Gabriel Walker is a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is the final part of a series on China’s role in international development. Read the first and second parts on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and green bonds.
On the eve of this year’s Group of Twenty meeting in Hangzhou, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping formally ratified the Paris Agreement, the UN’s landmark treaty on fighting climate change. So far 180 countries have signed the document and now, including the world’s two largest carbon emitters, twenty-seven have ratified it. If the Agreement garners enough ratifications to enter into legal force by next April, it would formally bind the signatories to staunch global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging green financing, and promoting climate resilience.
Each signatory’s commitment under the Agreement is self-determined, and China has already made headlines by promising to peak carbon emissions by 2030. But China’s Paris commitments go beyond greenhouse gas caps; they also include pledges to bolster sustainable development abroad. In its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, submitted ahead of the 2015 Paris climate change conference, China promises to promote green, low-carbon development and innovation; to provide financing, technology, and capacity-building to other developing countries; to foster more equitable access to sustainable development for developing countries; and more. China’s far-reaching Belt and Road endeavor will be a litmus test for these commitments: whether and how it aligns with Paris values is an important opportunity for China to display environmental leadership and establish its geopolitical character.
The Belt and Road initiative (also known as “One Belt, One Road”) is a massive trade and infrastructure development project on a scale the world has never seen. Specifically, it aims to connect Eurasian nations and their adjacent seas, establish trans-regional partnerships, and “realize diversified, independent, balanced and sustainable developments” throughout the continent. Its two components are an overland Silk Road Economic Belt, stretching from Beijing to Europe, and a Maritime Silk Road, snaking all the way from the Bohai Sea to the Mediterranean. Transportation infrastructure, such as railways and ports, will feature prominently in the plan, but development projects in many other sectors such as energy, agriculture, and industry will also take shape.
For the Chinese government, the Belt and Road strategy is both economically and geopolitically significant. From Beijing’s perspective, it ideally will stimulate the Chinese economy by creating new export markets, offloading excess industrial capacity, and focusing Chinese companies’ international business ventures. Geopolitically, Belt and Road strategists hope that it will counter perceived growing American, Japanese, and European influence over the Eurasian continent, and boost China’s global standing by fostering bilateral trade relationships. The Belt and Road plan is not only potentially transformational for catalyzing development across Eurasia, but is also China’s most clearly articulated international foray to date.
The Chinese media have already trumpeted the environmentalism of some early Belt and Road projects, calling them a realization of the “Green Silk Road” ideal. Chinese engineers working on a railway in Tajikistan, for example, took special measures to reforest the site to prevent soil erosion, even when local regulations did not require it. A Chinese-built cogeneration power plant in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe uses some of the world’s most advanced dust-filtration and sulfur-scrubbing technologies. Some private companies have even joined together to found a Green Ecological Silk Road Investment Fund, which will direct capital toward solar panel construction, clean energy development, and ecological remediation.
At the same time, international Chinese projects have a poor environmental track record: dams in Southeast Asia have intensified drought; oil field development in Chad caused more than $400 million in environmental violations; and banana plantations in Laos have polluted groundwater, not to mention domestic examples of development-related pollution. For Belt and Road projects, the potential for harming fragile ecosystems through railway and road construction, and coastal air quality through increased shipping traffic, for example, is dangerously high. Redirecting excess Chinese industrial capacity—by relocating factories or by laying down thousands of miles of railroad tracks—will also fuel demand for carbon-intensive products such as steel and concrete within China. Belt and Road pipelines and shipping lanes that satiate China’s increasing need for imported natural gas and crude will certainly bolster the international fossil fuel industry. Because the Belt and Road initiative could easily perpetuate inefficient and dangerous modes of development, Beijing fundamentally needs to reinvent how Chinese companies operate abroad.
Consistent indicators in a few areas would prove China’s commitment to environmentally conscious Belt and Road projects, including:
- Prioritizing low-carbon or carbon-neutral development projects;
- Implementing comprehensive measures to protect land, coastal, and marine ecosystems from gradual decline, and effective crisis management procedures to remedy unforeseen accidents;
- Continuing to transfer low-carbon technologies and technological know-how to other developing countries;
- Working with development banks with proven track records of good environmental governance, such as the Asian Development Bank and potentially the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank;
- Displaying leadership by not engaging in environmentally detrimental projects, such as certain hydroelectric dams, even when the potential for profit is high;
- And setting a good example by holding domestic Belt and Road development projects within China to the highest environmental standards.
China’s Paris commitments to sow the seeds of sustainable development are lofty and laudable, especially because they involve more than greenhouse gas pledges. Whether or not the Agreement comes into force next year, China has much to gain by putting its ambitious rhetoric into practice and much to lose if its grand plans go awry. If China is indeed able to promote sustainable Belt and Road ventures throughout Eurasia, it would garner a renewed respect on the international stage for its tenacity in upholding global environmental norms.