China’s Belt and Road poised to transform the Earth, but at what cost to the environment?

China is aggressively trying to leverage on a trillion-dollar transportation and energy infrastructure construction programme that poses potential environmental impacts.

huangpu rive shanghai
Huangpu River in Shanghai, China. Even as China commits to BRI environmental and sustainability standards, the potential environmental impacts of the mega-construction program could be severe, warn analysts. Image: IceNineJon,CC BY-SA 2.0, via IFPRI Flicker

President Donald Trump second guessed himself this month, as he announced a decision to revisit his withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of the first acts of his controversial presidency.

The agreement, already signed by 11 states, would eliminate 98 per cent of tariffs in a Pacific marketplace worth close to $14 trillion, even as Trump aims U.S. tariffs at Asia. TPP nations have already indicated that they won’t be jumping to let Trump and the United States back into the game.

This means not only that trade and investment barriers between the U.S. and the 11 TPP states will likely remain in place, but also that the Asian economic vacuum left by the U.S. will be filled by another nation. And that nation is most certain to be China, which, while not a TPP member, boasts total geographical dominance, a 1.4 billion population, soaring economic growth, and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for its neighbors natural resources.

At the heart of China’s plan to geopolitically and economically master the region, and maybe the world, is its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that simply put, is the largest infrastructure project ever embarked upon in world history.

This staggering infrastructure development plan consists of hundreds of mega-projects — highways, railways, ports, airports, dams, pipelines, a state of the art power grid, and open trade and investment networks, that will encourage connectivity and cooperation spanning a vast geographical area stretching across Asia, to Europe and East Africa, involving at least 40 nations as far away as the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and the South Pacific.

According to some analysts, Belt and Road, while it poses new and grave environmental threats to all of Asia and beyond, if managed properly and responsibly, could also offer extraordinary opportunities for green growth.

China rising

Asia Pacific nations – including U.S. allies – are fast reconciling themselves to the seismic geopolitical shift taking place in their region, as the economic center of gravity moves away from the U.S. to a China focus, says Peter Cai, a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowry Institute, an Australian policy think tank.

This, Cai says, rings especially true now that Donald Trump is distancing the U.S. from its long time Pacific trading partners and allies via withdrawal from the TPP, with tariffs, and potentially a trade war.

The TPP alliance now offers a relatively weak counterweight to China’s economic might. Without the muscle of the U.S. added in, the pact, signed by eleven nations bordering the Pacific Ocean (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam) will be hard pressed to compete as China moves boldly forward with its Belt and Road Initiative.

“I doubt China can completely fill the vacuum left by the U.S., but in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is the king,” Cai told Mongabay. He adds that BRI is one of China’s key diplomatic and economic initiatives. Its real aim: to bring China’s neighbors into its economic and political orbit through physical connectivity and trade integration.

“Beijing hopes to replicate its development experience abroad, and in the process, export China’s new emerging technological and engineering standards, establish itself as a preeminent economic and trade partner for neighboring countries,” Cai said, adding that if “BRI is successful, this will bring China geopolitical clout.”

The seriousness of China’s commitment to international development and to global leadership conducted through its mega-infrastructure initiative was affirmed fully last October when the ruling Communist Party instituted the pledge to pursue BRI into its constitution.

All roads lead to, and from, China

BRI, officially known as One Belt, One Road, is the brainchild of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who in 2013 announced two multi-billion dollar infrastructure initiatives: the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land transportation route running from China to Southern Europe via Central Asia and the Middle East, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a sea route connecting the port of Shanghai to Venice, Italy, via India and Africa.

The sheer scale and mega-magnitude of these projects is daunting: they span three continents and include numerous side-branches along the way, from the Arctic region to the Horn of Africa.

China state-controlled news agency Xinhua Net reported that over 100 countries and international and regional organizations have expressed an interest in participating in the initiative, and more than 40 of them have signed cooperation agreements with China. According to ratings agency Fitch, $900 billion in projects are planned or underway, with BRI’s investments dwarfing any other initiative launched by a single country in history, including the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.

BRI has already leaped off the drawing board and begun changing the global landscape. Official Chinese statistics quoted in a report by financial services company Northern Trust claim that 47 per cent of China’s 102 central-government-owned business conglomerates have so far participated in 1,676 BRI projects. China Communications Construction Group alone has built 10,320 kilometers (6,412 miles) of road, 95 deepwater ports, 10 airports, 152 bridges and 2,080 railways around the world.

Today, China-led construction projects seem to be underway everywhere, from Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port City, to Indonesia’s Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, and Kenya’s Mombasa-Nairobi railway.

BRI meets the environment

President Xi Jinping, addressing heads of state, government representatives, and international organizations at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, committed China and its partners to an environmentally-friendly BRI.

We “should pursue the new vision of green development and a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable.” Said Xi. “Efforts should be made to strengthen cooperation in ecological and environmental protection and build a sound ecosystem so as to realize the goals set by the [United Nation’s] 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

Xi added these details: “We will 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.”

But regardless of Xi’s promises, major environmental impacts from such a vast array of infrastructure projects seem inevitable, warned Courtney Weatherby, Research Analyst for the Southeast Asia Program at the Washington DC-based Stimson Center.

These impacts, she said, could be mitigated by adhering to international best practices, including the implementation of high standards for social and environmental impact assessments (EIAs), consultation with impacted communities, and making good-faith efforts to address impacts which happen as a result of each project.

One question of great concern to environmentalists is transparency. History has shown that rigorous environmental protections are most likely to be instituted and enforced in open societies where an independent judicial branch, media, activists and public can freely challenge government and business interests. China has no such history, and its construction projects around the world have long been plaguedby a troubling environmental record.

This story was published with permission from Read the full story.


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