Scientists and environmentalists are warning that China’s vast “Silk Road” global infrastructure initiative could cause permanent environmental damage unless it’s carefully handled.
China’s President Xi Jinping proposed the concept of a new “Silk Road Economic Belt” five years ago.
Since then it’s been recognized as Xi’s signature policy concept, and is therefore considered “too big to fail,” according to one expert on the subject, Randal Phillips, managing partner for Asia with the Mintz Group.
But in an article published recently in the online academic journal Nature Sustainability, a team of European scientists argue that while the initiative promises to “greatly influence global trade,” it may also promote “permanent environmental degradation.”
China has described the project as a revival of the ancient Silk Road, a system of land and sea routes dating back to the Han Dynasty that connected China to the Middle East and Europe.
Also described as “The Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), the project includes the building of new roads, railway lines, and ports in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the creation of oil and gas pipelines to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar.
Nearly 70 nations in Eurasia, Africa, and the Middle East have so far endorsed the project, which upon completion would involve about two thirds of the world’s population while proposing more than $1 trillion in infrastructure spending.
But in the online journal article published on May 15, the authors argue that changes in the ecosystem due to pollution, the spread of invasive species, restrictions on animal movements, habitat loss, and wildlife mortality are all risks posed by the scheme.
Henrique M. Pereira, an author with the Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources in Portugal, argues that the exploitation of oil and gas reserves through the BRI will mean an increased dependence on fossil fuels and high greenhouse gas emissions.
“…Raw materials and fossil fuels use, and increased oil and gas reserves exploitation constitute a scenario of an increasing dependency on fossil-fuel and high greenhouse gas emissions,” Pereira says.
Fernando Ascensao, an author from the same center in Portugal, says that large amounts of raw material will be needed to support the transport infrastructure’s expansion in environmentally sensitive areas.
The article’s authors note that since the 1990s, China has been strengthening its legislation in pursuit of an “ecological civilization,” which would require that environmental assessments precede major economic development activities.
They argue that China can find the right balance between development and environmental sustainability if it implements in the BRI’s foreign corridors the environmental practices already required within its own borders.
The authors cite a recent report published early this year by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) showing that these corridors overlap with 1,737 Key Diversity Areas, or KDAs.
The corridors also overlap with the habitat range of 265 threatened wildlife species, including 39 species that are critically endangered, the Swiss-based WWF says.
Questions about implementation
Problems in monitoring the BRI’s implementation could arise, meanwhile, from a lack of transparency among some of the Chinese banks and state-owned companies which will be charged with financing and then building and servicing much of the infrastructure.
In testimony early this year before the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), Randal Phillips with the Mintz Group noted that the China Development Bank (CDB) and China Export-Import Bank (China Ex-Im) will play central roles in financing of the BRI.
“It’s precisely the central role of these institutions that is troubling to U.S. and other foreign officials—and companies seeking to get involved—given the very limited transparency in operations they provide …,” Phillips said.
China’s Action Plan for the BRI says that “efforts should be made to promote green and low-carbon infrastructure.”
But as an analysis published by the Stockholm Environment (SEI) Institute notes, the BRI will be “subsidizing inefficient and energy intensive, high-polluting state-owned enterprises (SOEs).”
Since the SOEs answer only to the government and enjoy state financing, “there has been little incentive for these Chinese companies to carefully assess costs, benefits, and risks,” the SEI report says.
“From the outset, BRI was in part designed to absorb China’s overcapacity in steel and cement production to boost the domestic economy,” the SEI report says. “This perpetuates a carbon- and pollution-intensive model rather than helping the country wean itself from its dependence on heavy industry.”
According to Phillips, when Xi announced the BRI policy, China was “wrestling with its desired response” to the U.S. “rebalance to Asia,” and in particular to the proposed Transpacific Partnership (TPP).
“The relatively vacant space of infrastructure spending provided a ready-made and relatively benign path to do so,” he said.
The maritime “road” part of the plan fits with China’s desire to build the infrastructure to diversify its energy supplies and reduce the risk of being “strangled” in a conflict with the United States, Philips said.
Philips is referring here to long-standing Chinese military concerns that an adversary could easily block the Malacca Strait, a narrow, 500-mile-long trading route between the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia. More than 80 percent of China’s oil imports pass through the strait.
Phillips says that People’s Liberation Army planning documents dating back over a decade suggest using alternative energy transmission routes through Myanmar, potentially building a canal through the Kra Isthmus in Thailand and ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and beyond.
Environmental Impact on Myanmar
The construction of roads planned for the BRI could have a major environmental impact in Burma, or Myanmar, according to the report posted on Jan. 18 this year by the World Wide Fund for Nature, known at the time as the World Wildlife Fund.
“China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Myanmar highlights that while the BRI presents significant development opportunities for Myanmar it also brings substantial risks for people and Myanmar’s natural capital, including forests, rivers, land, biodiversity and oceans,” the report says.
The report quotes Hanna Helsingen, Green Economy Program and Policy Manager for the WWF in Myanmar, as saying that BRI road building could endanger wildlife and contribute to deforestation, landslides, and pollution.
“Through better planning and design, these risks can be avoided and mitigated,” Helsingen says.
The WWF report focuses on two proposed East-West and North-South road corridors.
If these go as planned, the BRI will cut through parts of Myanmar’s vital Ayeyarwady, or Irrawaddy, River Basin and its surrounding mountains.
The region is the home to some 24 million people. They rely on the Irrawaddy for drinking water and for silt to replenish one of the world’s major rice-growing areas, which is located along its downstream banks.
Under the BRI, Chinese companies would build a deepwater port in Myanmar at Kyaukpyu, allowing them a trading corridor to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar.
This would meet the Chinese military’s desire to find an alternative trade route should an enemy “strangle” China’s trade through the Malacca Straits during a conflict.
But according to a report from Yangon published on June 4 in the Financial Times, Myanmar is reviewing the deepwater port project over concerns that it is too expensive and “could ultimately fall under Beijing’s control if Myanmar were to default on its debt.”
The World Wildlife Fund, meanwhile, is recommending that Myanmar civil society be included at all levels and stages of various project plans to avoid negative social and environmental impacts.
The nongovernmental organization also recommends that more assessments be undertaken before BRI road building begins in order to better understand risks related to floods, erosion, and biodiversity.
The BRI design, it says, should “enhance environmental, social and economic benefits, including buffer zones, re-vegetation of slopes, and wildlife corridors.”
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.