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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 35-36 August 26 & September 2, 2023

Unveiling the Dark Side of the Belt and Road Initiative: A Global Environmental Crisis | Megan Rodrigues, Karamala Areesh Kumar

Friday 25 August 2023


In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented the world with his ambitious brainchild, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Hailed as a modern-day ’silk road,’ this monumental infrastructure project aims to connect nations through a vast network of high-speed railways, power plants, ports, roads, bridges, airports, and tourism developments. While the media has extensively covered the BRI’s geopolitical impact and China’s rising dominance, the equally pressing concern of its environmental threat has been side-lined.

China, the largest financier of highly polluting coal stations, has strategically shifted its coal production to BRI countries. This move comes in response to the Paris Climate Accords and China’s commitment to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. By establishing coal-producing factories in developing countries, Chinese producers can phase out carbon at home while maintaining their income and sustaining the economy. Shockingly, despite President Xi’s promise to eliminate coal from the BRI, there are still 1600 coal power plants in the pipeline, many of which are already under construction. [1] Moreover, a staggering 58% of the 240 coal power plants previously completed in 25 BRI nations were high-emission, low-energy facilities. [2] These plants not only exacerbate air pollution in host countries but also sabotage their ability to meet the Paris Climate Accords’ targets.

A comprehensive study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and HSBC, titled ’Greening the Belt and Road Initiative,’ discovered a glaring lack of information on sustainable and green investment opportunities. The BRI’s relentless progress through pristine and vulnerable ecosystems poses a grave threat to 1,700 critical biodiversity hotspots and 265 endangered species. For instance, the construction of a massive dam across a Mekong River tributary in Cambodia, part of a Chinese hydropower project spanning multiple countries, has disrupted the river’s flow and impeded fish migration.

The Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), a consortium of NGOs focusing on fisheries and environmental issues, has reported a sharp decline in fish stocks due to the hydropower dams built along the river’s upstream sections.

The BRI’s impact on biodiversity and wildlife extends beyond water resources and marine life. Numerous railway projects, already completed, under construction, or in the planning stages, are set to wreak havoc on fragile ecosystems. Take, for instance, the existing railway line in Kenya that cuts through the Nairobi National Park. Plans are in place to extend the line through the Tsavo National Park, one of Africa’s most vital wildlife reserves. This expansion project poses a grave threat to endangered and protected species and their natural habitats. Wildlife biologists and researchers are deeply concerned that opening up such territories and vastly expanding the global travel network will not only lead to wildlife loss but also leave animal and bird species vulnerable to unfamiliar predators and unsuitable alien species. [3]

Adding to the growing list of environmental casualties, a 1000 km-long high-speed railway connecting China and Laos was inaugurated in late November 2021. While this railway facilitates travel from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, to Kunming in China within a mere 10 hours, it came at the cost of hundreds of thousands of trees. Though exact figures remain undisclosed, one can only fathom the toll taken on trees and wildlife to construct a thousand-kilometre railway line, considering the natural terrain and borders of both China and Laos.

In an audacious move that transcends traditional boundaries, China’s BRI has ventured into the Arctic Circle, driven by its insatiable pursuit of energy, geopolitical advantage, and commercial gains. Nestled beneath the rapidly melting polar ice caps lies an astounding $35 trillion worth of oil and gas reserves-an enticing prize that China, in collaboration with Russia, intends to exploit. Russia, burdened by international sanctions following its aggression in Ukraine, has struggled to secure the necessary funding and support. Enter the BRI, with China currently funding 60% and providing 80% of the equipment for the Polar Silk Road. By hastening the melting of the ice caps, China aims to expedite access to these resources, seemingly unconcerned with the grave implications that follow. One of the most alarming consequences of this reckless pursuit is the threat of rising sea levels. The accelerated melting of the ice caps will result in the submergence of coastal cities and island nations like Tuvalu, which are already teetering on the brink of extinction. The ramifications extend far beyond mere economic gains; they risk the very existence of numerous species and could contribute to an alarming 5-degree Celsius increase in global warming. [4]

In conclusion, the Belt and Road Initiative stands as one of the gravest threats to climate change mitigation, earning itself the title of "the riskiest environmental project in history" by its critics. Calculations indicate that the BRI could contribute to a devastating 3-degree Celsius increase in global warming in addition to the 5-degree Celsius contribution through the Polar Silk Road, potentially plunging nearly 50% (4.6 billion people) of the world’s population into poverty. Multilateral cooperation and collective efforts must be mobilized not only to acknowledge the environmental devastation this project may unleash but also to take necessary action in exploring sustainable alternatives. The time for decisive action to mitigate this global environmental crisis is now.

(Authors: Megan Rodrigues, Research Scholar, Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy, St. Joseph’s University, Bengaluru - 560027, India, Email: megsro22[at] | ORCiD: ; Dr. Karamala Areesh Kumar, Head, Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy (IRP and PP), St Joseph’s University, Bengaluru-560027, India, Email: areeshkaramalajnu[at], ORCiD:

[1Gokkon, Basten. 2018. “Environmentalists Are Raising Concerns over China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” Pacific Standard, July 18.

[2Hilton, Isabel. 2019. “How China’s Big Overseas Initiative Threatens Global Climate Progress.” Yale E360, January 3.

[3The Asean Post Team. 2019. “China’s BRI Negatively Impacting The Environment.” The Asean Post, December 24.

[4Chiu, Ethan. 2022. “Environmental Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative: Geopolitics and Climate Change.” The Yale Review of International Studie, November.,is%20terrible%20for%20the%20environment.

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