A global expert on major infrastructure projects has described China’s $8 trillion Belt and Road Initiative to create a “modern Silk Road” with sea and land links across Asia, Africa and Europe as the “riskiest environmental project in history.”
In a call for further research, Professor William Laurence of James Cook University cautions that the infrastructure projects could have devastating environmental impacts on biodiversity and the world’s carbon sinks. He cited environmental costs associated with the raw materials required to build the infrastructure as well the secondary effects of building into environmentally sensitive areas. It is feared that by providing access to previously remote areas the infrastructure could facilitate detrimental activity, such as illegal logging in tropical forests, particularly in states where environmental safeguards are weak. The researchers also fear the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, such as oil pipelines, could lock states into high-carbon futures.
In the call for further research, the researchers acknowledge the laudable developmental aims of the Belt and Road initiative but caution that the potentially high environmental toll could jeopardise long-terms socio-economic benefits. They also highlight how China’s recent turn towards stronger environmental safeguards at home has not been incorporated into projects abroad and urge for rigorous environmental impact assessments to be implemented in all the initiative’s projects.
Following the United States’ departure from the Paris Agreement, China has been seen by some as a global environmental leader. Does the Belt and Road Initiative undermine this position? If the environmental impacts of such infrastructure projects are as serious as the researchers warn, what implications might this have on economic development in the Global South?
The Futures Centre covered China's climate leadership credentials in a sensemaking piece, read it here.