Belt and Road Initiative: a unique opportunity for environmental stewardship

Human development and population growth are pushing the limits of the earth.
Belt and Road Initiative: a unique opportunity for environmental stewardship

Human development and population growth are pushing the limits of the earth. One highly visible symptom is the global expansion of roads, which will soon approach 25 million km worldwide—enough to encircle the planet more than 600 times—ripping into the most remote and pristine parts of all continents. After the development of the Western world, the era of Asia and Africa finally arrived. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), led by China and involving some 65 countries, includes the massive development of transportation infrastructures, pipelines and power lines, gigantic dams and the proliferation of new human settlements in its economic corridors. However, just as in the Western Hemisphere, there will be a high cost to the environment if there is no careful planning to mitigate negative impacts on biodiversity and human populations. 

The BRI was first raised by Chinese President Xi Jinping about five years ago, during visits to Central Asia and Southeast Asia in 2013. However, to our surprise, there hasn’t been much discussion among researchers about the expected environmental costs of such a colossal initiative. While it seems reasonable that the Asian people should aspire to a higher quality of life, it is also clear that, knowing what we know today about the impacts of roads on biodiversity, BRI can come with a high toll for the environment. 

This was the motto for the beginning of discussion with my colleagues, back home, particularly with Dr. Luís Borda-de-Água who contributed with pertinent suggestions in the initial draft. In the end, some of the top Road Ecology researchers ended up joining together, resulting in vigorous and enthusiastic discussions. So much so that we soon realised that, despite our common goal in convincing China and partners to adopt and promote sustainable development of BRI, we really had significant disagreements on how this should be achieved. It has been a great experience to balance the views of those among the authors who believe that China should refrain from continuing with this massive expansion of infrastructure altogether and those who believe that BRI is possible provided that it is done in a sustainable and responsible manner. In the end, we were even "fighting" for the wording of the title. Unfortunately, one of the initial co-authors, a top researcher from China, left the initial team uncomfortable with the rather critical tone of the manuscript. What you see now is the balance of our opinions, and I believe that it will serve both conservation researchers and policy makers. 

The BRI is a unique opportunity for China and partners to lead environmental sustainability. If they choose to do this well, the BRI might become a model for future large-scale developments. 

Main trade corridors (Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road) from/to China and some of the most important infrastructure and ports built or planned with Chinese investment in the BRI. In green – environmental value, integrating data on terrestrial biodiversity, key habitats, wilderness and environmental services. Infrastructure mapping is based on MERICS – Mercator Institute for China Studies.

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