After the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in September 2013, China underwent major changes in domestic growth objectives. Green growth became a paramount vector of the country’s overall strategy. At the September 2020 United Nations General Assembly, for instance, President Xi Jinping announced the country’s aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
Domestic green goals notwithstanding, the nexus between China’s BRI projects and the green development of host countries had sparked debates for years. Even in Italy, after the 2019 Memorandum of Understanding with China, concerns arose about China’s potential acquisition of the Trieste port and the impact that the passage of Chinese mega-cargo ships from the Piraeus port in Greece through the Adriatic Sea would have on maritime ecosystems.
Although similar considerations were raised around the world, Central Asia’s geographic position and hosting of a large number of major Chinese infrastructural projects put the region under the spotlight for green development concerns.
The Risks of Prioritising Transport and Energy Projects
Central Asia is a crucial region for China’s BRI. From China’s viewpoint, Central Asia’s geographic position makes it a key passageway to Western European markets and Middle Eastern energy resources. As the first segment of the BRI’s land route, in the last eight years Central Asia has become home to forty-two Chinese-financed projects, mainly in the transport and energy sectors. Recent estimates contend that the region has received up to US $25.5 billion from China since 2013, second only to Southeast Asia.
The expansion of railways and highways, in particular, remains a priority for Beijing. In 2020, the pandemic exacerbated this trend by putting maritime transport on hold. As a consequence, Central Asian railways proved vital during the acute phase of the health crisis: health and home office supplies, for instance, travelled from China to Europe almost exclusively on these routes. Still, land transport infrastructures are environmentally costly for host countries because they fragment ecosystems and have the potential to destroy biodiversity. As for the energy sector, energy projects remain mainly linked to non-renewable resources (such as coal, oil and gas), which had been an asset for the development of Central Asian exporters in the past but today risk discouraging regional energy transitions.
The BRI’s Central Asian segment spans a large territory that comprises numerous cultural and natural sites. According to UNESCO, the BRI currently crosses no less than thirteen world heritage sites in Central Asia, mainly protecting unique ecosystems and crop and animal species. There are many environmental challenges affecting Central Asia today that the BRI is at risk of aggravating. Above all, the expansion of transport infrastructures is bound to reduce/fragment natural habitats and endanger roaming species. Also, greater mobility through transport infrastructures runs the risk of introducing invasive species, affecting crop production and eventually food security. Moreover, as China-financed regional energy projects continue to be mainly involving coal, oil and gas, they are bound to have a strong impact on climate and to increase waste: at least for now, China’s aim to build greener societies has not fully travelled along the BRI. Indeed, Central Asian countries have launched several environmental rehabilitation projects in an effort to confront Soviet-era mine tailings. Similar problems arising from BRI mine projects, though, risk piling upon existing mining issues, especially as standards on sustainable resource governance are seldom adopted in full.
Lastly, water remains the geopolitical resource that has been contested the most in Central Asian history. Water conflicts, in fact, are a tangible regional threat. Water diversion to carry out economic projects is an established practice in China, and is now likely to be implemented also in Central Asia, thus heightening the risk of water scarcity and pollution.
If the environmental costs of BRI projects in Central Asia are not comprehensively taken into account , climate-induced natural disasters will be more frequent, as regional environmental pressures will rise. In this case, though, the foundation of Central Asia’s participation in the BRI will be undermined. BRI-facilitated national economic growth, in fact, will be nullified by the rising costs of natural disasters. Tajikistan is a case in point, as the country loses 3 to 5 GDP points to natural disasters every year.
Although a large number of BRI projects in Central Asia continue to be associated with unsustainable practices, China has set standards expected to convey national green efforts to BRI partners. Among others, the ‘Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition’ aims to help China’s partner countries to achieve UN-led Sustainable Development Goals, especially in the domains of biodiversity protection and sustainable transport and infrastructure development.
The Chinese government acknowledged this issue long ago. At the first ‘Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation’ back in 2017, President Xi Jinping had stressed that China and BRI partners “should pursue the new vision of green development and a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable.” The path is thus traced, but China has yet to learn to consider the unique environmental pressures that characterise each BRI partner, if the BRI is to contribute to promoting green societies around the world.