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.

10 tips for future PhD students: What I have learned in my first year

By Johanna Coenen

A full year has passed since I started my PhD. Now it’s time to reflect on some experiences and lessons learned. Here are 10 practical tips, I would have liked to know from day one of my PhD journey. They can be useful for anybody currently doing a PhD or planning to do so.

1. Use a reference manager.
It’s obvious that doing a PhD requires a lot of reading. Yet, we easily lose track of what we have read in the past, or what we are planning to read in the future. Using a reference management software can support you in maintaining an overview of your literature. Personally, I use Mendeley. It forms the backbone of all my work. But many other reference management tools are available, such as Zotero, Citavi, or Endnote. The choice is yours.
A reference manager allows you to quickly add references to Word documents, but more importantly, you can save, group, tag, and annotate your literature. You can also share literature folders with colleagues. A particularly useful function is “watch folder”, which is an easy way to import new articles into your personal library.

2. Take notes.
This tip seems simple and self-evident. However, when searching the literature for particular information, we regularly come across concepts or definitions that we didn’t look for in the first place, but might find relevant for future work. For example, some articles provide a very good and precise overview of a certain field of literature. Other articles describe difficult concepts or methodologies very well. Or you find comprehensive figures or graphs. To remember valuable articles or text passages, set up a note-taking system that allows you to save these insights for later. Even though you might only use a fraction of all your notes, it can save valuable time when searching for relevant descriptions of theories, methods and cases. For this purpose, I started using Evernote, which works like a flashcard system or glossary. A simple notebook or other programs like OneNote might also do the job.
For example, I collected a multitude of different definitions of telecoupling or governance over time. Now I can always select the most appropriate one for presentations or texts. Taking notes simply protects you from the false assumption that “I will remember this argument or article later on”. If you’re like me and don’t have an extraordinary memory, make sure that you take notes on the wide variety of relevant concepts, theories, and ideas that you will discover during your PhD.

3. Use networks to get a general overview of the literature.
As a newcomer to the world of research, it is challenging to acquire a good overview of different streams of literature. Sometimes we search for influential scholars in a given field of research, and at other times, we try to understand how various research areas are connected.
A practical approach to addressing some of these questions can be the use of bibliometric analyses. Recently, I learned about a free and easy to use software that allows you to quickly construct bibliometric networks based on a Scopus search. You simply need to conduct a Scopus search with keywords of your choice, download the results in a CSV-file and import the file to the software called VosViewer. Examples from my research can be seen in two figures below. Within 15 minutes you will be able to better explore your field of research using network graphs.

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Co-occurrence of keywords in telecoupling literature (based on 108 publications that use the term “telecoupling” in their title, abstract or keywords according to Scopus search conducted on October 2, 2019; minimum number of occurrences of a keyword is 3).TC_co-authorship_408
Co-authorship in telecoupling literature (based on 108 publications that use the term “telecoupling” in their title, abstract or keywords according to Scopus search conducted on October 2, 2019)


4. Set up email alerts for newly published literature.
How to keep track of articles published in your area of interest? One way is to make use of email alert services which will inform you about the publication of new literature on a regular basis. For example, you can set up email notifications in Google Scholar or Scopus for particular keywords, such as “telecoupling”, “sustainability”, or whatever topic or theory is of interest to you. This way, you ensure that you stay up do date about scholarly discussions and trends.

5. Ask your colleagues for newsletter recommendations.
We not only want to stay informed about newly published literature, we are also interested in staying up-to-date about the announcement of special issues, conferences, and workshops. In later phases of our PhD, we might be interested in jobs and funding opportunities. Since there are useful newsletters on these issues in any field of work, I recommend browsing the web or asking colleagues for recommendations regarding valuable newsletter subscriptions.

6. Make sure other people can find out what you are working on.
As PhDs, we usually sit quietly in our office and conduct research. In comparison to our supervisors and senior colleagues, we don’t have a well-established network and are not widely recognized for our work. Thus, it is very important that you create some visibility of your research activities to the world that lies outside your office door. You can either use the website of your research institution, ResearchGate, LinkedIn or any other channel to ensure that other people can get a glimpse of your research interests and can potentially connect with you, while Twitter is the preferred communication and announcement platform of many academics.

7. Keep track of how much you work.
It’s not a secret that many PhD students work (too) much. Sometimes I ask myself where all the time has gone. At other times, I leave the office with a bad conscience if I have not managed to finish my tasks as planned – either because I procrastinated, assumed ever new tasks, encountered unexpected difficulties, chatted too much with colleagues, or was trapped in long meetings. In order to keep track of time, I write down how many hours I work every day, and I summarize what I did that day in 3-4 keywords. It only takes a few minutes and the primary goal is not excessive self-maximization or self-control. Instead, it’s a simple way to help you recognize when your work-life balance is seriously upset. It also allows you to shut down your computer on a Friday evening without asking yourself all weekend long whether you should maybe finish some more tasks and duties.

8. Engage in peer-reviews and writing retreats.
I think one of the greatest learning resources are not dusty books or lengthy publications, but our peers and colleagues. They can provide highly valuable feedback. Exchanging manuscript drafts with other PhD students, who work on related topics, and commenting on each other’s work can be a very fruitful and inspiring exercise. Besides making use of peer-reviews, you can also draw on peer pressure to keep you focused and motivated during a writing retreat. Find a quiet location, close your email program, and immerse yourself in some productive hours of writing.

9. Attend PhD defenses.
At some point in time, we will hopefully all defend our dissertations. One way to prepare for that day is to attend other PhD defenses. These occasions provide a precious opportunity to learn how to structure and compose a coherent dissertation. In addition, you get to know what kind of questions are posed by the jury. After attending several defenses, you may realize that in your field, certain types of questions are posed at almost every defense.

10. Check these miscellaneous websites

  • We often try to visualize our data for presentations and publications, but don’t know which type of visualization works best for our particular purpose. On this website, you can explore examples of a wide range of different visualizations.
  • If you want to print a website without useless ads and junk, or save it as a PDF file, you can use Printfriendly.
  • ResearchGate is a widely used social network for researchers, which allows you to connect with other scientists, follow their activities and projects, and access publications.
  • If you’re not a native English speaker, you will probably find yourself constantly searching for correct formulations, and the right use of prepositions and adverbs. If you want to check how certain words or phrases are generally used, you can visit the website Linguee, which provides you not only with bilingual translations, but also with a list of examples how the word or phrase has been used in other (con-)texts.


Originally published at 
coupled-itn.eu on 18 October 2019.