Building a green Belt and Road Initiative? First steps on a long road ahead.

By Johanna Coenen and Simon Bager

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a young, yet fast developing framework of activities aimed at improving regional and trans-continental cooperation and connectivity through investments, trade, and infrastructure projects. In fall 2013, President Xi Jinping announced the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which has become known as BRI. The global initiative takes its name from the ancient “Silk Road”, which connected Asian and European cities through trade in goods, mainly silk and spices. The newly announced BRI goes along and beyond the route of the historic Silk Road. More than 130 countries have joined the initiative so far (figure 1). Road, rail, maritime and energy infrastructure projects form a key part of the BRI, which will likely facilitate increased trade and economic development along the route. Apart from advancing geopolitical and economic objectives, the initiative is also projected to increase cultural and scientific exchanges across the countries engaged in the BRI.

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Figure 1. As of January 2020, 138 countries have signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with China.

The BRI poses both opportunities and risks for sustainable development. By promoting investments in renewable energy and green technology, it can contribute towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. At the same time, concerns about its actual and potential negative environmental impacts are rising. For example, China continues to invest in fossil fuel energy projects abroad. Infrastructure projects may cut across biodiversity hotspots and expose ecologically sensitive areas to development pressures.

In the last few years, several Chinese ministries collectively issued policies on the “green Belt and Road”. China’s endeavor to build hard infrastructure (e.g. rail, road, power plants, seaports) across the world is increasingly accompanied by efforts to develop the necessary soft infrastructure (e.g. policies, guidelines, cooperation platforms), to provide governance structures to coordinate and implement BRI activities. Since the BRI is still expanding and an official registry of BRI projects does not exist, it remains challenging to pinpoint the geographical scope and full number of BRI projects.

Due to the size and complexity of the BRI, scholars and civil society organizations have begun to analyze the potential impacts of the project across various dimensions. To date, most literature on the BRI has focused either on its geopolitical implications or the economic impacts. Yet, literature on the BRI with reference to environmental or sustainability issues is also slowly growing (Figure 2). In our recent study that is a result of the COUPLED project, we outline the key actors, policies and initiatives involved in developing the “green BRI”. Our analysis is based on a review of official government documents, published peer-reviewed literature, media articles, reports, and working papers. We do not only look at formal policies and guidelines, but also at newly established international and transnational cooperation initiatives, and the role of governance institutions in BRI host countries. Our insights contribute to telecoupling research by illustrating how growing interdependencies between distant places provide both challenges and opportunities for environmental outcomes. Effective environmental governance is needed to address the environmental implications of long-distance flows of capital, labour, energy and materials and economic activities that will likely expand and intensify under the BRI.

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Figure 2. Number of publications on the BRI in general (blue; 1799 documents in total) and with reference to environmental or sustainability issues (red, 449 documents in total) between 2013 and 2019. [1]

What did we find?
In the few years since the inception of the BRI in 2013, the environmental governance architecture of the “green BRI” has developed into a fragmented patchwork of national, regional, transnational, and international institutions of various forms—initiatives, guidelines, agreements, and programs. China builds its “green BRI” upon existing international and transnational institutions, while also establishing new ones. The flagship organization of the “green BRI” is the newly established BRI International Green Development Coalition.

Overall, the development of the institutional landscape for the “green BRI” mirrors major trends in global environmental governance toward increasing reliance on transnational multi-actor governance and the use of soft law. The Chinese government plays a key role in initiating voluntary and cooperative programs and networks of public, private, and civil society actors and institutions for the environmental governance of the BRI. Numerous Chinese policies strongly urge Chinese companies to adhere to host countries’ environmental laws and regulations. This means that the legislative framework in the host countries become important determinants of the environmental outcome of BRI projects. For example, if the BRI partner country does not have legal requirements – or very lax requirements – for environmental impact assessments, this is reflected in the potential environmental risks and mitigation efforts of the project.

Thus, the environmental sustainability of the BRI not only hinges on the environmental governance efforts of Chinese actors, but largely on the effective implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations in BRI host countries. Increasing trade and investment flows between BRI countries may affect public and private environmental standards in multiple ways (figure 3). An important task for future research is to empirically investigate whether and how China’s “green BRI” influences environmental governance in BRI countries. Will the BRI drive a “race to the bottom” among partner countries in search of investment or will China actually become an exporter of stricter environmental regulations and norms? Will exporters apply lower or higher environmental and social standards if they shift to markets with lower or higher standards (Shanghai or California effect)?

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Figure 3. Potential effects of investments (left) and trade (right) on public and private environmental standards (see publication for more details and examples).

In short, the BRI is a multifaceted long-term development strategy in the fields of infrastructure connectivity, economic and trade cooperation, industrial development, resource development, financial cooperation, cultural exchanges, maritime cooperation and environmental protection. According to Chinese decision makers, the initiative aims at advancing “win-win cooperation” among BRI countries. Yet, the relative gains of the initiative may not be distributed equally among participants – both within and between the involved countries. If not governed effectively, economic development projects can come at a high social, financial or environmental cost. For instance, building coal-fired power plants may advance social and economic development objectives in the short and middle-term, but compromise our chances to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C. China has made many high-level political commitments to ensure the BRI’s orientation towards sustainability, yet translating these commitments to actions on the ground will be another challenging task on the long (belt and) road ahead.

Read the publication

Coenen J, Bager S, Meyfroidt P, Newig J, Challies E. Environmental Governance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Env Pol Gov. 2020;1–15. https://doi.org/ 10.1002/eet.1901

[1] Scopus search conducted on June 29, 2020. Search string for blue line: TITLE-ABS-KEY ( “belt and road” OR “one belt one road” OR “new silk road” ). Search string for red line: TITLE-ABS-KEY ( “belt and road” OR “one belt one road” OR “new silk road” AND “environment*” OR “sustainab*” OR “ecologic*” ).

Originally posted at the COUPLED blog on August 5, 2020.

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