Can the Belt and Road go green in South East Asia?

Right now the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) risks becoming an environmental disaster for it’s host countries, the uncontrolled development of coal plants, roads and other infrastructure could unleash havoc on both local eco-systems and national carbon emission targets. Below I explore whether Chinese firms can realise a great opportunity and turn the BRI into an environmental beacon of sustainable growth?

The Belt and Road Initiative has rapidly developed from a speech delivered by The Chinese President in 2013 to the world’s biggest economic diplomacy project. A plan vast in scope and ambition, the Belt and Road is the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy and now nearly all Chinese overseas investment is now labelled BRI.

The Initiative has come under increasing scrutiny as observers question whether much of the investment proposed is good for the host country, or just an excuse to move excess industrial capacity from China overseas.

Others have criticised the initiative on environmental grounds, the Stockholm Environment Institute released a brief in October 2018 which mapped the potential climate and development impacts of the Belt and Road Intiative.

The brief highlighted Chinese investments in South East Asia that include the construction of coal fired plants, which will increase power generation in the short run, but will place the region on a high carbon emissions pathway. There are 11 major hydroelectric dams projects planned across South East Asia, are low on carbon emissions, but still inflict a heavy environmental cost through loss of habitation and damage to ecosystems. Climate change and new rainfall patterns could also place dams under different pressures in the long term, making them more prone to damage or collapse.

SouthEastAsiaThe Chinese government has indicated that it recognises that BRI projects should take into account climate risks and other environmental concerns, but it is not clear how this will be interpreted on the ground and how well local governments will enforce their own regulations in the face of the Chinese juggernaut.

In Malaysia recently there has been considerable push back against Chinese investment, for political reasons rather than environmental. But in other countries like Cambodia there is anger among locals towards the Chinese who are perceived to be stripping its neighbours of natural resources such as timber, jade and wildlife. Fears of Chinese dominance are already high and its international reputation could suffer further if its companies are still seen to be exploiting rather than helping other countries.

The SEI briefing calls for a participatory framework for BRI investments where local governments and people are informed of the costs and benefits of any projects and investors try to gain acceptance from the stakeholders and design nature based solutions to environmental challenges.

All this seems rather optimistic given Chinese companies have so often been able to ignore many environmental norms and build without restrictions. That is changing both in and out of China as firms wake up to the fact that they do have to consider the environmental consequences of their investments.

It should also represent an opportunity to Chinese construction firms. China leads the world in sectors like wind turbine production and solar panel installation, there is no reason why given the strength of its engineering sector it could not lead in building climate friendly infrastructure such as rail, ports and housing. Building in a manner which is climate resilient (ready for major changes in the climate such as higher sea levels) and low on carbon emissions (using low carbon building materials).

Similarly given China has such strengths in building renewable energy technology it should be taking a lead an encouraging the urgent deployment of such technologies both home and abroad. This would also have the effect of boosting these cutting edge industries and strengthening China’s global lead in these emerging sectors. Its now up to the Chinese government to push ahead and take global leadership on sustainable development.

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