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China’s belt & road scheme not as green as hoped

Beijing smog as seen from the China World Hotel, March 2003, during the SARS outbreak (Kevin Dooley, Wikimedia Commons/Released)
November 02, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Despite a commitment from President Xi Jinping to make China’s vast Belt and Road Initiative green, a new study shows that air pollution may persist for decades in many parts of the vast infrastructure and investment project.

According to the study done by leading experts inside China, the nations involved in the Belt and Road Initiative, often referred to as the BRI, now account for 28 percent of global carbon emissions.

But if the Chinese experts’ method for measuring carbon intensity continues to apply, that 28 percent could rise to an alarming 66 percent by 2050, say the experts who worked on the study led by Ma Jun, a special advisor to China’s central bank.

The experts’ research was published by the Tsinghua Center for Finance and Development, the London-based Vivid Economics, which is an employee-owned business based in London, and the U.S.-based charity organization Climate Works, which provides advice on climate issues.

Citing the new study, Reuters succinctly summed up the challenge facing China: The BRI, the news agency said, “must bring cost-effective new low-carbon methods to developing countries and avoid outdated polluting technologies in order to ensure global climate change goals are met.”

Low-carbon sources of energy include power generated by wind and solar power as well as by hydro and nuclear power.

Most of the more than 70 countries involved in the BRI are low-income, developing countries that depend heavily on coal-fired power. Getting these countries to reduce their dependence on coal may prove to be a huge challenge.

Although China itself has promised to “de-carbonize” all of its energy projects, it has continued to finance coal projects. According to Reuters, China has used $1 billion in “green finance” to fund coal-fired power projects in the first half of 2019.

At a BRI forum held in Beijing in late April of this year, President Xi stressed a commitment to the BRI’s “environmental sustainability.” Representatives of 37 nations attended the forum.

But Xi stopped short of mentioning specific measures to be taken to achieve this goal, according to an analysis written by Jane Nakano of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

In February of this year, a group of Portuguese scientists and environmentalists highlighted another potential environmental danger: They said that the planned exploitation of oil and gas reserves throughout the BRI nations could cause permanent environmental damage.

The stakes are high both for China and the world. In addition to the “Road,” which will include railroad lines, pipelines, and airports, the BRI includes a “Belt” which is described as a “Maritime Silk Road.” It will require the leasing or building of new seaports in a number of locations.

If fully funded, investments in the BRI could exceed $1 trillion. According to one report, the BRI could eventually involve infrastructure development and investments in 152 countries in Asia, Europe, African, the Middle East, and the Americas.

As it stands now, the BRI will easily surpass the investments involved in the Marshall Plan devised by the United States to help rebuild Europe following World War II. Meanwhile, the environmental website Mongabay calls the BRI “the largest infrastructure initiative in human history.”

The BRI is also frequently described as President Xi Jinping’s “signature project.” And Xi has arranged for it to be mentioned as a goal in China’s constitution. That appears to make it too important to fail.

Coal lives on

China is the largest producer of coal in the world, followed by India, the United States, Australia, and Indonesia respectively, according to a report produced about a year ago by the WorldAtlas website. Roughly 70 percent of the energy consumed in China is produced by coal.

At the same time, it should be noted that China has been introducing renewable energy projects at a rate surpassing that of a number of other countries.

In an analysis published by Radio Free Asia two months ago, Michael Lelyveld noted that China has sent “conflicting signals” on environmental and economic issues through increases in coal production, rising coal imports, and plans to build new coal mines.

He quotes one expert as saying that coal is certain to remain an important, if declining, part of China’s energy mix for decades to come.

According to the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), air pollution from coal-fired power plants is linked to asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, neurological problems, as well as acid rain and global warming.

Global warming is driven by emissions of heat-trapping gases that rise into the atmosphere and act like a blanket, warming the earth’s surface. Consequences include rising temperatures and sea levels as well as growing risks of both storms and drought.

Pushback in Kazakhstan

On Oct. 1 of this year The Atlantic magazine published an article describing how the BRI had encountered skepticism among local citizens at one of its key gateways and rail transfer stations in Khorgos, Kazakhstan.

Reid Standish, the author of the article, said that the Khorgos Gateway had once been touted as the site of one of the most ambitious of the BRI’s infrastructure projects but “has now come to represent the limits of Beijing’s global push.”

According to Standish, Beijing hoped that Chinese freight could be reloaded onto Kazakh trains to make the 5,000-plus mile journey to Europe, thus expanding land-based trade across Eurasia.

But despite China’s provision of subsidies paid to the Kazakhs aimed at reducing their costs if they ship by rail, freight is still moving more by sea and air than by rail.

According to one report, some Kazakhs are shipping empty railroad cars to Europe in order to collect the subsidies.

Nargis Kassenova, an expert on Central Asia at Harvard University, concludes that so far, Khorgos is “not a game changer.”

Visitors to the transshipment site give it mixed reviews.

Aside from the BRI’s main goal of reaching new markets for Chinese products and gaining access to natural resources, one of China’s aims for the BRI is to win hearts and minds along the way.

But a poll of more than 2,000 Kazakhs conducted in Khorgos indicates that the BRI isn’t so far winning friends and influencing people.

The survey results reveal widespread apprehension concerning China’s ultimate goals and intentions when it comes to Khorgos. Some local Kazakhs worry that Chinese migrants might begin arriving and taking over land.

Philippe Le Corre, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that it’s almost impossible for Kazakh Muslims and others living in Kazakhstan to have a favorable view of China when they look across the border at what’s happening in China’s neighboring Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

In Xinjiang, more than a million Muslim Uyghurs as well as members of other Muslim minority groups are being held without charge in “re-education” camps that look more like prison camps. An undetermined number of ethnic Kazakhs of Chinese nationality are among them.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Chinese officials deny that these are internment camps and assert that they are providing vocational training.