Discover more from On The New Silk Road
Inside China’s ‘Greenwashing’ Of The Belt And Road
Green and clean? No way.
SION ANG/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES
Three decades of rampant development and urbanization in China has taken a heavy toll on the environment. The air quality became some of the worst in the world, much of the water was unfit for drinking and swaths of otherwise arable soil became contaminated.
By the mid-2010s, China saw the writing on the wall and began an all-out, top-down initiative against pollution, which saw coal plants being phased out in exchange for renewable energy resources, big fines for excessive polluters and mass efforts to greenify and increase the ecological sustainability of cities throughout the country. However, as China has made commendable strides towards cleaning up the environment in their own backyard, they are exporting dirty energy sources and polluting industries to other countries all along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), repeating many of the same mistakes they’ve already made at home.
“Not only is China exporting its surplus of steel and cement, it is also exporting its low labour standards and pollution, as well as its murky way of doing business,” says Plamen Tonchev, head of the Asia unit at the Greece-based Institute of International Economic Relations.
Many of the routes of the Belt and Road cut through ecologically fragile terrain. As the hallmark of the BRI has so far been the development of transportation and energy infrastructure, and the building of such highways, rail lines, ports, power plants and industrial zones in undeveloped, greenfield areas threatens the local flora and fauna in ways it has never faced before. A 2017 report by the World Wildlife Fund found that upwards of 1,739 important bird areas and key biodiversity areas and 265 already threatened species are being put at increased risk by BRI projects—not to mention the additional deforestation and poaching that could occur due to the access that these projects create. For all of China’s talk about being "open, green and clean," the Belt and Road has been leaving a trail of degraded environments.
“There was a lot of ‘greenwashing’ at the most recent Belt and Road Forum with announcements like the Green Cooling Initiative, Green Development Coalition and Green Lighting Initiative,” notes Jonathan Hillman, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It all sound nice, but I'm skeptical they are more than advertising. My understanding is that there are many cases when China's practices for overseas projects would not meet their own domestic environment requirements, but they go ahead with them under the rationale that it is the host country's choice.”
This take is supported by a World Bank report which analyzed 3,000 international Chinese projects and found that they are predominantly located in “poorer nations with weak environmental regulations and controls.”
As China leads the world in renewable energy capacity and is rapidly phasing out coal at home, they are building legions of the same old, archaic coal-fired power plants abroad. In a 2017 report, the Global Environment Institute found that Chinese financial institutions and development firms were involved in no less than 240 coal projects in Belt and Road countries. Over a quarter of the new coal-fired energy capacity coming online today is being driven by China. On top of that, between 2014 and 2017, 91% of loans for energy projects along the Belt and Road went towards fossil fuels. According to Refinitiv Eikon’s BRI Connect Application data, if all new Chinese-funded coal plants that are on the table are built, it would lead to an increase in carbon emissions by 276 megatons per year—as much as the entire country of Thailand.
Exporting Low-End Dirty Manufacturing
Ever-tightening environmental regulations along with a rise in average wages in China has resulted in droves of lower-end, highly-polluting forms of industry being moved out of the country along the Belt and Road. Chinese companies have been flowing into Southeast Asia with such frequency that countries like Vietnam are starting to run out of room for them.“If you’re exporting from China to places like America, companies are just jumping, they’re biting at the bit to get out and move to places like Vietnam,” says Trent Davies, Ho Chi Minh City-based manager of international business advisory at Dezan Shira & Associates.Vietnam’s manufacturing sector has been growing at a double-digit clip for the past few years—and a lot of that is from China. However, the industries that are being moved in are typically low value-added, such as furniture, garments and sneakers, along with heavy industry, such as petroleum. To power this industrial boom, Vietnam has looked towards coal, which is predicted to make up 56% of the country’s energy capacity by 2030, which is 20 percentage points higher than it is today. Much of this coal investment is, surprise, coming from China. In Laos, Chinese banana plantations are wreaking havoc. In Indonesia, it’s Chinese steel plants.
Where Chinese-style development goes, dams follow. In their own country, China has constructed more mega-dams faster than any other nation in history, putting up over 22,000 of them since the 1950s, and the tale is much the same along the Belt and Road.
In Indonesia, a 510-megawatt Chinese dam that is being built in Sumatra presents a major threat to the Batang Toru ecosystem, which includes a severely threatened, recently discovered type of orangutan. The project doesn’t just call for a dam, which will flood the surrounding jungle, but for the construction roads and the blasting of tunnels in what is currently a remote forested location. The dam has been condemned by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, but an Indonesian court decided to allow it to proceed.
Meanwhile, Chinese-backed dams are on the docket for countries throughout Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, which is already experiencing a water shortage crises due to dams in China which are greatly reducing the flow of the Mekong River, which nearly 60 million people downstream depend on.
Dynamiting The Mekong
In addition to multiple dam projects along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, China is also involved in extensive river deepening endeavors to make it capable of receiving larger ships, which consist of dynamiting sections of the river between Thailand and Laos. Via Reuters, the chairman of the Rak Chiang Khong Conservation Group claims that this “will be the death of the Mekong,” and that the blasting destroys breeding areas for fish, ruins the habitat for birds and could increase erosion which could cut into the land of local farmers.
The environmentally destructive nature of many of China’s Belt and Road projects have not gone unnoticed. Locals in Kenya’s Lamu island decked themselves out in skeleton costumes to protest the construction of a Chinese-backed coal plant. People in Kazakhstan took to the streets when they heard of a plan where China would transfer 55 polluting factories to their country. In Malaysia, a traditional Portuguese community has staged multiple demonstrations rallying against the Melaka Gateway project. In Thailand, protesters regularly act out against China’s reefs blasting activities on the Mekong. In Myanmar, China’s Myitsone dam was called off due to mass public outrage. In Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz-China free-trade zone was canceled because of local opposition.
Development is perhaps inherently an ecologically adverse human activity. However, when the development provides economic opportunity and improves people’s lives, there is a positive counterbalance to the destruction. But when that development doesn’t provide these positive elements, it’s a lose-lose situation for everybody, which is all too often turning out to be the case with the Belt and Road and its trail of white elephants that now stretch across Eurasia.