Priority Check: Greening the Belt and Road


After the 2016 political earthquake, the United States started a gradual retreat from global climate action. Now, more eyes are turning towards China, which seems poised to become the new leading force in implementing environmental and energy policy. Having revised environmental energy laws in 2015 and pushed for further implementation of wind and solar energy, the Chinese government seems to have stepped up efforts to seriously tackle environmental issues at home. The International Energy Agency reported that China accounted for almost half of the newly added solar PV capacity in 2017, adding more than the US, Europe, and Japan combined. However, in the face of slowing economic growth at home it will likely be a difficult task to balance out the transition from coal to renewables. As the most significant Chinese policy initiative in modern history, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has the potential to become the decisive factor that determines the future of renewable energy and the environment in the region. Considering that the multi-trillion dollar initiative aims to largely invest in energy and transport infrastructure throughout Eurasia, it is puzzling that so little attention has been payed to the possible implications on the environment. After all, the Stern Review (2006) found that about 50% of global energy emissions originate in transport, industry, and power related sectors.

So, the question that must be asked is, how central are climate change reduction efforts in the list of priorities for developing the BRI? The answer to this question remains as vague as the conceptualisation of the initiative itself. For now, we can only give an outlook on possible risks and opportunities that hopefully help to push climate change further up on the policy agenda.

Estimates that illustrate a rather grim outlook are those that predict an annual increase of 5% in steel and 25% in cement output in China until 2020, due to BRI related demand for infrastructure and pipeline projects. Such investment in high carbon infrastructure is likely to accelerate greenhouse gas emissions, which could have a particularly devastating impact on the environment in Western regions of China such as the Himalayas or the Gobi Desert, as well as on other parts of Central Asia. Recently, local scholars from Chang’an University in Xi’an have started to undertake efforts in researching risks to the regional environment. Specifically, they point to concerning outcomes for glaciers in the Himalayas, or issues of intensified water scarcity and desertification in a region that remains understudied.

On the bright side, Chinese leadership has not turned a blind eye on issues related to the environment. During the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in 2017, Xi Jinping urged for a green investment strategy with regard to the Belt and Road. Specific climate measures for such a strategy proposed during the Forum include the creation of a data service platform on ecological and environmental protection, as well as the formation of an international coalition for green BRI development. Yet, considering how heavily Chinese companies invest in coal power along BRI countries, it remains uncertain how such measures will be implemented effectively.

Still, given the opportunity for China to fill up the vacuum that the United States left in climate leadership, we can expect to see much more emphasis placed on measures to create a green BRI strategy. Making climate action an incremental part of the BRI would certainly be an important and positive signal for the wider region and global community.