the U.S. Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe after World War II. BRI infrastructure investments include ports, railways, bridges, dams, and coal-fired power stations.
Widely viewed as a centerpiece of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, the BRI was incorporated into the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution in 2017.
Yet scientists and environmentalists warn that without careful planning, the initiative could have immediate biophysical impacts and cause irreversible environmental damage.
First of all, many of the BRI’s major corridors pass through ecologically sensitive areas, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), a Washington D.C.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO).
The EESI noted in a study that while these corridors increase connectivity, new roads and railways could also dissect natural environments, and “such disruptions would threaten the plants and animals of the surrounding ecosystems — as well as the livelihoods of the people who live there.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature, a Swiss-based NGO, reported in 2017 that BRI corridors overlapped with the range of 265 threatened species, 1,739 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) or Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), and 46 biodiversity hotspots.
This is especially true in Southeast Asia, a region rich in biodiversity. The high-speed railway connecting the Laotian capital of Vientiane and China’s southern city of Kunming has led to deforestation. Rail projects in Malaysia and Indonesia have plowed through fragile ecosystems.
In Africa, Ghana’s bauxite-for-infrastructure deal with China was greeted by fierce protests by conservationists there warning that mining in the country’s key forests would pose significant environmental risks. Environmentalists have also criticized the oil pipeline between Uganda and Tanzania, partly funded by China, because it involves drilling around 400 oil wells in Murchison Falls Nature Park, Uganda’s largest national park and a biodiversity reserve.
Faced with criticism, China in 2019 announced a flurry of new initiatives to rebrand BRI as the “green silk road,” with President Xi saying that environmental protection must underpin the initiative to “protect the common home we live in.”
Yet, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, nonrenewable energy investment has made up nearly half of all BRI spending as of 2021.
An article published by the Yale Review of International Studies called the BRI “a coal catastrophe,” pointing out that in addition to many coal plants being built, they are also not equipped with efficient carbon capture technology.
China has committed to stop building coal-fired power plants abroad in 2021. In 2022, Beijing issued a new directive to encourage banks and developers to raise construction and financing standards.
Yet experts point out that since BRI projects are not governed centrally, it’s extremely difficult to enforce the new standards. No Chinese bank financing BRI projects is bound by any requirements to protect biodiversity or lower emissions overseas.
“These guidelines remain aspirational and do not require banks to put mandatory environmental standards in place,” said Divya Narain, a research associate at Oxford Sustainable Finance Group and the lead author of a study published in Nature, a British weekly scientific journal, about BRI’s biodiversity impacts.
While President Xi pledged that China would become carbon neutral by 2060, the government continues to expand the use of coal power inside the country.