The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a strategy articulated by the People’s Republic of China to address this gap by developing better transport connectivity within Asia and everywhere else. It is a transcontinental long-term policy and investment program which aims at infrastructure development and acceleration of the economic integration of countries along the route of the historic Silk Road.
More specifically, BRI is defined as a vast collection of investment and development initiatives that stretch from Asia to Europe with the focus to strengthen the trade and investment partnerships and the strategy is to expand China’s political and economic influence around the world by:
- Promoting mutual learning, economic prosperity, and world peace by improving human capital, financial and physical connectivity across the continents; and
- Coordinating policy, facilitating connectivity, unhampering trade, integrating finance, and people’s connectivity.
The Chinese President Xi’s vision included creating a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia.
BRI is a global initiative which was created based on the Original Silk Road Concept. The original Silk Road arose during the westward expansion of China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), which forged trade networks throughout what are today the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as modern-day India and Pakistan to the south. Those routes extended more than four thousand miles to Europe. The Silk Road was the longest ancient overland trade route.
BRI symbolizes the following two ingenuities:
- New Silk Road Economic Belt: It’s a land-based development initiative which includes rail, roads, pipelines, and associated infrastructures. It was proclaimed in September 2013 by President Xi Jinping on his state visit to Kazakhstan. According to the Vision and Action, the plan is to:
- Connect China with Europe through Central Asia and Russia;
- Link China to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean through Central and West Asia; and
- Bring together China and Southeast Asian, South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
- 21st Century Maritime Silk Road: It’s a sea-based development which involves ports, maritime infrastructure, and shipping route. It was announced by the President Xi in October 2013 in Indonesia with the focus to connect China with Southeast Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Europe. According to the Vision and Action, the plan is to:
- Start from China’s coastal ports to the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea, and extend to Africa and Europe; and
- Connect China’s coastal ports with South Pacific Ocean through the South China Sea. It is ever conceived most aspiring infrastructure development and regional integration.
The long-term BRI strategy is designed to span through the following six overland economic corridors:
- The China–Mongolia–Russia Economic Corridor: Linked by land, China, Mongolia and Russia have long established various economic ties and cooperation by way of border-trade and cross-border cooperation.
- The New Eurasian Land Bridge: The New Eurasia Land Bridge, also known as the Second Eurasia Land Bridge, is an international railway line running from Lianyungang in China’s Jiangsu province through Alashankou in Xinjiang to Rotterdam in Holland;
- The China– Central Asia–West Asia Economic Corridor: This Corridor runs from Xinjiang in China and exits the country via Alashankou to join the railway networks of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) and West Asia (Iran, Turkey, etc.).
- The China–Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor: The Corridor mainly covers the Greater Mekong Sub-region. In particular, Guangxi has opened an international rail line running from Nanning to Hanoi, as well as introduced air routes to several major Southeast Asian cities.
- The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor: The objective of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is to build an economic route running from Kashgar, Xinjiang, in the north, to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port in the south; and
- The Bangladesh–China–India– Myanmar Economic Corridor: BRI proposes developing the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and facilitate cooperation through building a closer relationship.
Subsequently, the following three components were added to the overall scope of BRI:
- The Digital Silk Road (DSR): The focus is to improve digital connectivity in participating countries, with China as the main driver of the process. DSR was launched in 2015 as a component of BRI. Like the BRI, the DSR is not monolithic and involves many actors at all levels across the Chinese public and private sectors. It is amorphous and the line between official and unofficial DSR projects is often blurry. Comprehensive data on DSR investments is difficult to come by. According to one estimate, by 2018, DSR-related investments in digital infrastructure projects outside of China had reached $79 billion;
- Clean Silk Road (CSR): This component was launched to demonstrate strong commitment to transparency and clean governance in pursuing BRI cooperation around the world. It was also focused on pursuing high standard cooperation to improve people’s lives and promote sustainable development by promoting zero tolerance for corruption. Furthermore, it was designed to demonstrate the commitment to widely accepted rules and standards and encourage participating companies to follow general international rules and standards, including: 1.Project development, operation, procurement and tendering and bidding; and 2. The laws and regulations of participating countries; and
- Green Silk Road (GSR): Green Silk Road, as its name, is conveying greenery. It tries to make all the activities under BRI environment friendly. Xi Jinping Outlined Green Silk Road in these words “We should uphold the concept of green development, advocate a low-carbon, recyclable and sustainable lifestyle, and strengthen ecological cooperation to make it a part of our life so that we can join hands in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.”
As far as the BRI scope is concerned, the colossal scale of the BRI is exemplified by the 4.4 billion people (70 per cent of the world population) and the cumulative gross domestic product (GDP) of around US$21 trillion that it is set to encompass.
Infrastructure corridors spanning primarily in Asia and Europe but also including Oceania and East Africa, will cost an estimated US$4–8 trillion. Here are some additional facts about BRI which highlights the progress:
- Chinese engagement through financial investments and contractual cooperation for the year 2021 in the 144 countries of the Belt and Road Initiative was about US$59.5 billion. Of this engagement, about US$13.9 billion was through investment, and US$45.6 billion through contracts (partly financed by Chinese loans);
- China’s overall engagement is a steady development compared to 2020, when Chinese engagement was about US$60.5 billion. In that time, contract volume rose from about US$37 billion, while investment shrank from US$23.4 billion;
- Compared to 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese engagement declined by about US$53 billion (about 48 percent). With COVID-19 ongoing, BRI investments were at their slowest pace since China’s overseas investment strategy was coined “BRI” in 2013 when China became the major investor in many of the BRI countries.
According to Green Finance & Development Center, in March 2022, the number of countries that have joined BRI by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China is 147. Here is a graph to reflect the current countries associated with BRI:
Focusing on the environmental impacts, here is the reality – all infrastructural and constructional activities affect the environment nd BRI is no exception. BRI is designed to focus on infrastructure development around the world which is the construction of basic foundational services in order to stimulate economic growth and quality of life improvement. Most advanced economies have gone through periods of intensive infrastructure building that have, no doubt, improved the efficiency and competitiveness of regions. The BRI projects essentially related to infrastructural developments in the transport, energy, mining, IT and communications sector but also cover industrial parks, Special Economic Zones (SEZ), tourism and urban development. Nevertheless, the majority of these projects in various countries are in the transport sector.
Considering the magnitude of the overall environmental implications for the BRI projects around the world, this article is dedicated to addressing the environmental impact only on the transport sector.
It’s acknowledged that while improving multimodal transport connectivity on multilateral trade and economic growth in countries and regions across the BRI projects is inspiring, it is also challenging. Here is the justification for undertaking those projects:
- Good transport infrastructure reduces transport costs and transport times and improves delivery reliability. Empirical evidence shows that cost of transport, in both time and money, has a significant impact on trade flows. Good transport infrastructure facilitates trade expansion;
- Efficient transport infrastructure facilitates industrialisation and also enables more efficient regional and global production networks. This results in more employment, positively affecting industries and sectors;
- Better transport infrastructure enables regions to be well connected and supports regional economic integration; and
- Better transport infrastructure can lower transport and trade costs, accelerate industrial agglomeration, increase labour productivity and foster development and regional and national welfare.
Nevertheless, the transport projects emit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Speaking of GHG emissions and looking at the global picture, the world emits around 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases emissions each year and the transport sector contributes 16.2 percent to this total. The following graph illustrates the configuration of the transport percentage:
The following explains each point:
- Road transport (11.9 Percent): Emissions from the burning of petrol and diesel from all forms of road transport which includes cars, trucks, lorries, motorcycles and buses. Sixty percent of road transport emissions come from passenger travel (cars, motorcycles and buses); and the remaining forty percent from road freight (lorries and trucks). This means that, if we could electrify the whole road transport sector, and transition to a fully decarbonized electricity mix, we could feasibly reduce global emissions by 11.9 percent;
- Aviation (1.9 Percent): Emissions from passenger travel and freight, and domestic and international aviation. 81 percent of aviation emissions come from passenger travel; and 19 percent from freight. From passenger aviation, 60 percent of emissions come from international travel, and 40 percent from domestic;
- Shipping (1.7 Percent): Emissions from the burning of petrol or diesel on boats. This includes both passenger and freight maritime trips;
- Rail (0.4 Percent): Emissions from passenger and freight rail travel; and
- Pipeline (0.3 Percent): Fuels and commodities (e.g. oil, gas, water or steam) often need to be transported (either within or between countries) via pipelines. This requires energy inputs, which results in emissions. Poorly constructed pipelines can also leak, leading to direct emissions of methane to the atmosphere – however, this aspect is captured in the category ‘Fugitive emissions from energy production’.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), transport demand in 2021 is rebounding, with demand for passenger and cargo transport expected to continue increasing rapidly. Even with anticipated growth in transport demand, the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario requires transport sector emissions to fall by 20 percent to 5.7 Gt by 2030. Achieving this drop would depend on policies to encourage modal shifts to the least carbon-intensive travel options, and operational and technical energy efficiency measures to reduce the carbon intensity of all transport modes.
Concentrating on BRI, the World Bank Group published a Policy Research Working Paper on the subject in 2019 to examine and scrutinize the BRI projects with the focus to determine how GHG emissions are being emitted by these projects. The paper presages the potential for indirect effects of land-use change and deforestation from BRI road and rail construction could not only profoundly affect forest over and ecosystem health but also generate a significant impact on the global climate. Accordingly, deforestation, especially in the tropics, represents a significant source of carbon emissions, to the point of contributing close to one-fifth of all anthropogenic ally-produced emissions.
likewise, BRI projects can have indirect effects on GHG emissions through the secondary impact via shifts in trade and resultant changes in vehicle traffic and land use.
Another report published by the World Bank Group on the subject of Opportunities and Risks of Transport Corridors explains that direct BRI impacts on environment include pollution from traffic, topographical and hydrological damage, and the alteration of habitats at the expense of biodiversity. For traffic pollution, the BRI should induce greater traffic along its routes, raising air and noise pollution. But many routes have electric-powered rail, tending to lower air pollution and GHG emissions (compared with road and air transport), and noise pollution (compared with roads). To the extent “greener” rail transport substitutes for previous road and air journeys, pollution may be reduced. This is particularly salient for the BRI, which tends to follow existing transport routes, making substitution more likely.
At the same time, road and rail also affect biodiversity by fragmenting and altering species’ habitats and by preventing animal movement. These barriers split populations and reduce genetic diversity in breeding, particularly for migratory and nomadic species. In addition, roads and rail lines change habitats along their edges, with impacts on species competition and survival. Changes in wind intensity, pollution, light, and noise along a road or railway may be subtle but can tip species competition in favor of more “edge-adapted” species; these tend to be less local, more resilient high breeders (weedy species), while endemic and vulnerable species suffer.
Incidentally, as per a briefing paper, published in May 2017, the BRI area includes many different environmentally important areas such as Protected Areas, key landscapes, Global 200 Ecoregions, and biodiversity hotspots that cover the distribution range of flagship species, as well as areas that are important for delivering ecosystem services that provide social and economic benefits to people. They classified their findings into the following areas:
- Threatened Species: Their analysis showed that BRI corridors overlap with the range of 265 threatened species including 39 critically endangered species and 81 endangered species – including saiga antelopes, tigers and giant pandas;
- Environmentally Important Areas: They found BRI corridors overlap with 1,739 Important Bird Areas or Key Biodiversity Areas and 46 biodiversity hotspots or Global 200 Ecoregions5;
- Protected Areas: all protected areas in BRI corridors were potentially impacted. In addition, 32 percent of the total area of all protected areas in countries crossed by BRI corridors were potentially affected;
- Water-Related Ecosystem Services: They highlighted the key natural and semi-natural ecosystems that are important for supporting water-linked ecosystem services (e.g., natural forests and grasslands) in areas where there is the biggest pressure on water supply and the highest risk of large floods. This analysis therefore highlights where there are social and economic risks from environmental damage;
- Wilderness Characteristics: They analysed areas with the greatest wilderness characteristics. 8 New activities in these areas (e.g., a road through a previously remote, inaccessible area) can cause more serious long-term impacts than an extra road in an accessible area; and
- Overall Impacts: They also produced an equally-weighted summary of layers 1-5. This provides an initial summary of the areas that are likely to be at highest risk as a
result of the BRI corridors.
It is predictable that Chinese investment in environmental regulations can induce innovation in cleaner technologies. Some Chinese banks under the environment protection bureau can halt the loans or grants if their activities threaten unfavorable environmental outcomes for other countries. That is how they can reduce water pollution. One study found that firms were compelled to use end-of-pipe treatment since the imposition of this policy, long-term pollution, can be constrained.
The sad reality is that while China aims to dramatically improve environmental regulations, reduce pollution and transform industries by adopting new green technologies and higher environmental standards but for many other developing countries benefiting
from the BRI investments, raising social and economic standards as well as the protection of natural resources is not yet a priority.
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 30 July 2022