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China’s global infrastructure program goes green—but could still devastate ecosystems

A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 374, Issue 6568.

The 40 wind turbines dotting the rolling grassland 9 kilometers south of Zhanatas, an impoverished industrial town in southern Kazakhstan, are monuments to change. Each as tall as a 50-story building, the towers dominate the arid landscape. Completed in June, the $160 million Zhanatas Wind Farm has a capacity of 100 megawatts (MW), making it one of the most powerful wind farms in central Asia. It’s a milestone in Kazakhstan’s quest to boost reliance on renewables and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The country has 300 years’ worth of coal, but isn’t building a single new plant to burn it.

The project stands out for another reason as well: It is one of the biggest renewable energy projects built in the region under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a colossal infrastructure plan that has alarmed environmental advocates.

Launched in 2013, BRI links China to markets and sources of raw materials around the world while stimulating economic growth in developing countries. It is providing much-needed power plants, roads, ports, and railways in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But the “infrastructure tsunami” also threatens to “open a Pandora’s box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” ecologist William Laurance of James Cook University,

Cairns, wrote in The Conversation in 2017. China countered such criticism by putting an environmentally friendly face on BRI. In June 2017, its Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued “Guidelines on Promoting Green Belt and Road,” and President Xi Jinping himself said in April 2019 that BRI “aims to promote green development.” That same month, China established a BRI International Green Development Coalition, which brings together government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and think tanks to study ways to make BRI investments environmentally sustainable.

Two years after Xi’s pronouncement, the initiative has a greener cast. Chinese-funded coal power is in retreat, as environmental concerns dovetail with economic forces. Of the 52 coal-fired power plants with Chinese backing announced in BRI countries between 2014 and 2020, only one has gone into operation. Another seven are under construction and 11 are in planning; the remaining 33 have been shelved or canceled, according to a June report by Christoph Nedopil, a development economist at Fudan University in Shanghai. Confirming what appeared to be de facto policy, Xi told the United Nations General Assembly on 21 September that China would stop building coal-fired plants abroad altogether. (Coal power continues to boom at home, however.)

A person's silhouette in front of a window with a view of a maritime port.
A Belt and Road Initiative project upgraded the port of Mombasa, Kenya, to handle increasing trade.Luis Tato/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The shift away from coal “occurred more rapidly than many observers, including me, expected; this is cause for optimism about the greening of BRI projects in the developing world,” says Tyler Harlan, a geographer at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, renewable energy projects like Zhanatas are burgeoning. Solar and wind power are increasingly cost competitive, and like other developing countries, “Kazakhstan is aiming to decarbonize to preserve the environment,” says Kuanysh Baltabayev, executive director of EcoJer, an association of regional environmental initiatives in Kazakhstan. Chinese companies are studying two more renewable projects there, one wind and one solar. And the shift toward renewables is seen throughout the BRI countries. Total BRI investments in solar, wind, and hydroelectric power surpassed spending on fossil fuel plants in 2020, Nedopil reported.

But Harlan and others caution that carbon dioxide is only one part of BRI’s environmental cost. The initiative includes the construction of hundreds of dams, some of which fragment aquatic communities and block migratory fish species, Laurance says. And “there are massive road-building projects in the works” under BRI, adds ecologist Alex Lechner of Monash University, Indonesia. These damage local ecologies and pose a major risk to global biodiversity, a study published in 2020 showed, while also increasing emissions and reducing the extent of forests, which act as carbon sinks. Although many countries require environmental impact assessments before construction begins, they are often not public and rarely up to international standards.

BRI’s growing investment in renewable power “is certainly laudable,” Laurance concludes. But the constellation of projects still includes “an awful lot that will be environmentally destructive.”

Defining BRI can be difficult. Xi first outlined the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st- Century Maritime Silk Road Development Strategy during visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in the fall of 2013, 6 months after becoming president. Within months, Chinese officials were describing a “One Belt, One Road” plan—later renamed BRI—for overland roads and railways and shipping lanes connecting ports in China and elsewhere in Asia to Europe and East Africa. It envisioned linking some 60 countries, home to half the world’s population.

Soon, the BRI label was also used for pipelines, power plants, cement factories, and industrial facilities backed by Chinese private and government lenders anywhere in the world. There are even proposed projects in the Arctic (the Polar Silk Road), and a space and cyberspace initiative (the Belt and Road Space Information Corridor). More than 130 countries have signed BRI memoranda of understanding with China, which pledge cooperation on infrastructure and other projects, according to the Belt and Road Portal website.

A mixed picture

The “infrastructure tsunami” planned under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) poses risks to biodiversity hot spots throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa. But investments in coal are increasingly giving way to renewable energy.

A map of the proposed infrastructure projects under BRI, which includes Europe, Asia, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
(Graphic) N. Desai/Science; (Data) Key Biodiversity Areas Partnership; Coral Triangle Atlas; A. Hughes, Conservation Biology, 33:4, 883 (2019)

Analysts typically consider a project part of BRI if it has Chinese backing and is located in a country that has signed a BRI memorandum. Still, “rather than being a coherent, geopolitically-driven grand strategy, BRI is an extremely loose, indeterminate scheme, driven primarily by competing domestic interests,” Lee Jones, of Queen Mary University of London, and Jinghan Zeng, of Lancaster University, wrote in Third World Quarterly in 2019. “The BRI has become an all-encompassing slogan that domestic actors [use to] brand their projects,” Zeng added in an email to Science. That makes its cost elusive; estimates run anywhere from $1 trillion to $8 trillion, though many consider the upper sum unrealistic.

The initiative’s amorphous character also means “reliable, accurate maps of the BRI are almost nonexistent,” Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote in a 2019 Conservation Biology paper. Hughes filled the gap herself by producing maps, now widely cited, of BRI road and rail routes (see map, above).

Western countries, wary of China’s increasing influence, have warned that some projects are debt traps. Tiny Montenegro, in the Balkans, owes $1 billion for an unfinished highway that the country cannot afford and many say it does not need, for example. Chinese lenders could seize land in Montenegro that was put up as collateral. Yet many developing countries do need the infrastructure. To sustain growth, eradicate poverty, and respond to climate change, Asian countries— including China—will need to invest $26 trillion in infrastructure between 2016 and 2030, or $1.7 trillion per year, according to a 2017 study by the Asian Development Bank. With regional spending in 25 Asian countries totaling only $881 billion in 2015, BRI is partly filling the gap.

Workers at a railroad construction site.
A Chinese crew at work on the China-Laos Railway, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, in January 2020 Kaikeo Saiyasane/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

At the plan’s outset, there was little concern for the environment, and China’s large banks and engineering firms rushed to expand their coal businesses. In 2015, more than 46% of BRI investment went into coal plants, according to Nedopil’s report. By the end of the decade, “people started to realize there were a lot of problematic projects in the pipeline,” says Li Shuo, a climate policy adviser to Greenpeace East Asia. Decreasing renewable electricity costs and pressure to cut emissions dampened coal’s allure.

For example, the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) has apparently lost interest in a $1.2 billion, 1050-MW coal-fired plant under construction near the town of Lamu, Kenya, after a group named deCOALonize won a court order halting work on the plant in 2019. (Meanwhile, a Chinese contractor completed Kenya’s first solar power station, a 50-MW, $130 million installation northeast of Nairobi, in 2020.) ICBC also recently withdrew from a $3 billion, 2800-MW coal-fired plant in Zimbabwe, according to news reports, and Egypt and Bangladesh both shelved plans for new coal plants financed by China.

The course change is essential to limiting global warming. If BRI countries followed historic patterns of fossil fuel use rising in tandem with economic growth, their emissions “would be enough to induce nearly 3 degrees of warming even if the rest of the world takes 2-degree compliant action,” warned a 2019 study by economist Ma Jun of Tsinghua University in Beijing and Simon Zadek of the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative, a U.K. nongovernmental organization.

China’s about-face won’t be enough, however: Despite the country’s image as the world’s foremost promoter of coal, Japanese and Western private institutions financed 87% of new coal power capacity outside China that went online or into development between 2013 and mid-2019, according to a July report from Xinyue Ma and Kevin Gallagher of the Global Development Policy Center at Boston University. The pair called on the G-20 grouping of the world’s largest economies “to commit to limiting all overseas fossil fuel financing, starting with overseas coal finance.” Climate advocates are also seeking incentives for countries to retire existing coal power plants early so they aren’t spewing carbon dioxide for another 4 to 5 decades.

But BRI’s main alternative for coal, hydropower, has its own problems. Dams disturb rivers’ natural flows and can degrade riverine ecosystems and block migratory fish from spawning and feeding grounds. And dam construction often requires access roads later used for illegal logging and wildlife poaching.

Most of BRI’s renewable spending has gone into hydroelectric power: It received 35% of total energy sector investments in 2020, versus 23% for solar and wind. (Overall energy investments have gone down in recent years [see graphic, below].) Spending is skewed in part because the solar and wind industries are mostly private. China’s major dam builders, in contrast, are state-owned enterprises supported by state-owned banks, which puts them in a better position to win financial and political support, Harlan notes.

Renewables up, coal down

Hydroelectric, solar, and wind power make up a growing share of the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI’s) energy investments. The pandemic dampened all BRI activity in 2020.

Graph showing BRI's investments in 5 categories between 2013 and 2020: coal, oil, gas, hydro, and solar/wind.
(Graphic) N. Desai/Science; (Data) C. Nedopil Wang, Coal Phase-out in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): An Analysis of Chinese-backed Coal Power From 2014-2020, Green BRI Center, International Institute of Green Finance, Beijing (2021)

BRI’s hydropower investments are already having a disastrous impact on the Mekong River Basin—the world’s most biodiverse river system after the Amazon. Rising in China, the Mekong runs through five countries before reaching the South China Sea. It supports the world’s largest inland fishery, providing a significant source of protein for the 65 million people living in the 800,000-square-kilometer basin.

The river system already has more than 400 dams, 126 of them in China itself, that “reduce the mightiness of the Mekong’s natural flow,” says Brian Eyler, a water security expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. The dams suppress the Mekong’s unique wet season flooding, which is key to fishery productivity and the riverside agriculture that tens of millions rely on.

Environmental advocates point to Cambodia’s Lower Sesan 2 Dam as an example of the influence a single hydropower plant can have. The contract to build the 400-MW dam, Cambodia’s largest, was signed in 2012, but was later brought under the BRI umbrella. Completed in 2018, the dam is located just downstream from the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, two Mekong tributaries that are key migratory pathways for hundreds of fish species, Eyler says. Seventy-five meters tall, it stretches 6 kilometers across a wide valley to block the meandering, shallow river. The flooding it caused displaced 5000 mostly Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities from six villages.

A 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Guy Ziv, now at the University of Leeds, and colleagues warned that the dam could cut the entire Mekong’s fish population by 9.3%—“a huge reduction caused by a single dam,” Eyler says. A 2008 impact assessment commissioned by Vietnam Electricity estimated the dam would shrink the annual incomes of 300,000 fishers and farmers living near the river by millions of dollars.

Peer-reviewed studies of the dam’s impact have yet to appear, but fishers have reported that catches in 2019 and 2020 were down 80% compared with previous years, Eyler says. And a 10 August report by Human Rights Watch says those affected have not received compensation.

Chinese companies are full or part owners of another big dam already built in Cambodia and 18 more in neighboring Laos. And more are on the way: Chinese interests have eight Mekong dams under construction and another 34 under study for locations scattered throughout the watershed. (Developers and investors from all of the Mekong basin countries as well as from the United States, South Korea, and Japan are also planning Mekong dams.)

But just as with coal-fired power plants, the financial calculus is changing. Eyler says the Mekong dams were envisioned 20 years ago when many saw hydroelectric power as a clean alternative and solar and wind power were still costly. Now, some dam developers are having trouble finding buyers for their power because other types of renewable energy are becoming cheaper. This makes arranging financing difficult. “You can’t get money from the bank if you don’t have a power purchase agreement,” Eyler says. In March 2020, poor economic prospects led Cambodia to delay construction of two planned mainstream Mekong dams for 10 years. (A month later, a 60-MW solar farm owned by a Chinese-Cambodian joint venture was connected to the national grid.)

A large expanse of solar panels.
The 55-megawatt Garissa Solar Power Station, built northeast of Nairobi, Kenya, exemplifies the Belt and Road Initiative’s shift in focus, from coal to renewable power. Xie Han/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

And in March 2019, the Bank of China posted a statement on its website promising to “very carefully” evaluate the impact of the $1.68 billion Batang Toru hydropower project on northern Sumatra in Indonesia, which it planned to finance. That project alarmed conservationists because it could destroy the last remaining habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, a frizzy-haired species considered the world’s rarest ape. The bank withdrew from the project in summer 2020, according to government reports. Batang Toru may go ahead without Chinese support, but the planned start in 2022 may be delayed until 2025.

By 2030, megadams “will likely be obsolete,” Eyler concludes. But unlike coal-fired power plants, existing dams are unlikely to be retired early. The only course of action “is to replace future dams with solar and wind,” he says.

Roads, railways, and pipelines—linear infrastructure—may pose BRI’s biggest threat to ecological systems and biodiversity. These ribbons of development stretching for hundreds or thousands of kilometers cause habitat loss and fragmentation, sometimes isolating wildlife populations in pockets too small to survive. They can disrupt migratory routes, cause roadkill, and open pristine areas to illegal logging and poaching. They have secondary impacts as well, such as the construction of concrete plants and quarries for limestone, sand, and gravel, causing further ecological destruction.

Although many routes are under construction, few have been completed, so conservationists are still rushing to assess the threats. A team led by Lechner mapped planned new BRI roads and railways, along with upgrades to existing routes, through Southeast Asia, assessing overlaps with protected areas, key biodiversity areas, and the ranges of threatened species. The team also looked at shipping routes that might benefit from BRI’s new or expanded ports throughout the Coral Triangle, a hot spot for marine biodiversity in the waters surrounding Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. For each, they assessed proximity to marine protected areas and reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds.

An orangutan.
A hydropower project on northern Sumatra in Indonesia threatens the endangered Tapanuli orangutan.Andrew Walmsley/Alamy Stock Photo

They found that land and marine routes now in planning or under construction will cut directly through 21 protected areas and encroach on the 25-kilometer buffer zones of nearly 30% of the region’s protected and key biodiversity areas. In Thailand, for example, BRI routes encroach on the Dong Phayayen–Khao Yai Forest Complex—a UNESCO World Heritage site home to 800 animal species—and the Khao Sok National Park–Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary, which hosts a relic of the oldest remaining rainforest in the world. In Laos, BRI threatens a refuge for endangered species of cats, deer, gibbons, and bears. Other BRI routes pose a risk to such iconic animals as the large-antlered muntjac, the Malayan tapir, the white-handed gibbon, the Sumatra serow, and the critically endangered Edwards’s pheasant.

“In Southeast Asia, BRI is increasingly seen as a threat to the already imperiled biodiversity,” the team wrote in an August 2020 paper in Biological Conservation.

The same is true elsewhere, according to Hughes’s Conservation Biology paper. She looked at 170,126 kilometers of roads and 80,451 kilometers of railways planned to cross Eurasia and Africa and plotted their proximity to key biodiversity and protected areas. “The BRI portends a new and significant threat to biodiversity globally,” she concluded.

There are glimmers of hope for mitigating the devastation, Hughes found. Carefully planned forest planting, for example, could connect forest patches isolated by new construction or extend ecological corridors. Such strategies would create new carbon sinks as well. Identifying animal migration routes could pinpoint the best places to build fences to keep animals off highways and forested overpasses so wildlife can cross them. Seeking to burnish its environmental credentials, China has recently advocated steps to protect biodiversity at home. Conservationists hope it will also foster a network of protected areas and wildlife corridors across Eurasia to limit BRI’s damage.

But any effective mitigation must rely on rigorous environmental impact assessments done with international oversight, conservationists say. BRI projects have tended to follow the assessment requirements of the host countries, which vary greatly depending on each country’s economic development and capacity to study and protect its biodiversity. (Impact assessments for dams are often limited to effects in the dam’s immediate vicinity and rarely consider the cumulative impacts of multiple dams, a January review in the journal Water found.) Whether commissioned by the developers or the host country government, environmental impact assessments are not always made public, and some are little more than fig leaves, biodiversity advocates say.

Banks could help, Hughes says. “Many Chinese and Asian banks are starting to consider green finance and developing green financial policies,” she notes. They could require comprehensive impact assessments before opening their coffers. But time is short. “Many of the routes are under construction now, with opening dates set between 2022 and 2024,” Hughes warns.

The window of opportunity for further greening BRI is closing.

With reporting by Bian Huihui and Aiya Kuchukova.

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