In his 1958 campaign speech, former United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared, “We are busily engaged in the construction of a gigantic road system which will build more than 40,000 miles of superhighways” (Weingroff 1958). Sixty years later, China has far surpassed the United States in infrastructure capacity, having already built more than double that length in expressways domestically (Watanabe 2021). Now, China is contracting the construction of massive infrastructure projects internationally through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a megaproject framework unprecedented in scope spanning Afro-Eurasia (Chatzky 2020). In fact, by 2040, the BRI is estimated to boost global gross domestic product by up to $7.1 trillion while reducing global trade costs by up to 2.2 percent (Hillman 2021). Yet, for all the purported economic benefits, the BRI also comes with far-reaching environmental implications. Currently, fossil fuels make up 80% of China’s overseas energy investments through the BRI, with only 3% going to solar and wind (Hilton 2019). However, China has also pledged to limit the negative environmental impacts caused by the BRI. Although the BRI poses as a green initiative, China’s policies through the BRI have overwhelmingly adverse effects on the environment not only through pernicious coal dumping in developing countries, but also with arctic oil extraction through the Polar Silk Road along with excessive cement production.
The Green Belt and Road Initiative
In light of the increasing pressure regarding the negative environmental implications of the BRI, China has begun introducing BRI “reforms.” On March 28, 2022, China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Department of Ecology and Environment, and Ministry of Commerce published a joint statement on making the BRI more sustainable by reducing emissions and pollution while protecting biodiversity in BRI nations (de Boer 2022). In 2018, the Green Finance Committee of China and the City of London introduced Green Investment Principles for the BRI, which feature state-owned banks from BRI countries including the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Morocco, Singapore, Pakistan, and Mongolia among its signatories (Wang 2021). Now, while 12.8 gigawatts of Chinese overseas coal projects have been canceled, equivalent to more than one-third of South Korea’s 2021 coal power capacity, 19.2 gigawatts of BRI coal projects have already secured financing, contracts, or permits, and will likely be built. Additionally, no penalties exist for Chinese companies financing coal overseas, and regulations are opaque. In fact, at least two coal projects have already been secured following President Xi Jinping’s late 2021 commitment to end BRI coal projects (Liu 2022), and Chinese banks still finance over 70 percent of coal power plants in the world under the BRI (ANI 2022). Even worse, 7% more coal will be mined in 2022 than in 2021, which Li Shuo, a Greenpeace senior global policy adviser, criticizes by explaining that China’s pursuit of energy security trumps carbon neutrality. Especially since the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party has rested on economic growth since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, which is the keystone of the BRI, economic development is often prioritized over environmental concerns in China. Overall, while being phased out de jure, coal is still a prevalent and damaging de facto part of the BRI.
In terms of coal alone, China has been exchanging economic growth for environmental sustainability within developing countries through the BRI. For the past few years, Chinese companies have invested heavily in coal power in West African countries like Ghana (Nyabiage 2020). In fact, there have been 1600 coal power plants planned through the BRI (Gokkon 2018), with many still proceeding despite President Xi Jinping’s promise to eliminate coal from the BRI. Even worse, many of the new coal power plants being built are not equipped with efficient carbon capture technology. In fact, of the 240 coal power plants already built in 25 BRI countries, 58 percent were high emission, low energy plants. These plants alone released the equivalent of 11 percent of all CO2 emissions in the United States (Hilton 2019).
Now, since China is aiming to eliminate coal use domestically to purportedly achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Accords, state-owned coal companies are shifting their operations abroad to developing countries to avoid bankruptcy and continue to stimulate the economy (Feng 2019). Thus, China can domestically build up its renewable energy sector while ensuring its state-owned coal companies have continued capital inflow from developing BRI nations. In fact, to facilitate domestic economic growth, China has historically attempted to offload coal energy to the developing world while ensuring that its state-owned construction companies employ Chinese labor to build those coal factories. Chinese enterprises were encouraged to invest in overseas coal projects in the early 2000s until countries began implementing protectionist policies to ban them (Hao 2017).
With the BRI, there has been a renewed emphasis on providing economic incentives and coercion to offload Chinese coal projects overseas (Hao 2017). Furthermore, the capacity for dumping coal into international markets through the BRI is only increasing as the scale of coal overcapacity in China has grown between 1.721 and 1.819 billion tons from 2017 to 2019 (Wang 2018). Even worse, any coal plants built now will lock developing countries into coal for at least 40 years because nations need to maximize their investments, which means that even if a nation wants to switch to green tech, they are stuck with coal (Inskeep 2019). On the economic front, as coal prices increase due to less global production and as clean air regulation becomes more stringent, many of the current coal power plants being constructed in developing countries will begin operating at a loss, creating a huge moral hazard for BRI investments in coal (Hilton 2019). In fact, while initial investments may be more expensive currently, clean energy sources such as onshore wind farms will become cheaper to operate over time as production capacity ramps up. Devastatingly, these coal plants will increase global coal emissions by 43 percent (Rotter 2017), eventually making BRI countries account for 50 percent of global emissions by 2050, up from 15 percent in 2015 (Zadek 2019). As such, the BRI in its current state will guarantee that the goals outlined in the Paris Climate Accords are not met in many BRI nations.
The Polarizing Polar Silk Road
Overinvestment in coal is not the only negative environmental impact of the BRI – the Polar Silk Road is a BRI initiative aimed at expanding Chinese infrastructure to the Arctic Circle in pursuit of energy, commercial, and geopolitical gains (Nakano 2018). Funded by Chinese money in Russian territory, the Polar Silk Road provides China and Russia access to over 35 trillion dollar’s worth of oil and gas underneath the melting polar ice caps (Jorbenadze 2022). Yet, Russia cannot drill oil in the Arctic without China’s BRI. Since Russia currently lacks the necessary resources to do so, the only way Russia can drill is by constructing new sea and land routes with China’s help (Dillow 2018). Russia requires outside financing and support for technology and Arctic infrastructure development (Gutierrez 2018), which is even more challenging to obtain from elsewhere especially given the massive international sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Without China’s funding of the Polar Silk Road, Russia’s past drilling expeditions have failed (Nakano 2018).
Currently, China provides 80% of the equipment and 60% of the funding for Arctic expeditions (Gasper 2018). In the near future, China plans to invest trillions more into the Polar Silk Road (Bennett 2018). Concurrently, Russia has and will continue using the oil money from the Polar Silk Road to fund devastating wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine (Myrie 2022). In the long term, these far north shipping and drilling lanes would only be made possible by accelerating the melting of polar ice caps, which would also cause massive sea-level rise, devastating thousands of coastal cities in exchange for marginal economic growth for China and Russia (Gasper 2018). Ultimately, drilling Arctic oil will lead to over 5 degrees Celsius of global warming (Greenpeace 2015).
Furthermore, given how infrastructure expansion has historically correlated with significant biodiversity loss (Hughes 2018), the Polar Silk Road will also lead to many species becoming extinct. Even worse, the BRI does not implement the best practices to prevent biodiversity loss and actually increases alien species invasions by overlapping global diversity hotspots with high invasive potentials within BRI economic corridors. Ominously, the repercussions of this biodiversity loss will be as severe as those from climate change or nuclear conflicts (Liu 2019). As its cascading effects devastate entire regional food chains, biodiversity loss is a “threat multiplier” that will exacerbate existing conflicts and introduce entirely new struggles between state and non-state actors. Ultimately, biodiversity loss could even fuel the rise of terrorism, as climate change has been linked to the emergence of ISIS in Syria (Torres 2016). The United Nations Security Council corroborates the linkage between climate change and terrorism, highlighting the multiplier effect of climate change and biodiversity loss on poverty, weak governance, and terrorist activity. In fact, of the 15 countries that are most exposed to climate risks, eight have United Nations peacekeeping missions to address terrorism, including Mali, Iraq, and Syria (United Nations 2019).
In addition to the inimical implications of the Polar Silk Road, BRI projects often also involve cement production and sand dredging, which is terrible for the environment. Cement requires extensive amounts of sand, stone, and energy, and is extensively used in construction (Spiegel 2020). China has been the biggest concrete producer in the world. In fact, if it were a country, the concrete industry would be the world’s third-largest carbon dioxide emitter, responsible for 4-8% of the world’s CO2 emissions (Watts 2019). However, to create concrete, China has been digging up excessive amounts of sand for the past few years, destroying coastline and fishing breeding areas (Apostolopoulou 2021). Now, China is closing its domestic cement plants under new pollution guidelines (Goh 2019) while creating hundreds of heavily polluting cement production lines in BRI countries (McNeice 2017). Furthermore, China is targeting countries with weak emissions and environmental standards and enforcement (Goh 2019). While host countries are responsible for approving high-polluting projects, governments may be lured by the economic benefits posited by Chinese state-owned enterprises (Lelyveld 2019). In fact, countries like Pakistan, which historically have suffered from climate change impacts, actually saw their CO2 emissions increase fourfold after joining the BRI (Zeb 2017). As such, massive infrastructure projects lacking sufficient environmental regulation and international oversight are extremely minacious for developing nations to undertake.
The Pernicious Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative
Ultimately, increasing production of coal, oil, and cement, climate change and melting ice caps will result in devastating heatwaves, decreased air quality, and drastically increased sea levels, leading to deaths, destruction of infrastructure, crops, and dramatically decreased quality of life (The Climate Reality Project 2019). In the long term, BRI projects are estimated to lead to 3 degrees Celsius of global warming (Hicks 19), which puts 4.6 billion people, more than 50% of the world, at risk of poverty (Byers 2018). By eliminating the BRI’s extremely polluting projects, even by only 0.5 degrees Celsius, 153 million lives would be saved by reducing air pollution alone, notwithstanding other factors (Shindell 2018). Therefore, by stopping 3 degrees Celsius of global warming, at least 918 million lives would be saved from the devastating human toll exacted by air pollution.
Besides just the human impact, BRI initiatives result in geopolitical tension with the United States and other Western powers, accelerating Western attempts to expand in BRI regions with their own initiatives like the Blue Dot Network, Build Back Better World, International Development Finance Corporation, and the Quad’s Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. Thus, the BRI could be a threat multiplier, causing disproportionate amounts of environmental devastation given its cheaper sticker tag pressuring Western initiatives to overlook onerous ecological regulations in developing countries to catch up with the BRI.
To alleviate some of the environmental issues propagated by the BRI, the United States and its allies should consider negotiating with China to create minimum infrastructure project standards. As such, multilateral infrastructure summits focusing on improving the environmental and social impacts of the BRI can push China toward making the BRI more transparent while potentially facilitating multilateral BRI projects (Economy 2018). Through working on multilateral solutions with China, a high-stakes infrastructure and development arms race where more projects are approved without proper environmental and safety regulations could be avoided. In a similar vein, joining the BRI could also aid in promoting American soft power as a counterbalance to China’s in many developing nations (Lind 2018).
In tandem, the international media should focus on the political, economic, and social implications of specific BRI projects (Chen 2019). Thus, given the current opaqueness of many BRI projects, citizens of BRI nations would have a better chance of being able to judge for themselves whether the benefits of specific BRI projects outweigh the harms. Especially with the proliferation of digital social media networks, political and environmental activism has become even more effective in terms of facilitating dissenting opinions and organizing protests. Often, the most effective change starts from within.
While it may promote economic growth and infrastructure development in developing countries, the BRI ultimately pushes forward a trifecta of environmental devastation in the forms of coal, the Polar Silk Road, and biodiversity loss. As such, it is integral to work comprehensively toward multilateral environmental solutions within the BRI and for Chinese companies and other nations to consider the ramifications of the BRI before signing on to a BRI-backed infrastructure project. Without carefully considering the environmental costs of the BRI, both from individual companies participating in the initiative on the microscale and countries signing on to the initiative on the macroscale, BRI participants may well cause billions to be killed or impoverished by the impacts of climate change.
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