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Is China's Belt and Road Really ‘Green’?

One Belt, One Road routes, map image by NASA.
One Belt, One Road routes, map image by NASA.
Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

President of China

“China will promote joint efforts to build a green Belt and Road to benefit the people of all countries.”


In his keynote speech for the U.S.-led Leaders' Summit on Climate, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke about the importance of harmony with nature and his country’s commitment to the environment.

According to the summit translator, Xi said: “China will promote joint efforts to build a green Belt and Road to benefit the people of all countries.”

An official transcript quotes Xi as saying: “China has also made ecological cooperation a key part of Belt and Road cooperation. A number of green action initiatives have been launched, covering wide-ranging efforts in green infrastructure, green energy, green transport and green finance, to bring enduring benefits to the people of all Belt and Road partner countries.”

Whatever the interpretation, it’s clear that Xi equated China’s huge, multinational infrastructure program with "green” outcomes.

That is misleading.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in 2013, aimed at re-inventing the ancient Euro-Asian Silk Road trading routes for the 21st century. The massive project to build dams, ports, railroads, and other projects extends from far East Asia to Europe. Overall planned investment estimates are in the trillions of dollars, with participation that reportedly involves 140 countries.

In 2019, the Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC) was established under the supervision of the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment. Its primary goal is “to promote international consensus, understanding, cooperation and concerted actions to realize green development on the Belt and Road” among participant countries.

There is a long way to go, given the BRI’s emphasis on fossil fuels.

People walk past a power plant in Shanghai on December 5, 2009.
People walk past a power plant in Shanghai on December 5, 2009.

According to Yale Climate Connections, an online news service, expert and academic analyses “point to direct and indirect environmental impacts – almost all of them harms – from BRI.”

China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Since 1999, its carbon emission has skyrocketed from 3.26 billion tons of carbon annually to 10.17 billion tons in 2019. According to the International Energy Agency, the country saw a 0.8 percent increase in overall emissions in 2020, despite the pandemic.

China is also the world's largest producer of renewable energy. During the summit, Xi pledged that China’s emissions would peak by around 2030, with the goal of reducing them to net zero by 2060. And while the country has adopted caps on coal at home, the BRI is another story. As Yale Environment 360 reported in 2019:

"Chinese companies are involved in at least 240 coal projects in 25 of the Belt and Road countries, including in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Serbia, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. China is also financing about half of proposed new coal capacity in Egypt, Tanzania, and Zambia. While a few of these new plants will use the latest technology — in Bangladesh, for example, China is building the country’s first “clean coal” plant — many are less advanced and are not being planned with the carbon capture technology that would make them less threatening to efforts to control climate change."

In a 2019 report, researchers from China, the United States and the United Kingdom wrote that the BRI could drive global warming up by nearly 3 degrees Celsius if no efforts were taken to decarbonize BRI-funded projects. That same year, the World Bank estimated that BRI transport infrastructure could increase carbon dioxide emissions by 0.3 percent worldwide, and up to 7 percent or more in some countries.

In 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, renewable power made up the bulk of new Belt and Road Initiative energy investments for the first time, the Financial Times reported. Still, the BRI’s renewable capacity is minimal in the bigger picture.

According to Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center, out of the $245 billion China spent on energy financing in the last 20 years, $192.5 billion was in the BRI. About two-thirds of BRI projects involve oil, coal and natural gas.

China reportedly invested $42 billion in BRI hydropower projects. In 2020, non-hydroelectric renewables such as wind and solar accounted for just 11 percent of China’s overseas power plant capacity, according to the BU center.

Many of the countries taking part in the BRI desperately need economic development despite being vulnerable to climate change.

Assessing the BRI in 2018, British economist Nicholas Stern said: "[I]f [these countries] adopt China’s development model, which resulted in a doubling of China’s GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions in the first decade of the century, it would make the emissions targets in the Paris Agreement impossible.” (The Paris Agreement is an international framework adopted in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide that cause global warming.)

“The Chinese come in and say – ‘Do you want it next week?’ It’s the wild West out there. But they [China] have the biggest hat and the biggest boots,” Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told Yale Climate Connections in a follow-up report last year.

China argues that it is responding to market demand, and that countries like Vietnam and Pakistan, where many people lack electricity, might have built coal power plants anyway, Yale Climate Connections noted.

Contrary to Xi’s claim that China’s initiative will “bring enduring benefits to the people of all Belt and Road partner countries,” not everyone in the countries participating so far is benefiting from BRI projects.

Take Cambodia and the country’s only deep-water port at Sihanoukville, whose special economic zone and expressway have been part of the BRI. The city developed into a massive casino economy that drew Chinese visitors but displaced many Cambodians. Cambodia expert Sebastian Strangio wrote in The Diplomat last year:

"Concerned about rising anti-Chinese sentiment among the Cambodian public, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, at the apparent urging of Beijing, announced a ban on online gambling operations, effective January 1 this year. This, along with the effects of COVID-19, has largely brought Sihanoukville’s casino boom to an end. But the Cambodian and Chinese governments continue to clean up the mess that has sprung up around the BRI, with every week bringing fresh reports of the arrests of Chinese nationals on charges running from kidnapping to drug trafficking."

The Atlantic wrote in 2020 that "native residents [of Sihanoukville] have been more or less relegated to the lower rung of the city’s service economy, employed as tuk-tuk drivers, parking attendants, and restaurant and hotel staff."

Environmental problems have escalated, with rapid development outstripping wastewater treatment and other infrastructure, the magazine reported:

"Cranes and scaffolding are ubiquitous, hills and forests have been bulldozed, and a lake that was once vital for drainage during heavy rains has been filled, causing flooding. Most of the city’s road network has been heavily damaged by the constant traffic of heavy trucks and cement mixers. Even the omnipresent SUVs driven by the more moneyed Chinese here must carefully navigate potholes that resemble lunar craters, often filled with water."

Another BRI concern is its impact on wildlife and their ecosystems.

“We found BRI corridors overlap with the range of 265 threatened species, including saiga antelopes, tigers and giant pandas; also, BRI corridors overlap with 1,739 Important Bird Areas or Key Biodiversity Areas and 46 biodiversity hotspots or Global 200 ecoregions,” the World Wildlife Foundation stated in a 2017 report on wildlife impacts.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute cites a specific case of a problematic project – a hydroelectric dam that was planned for the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The dam’s site also happens to be the only natural habitat of the endangered Tapanuli orangutan. In July 2020, the project’s construction was suspended; the Bank of China, a financial backer, cited environmental concerns in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the suspension.

Tigers are another endangered species affected by the BRI. According to a September 2020 report, tiger habitats have shrunken by 40 percent since 2006. Of the countries participating in the BRI, 13 are home to tigers, and building infrastructure, particularly roads, restricts their movement and increases the likelihood of animal-vehicle collisions. Poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking become greater concerns as these areas become more developed.

How does China’s climate change goals compare with those of the United States, which was the biggest carbon emitter before being supplanted by China?

According to 2020 data, the U.S. cut its carbon emissions by over 10 percent, the largest drop since the end of the Second World War. That drop, partially due to the global coronavirus pandemic, still did not meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement, under which the U.S. pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 26-28 percent of 2005 levels. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the U.S. had only reduced emissions by a much more modest 2.8 percent.

During the April 22 summit, President Joe Biden vowed to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030. But progressives and some experts feel the country could be doing more. According to an analysis by Carbon Switch, an energy efficiency startup, the reductions set out by the Biden administration "would fall far short of those needed to meet the Paris Agreement."

Other leaders also committed to curb domestic greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change during the summit.

In a drastic change of attitude towards the environment, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promised to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a 46 percent emissions reduction target, almost doubling the country’s previous pledge of 26 percent, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged for a 40 to 45 percent reduction by 2030, compared to a Canada’s earlier promise of 30 percent. South Korea said it would stop public financing of new coal-fired power plants, The Associated Press reported.