Developing a Green Belt and Road

In Beijing last week, President Xi Jinping claimed that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) “aims to promote green development.” What would this mean in practice?

Last week leaders from around the world gathered in Beijing to discuss the future of China’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI’s mix of mystery and ambition make it a Rorschach test for evaluating international development trends and China’s international position. It is at once a vague umbrella covering dissimilar development projects that may have occurred anyway, and the most ambitious infrastructure program since the end of World War II – if not ever – which seeks nothing less than to connect the world.

Such ambition, regardless of the lens used, has inescapable environmental consequences. Road and rail will be built to connect people and markets, with impacts on biodiversity and ecological services that vary vastly across different projects. Chinese investment will lock in decades of coal pollution, create complex environmental tradeoffs in the hydro sector, and amplify renewable energy deployment – all at the same time. Shifting flows of goods will both open up more efficient consumption options and create new opportunities for resource plunder and environmental decline.

Such multipronged impacts did not start with the BRI. Aid and investment from Western countries, development finance institutions, and the Asian first-movers in Japan and South Korea have also funded fossil fuel development, and struggled to conduct and act upon effective environmental impact assessments. BRI architects have the opportunity to do better, but must fundamentally alter their approach to do so.

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