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How China’s belt and road can pave the way to global sustainability

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South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-05-09

Yixiu Wu says Beijing should ensure its belt and road projects address environmental concerns, so as to shape development across three continents and leave behind a green legacy

On May 14 and 15, 28 heads of state and government leaders will convene in Beijing for the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. At a time when much of the world is recoiling into protectionism, the Belt and Road Initiative represents China’s unprecedented entry onto the global stage. A new chapter of the China story is unfolding.

The success of the initiative, which spans 65 countries, will depend on whether long-term concerns are prioritised. In the face of climate change, a transition away from fossil fuel consumption and towards environmental sustainability is imperative.

The launch of the belt and road follows three decades of rapid economic growth in China, which has been fuelled by infrastructure development and intensive energy consumption. As a result of this legacy, China’s investments in the initiative have attracted scepticism. Observers questioned whether the belt and road is merely a vessel for China to reproduce its old development model, which, despite ushering in unprecedented growth, has led to widespread environmental degradation. Such questions are valid, considering that, between 2005 and 2016, 40 per cent of China’s outbound investment was directed towards energy projects and 18 per cent to infrastructure. Moreover, environmental negligence is one of the most frequently cited complaints about Chinese companies overseas.

The Earth has reached a crisis point. Extreme weather patterns are becoming the norm, forests are shrinking, and water supplies are running dry. There is no room any more for a development model that promotes growth at the expense of the environment.

Moreover, the belt and road countries are home to some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems and most precious carbon sink. They also use much of the world’s resources: a study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 38 key belt and road nations emit more than 55 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases and consume 66 per cent of global water resources.

The good news is that, within and outside China, models of sustainable development appear promising. Domestically, China has begun to decouple its economic progress from fossil fuel consumption and is now home to the world’s fastest-growing renewable energy industry. China’s coal consumption has fallen for three years running, a key factor in the flattening of global greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, the imperative for multilateral sustainability initiatives is indisputable, as exemplified by the Paris agreement on climate change.

Shaping belt and road projects with the environment in mind makes economic sense. A focus on sustainable development will help achieve economic and political stability for China and its belt and road partners. It will improve energy efficiency and limit regional conflicts over natural resources.

The question now is how to ensure that long-term imperatives are not overlooked in favour of short-term profit. Doing so requires rules and processes, backed by high-level political resolve. It also depends on the inclusion of diverse stakeholders to assess the environmental implications of belt and road initiatives. It is crucial that China make publicly available information about the overseas belt and road projects, subjecting them to scrutiny from local and international communities.

The belt and road has the potential to shape sustainable development across three continents. The initiative is ambitious and complex. It calls for collaboration from key international actors, such as the UN, the EU and the multilateral development banks.

If wisdom and resolve prevail, three decades from now, the Belt and Road Initiative will exemplify the benefits that a rising China can bring to the world. It is now more important than ever that the next chapter of the China story be centred on a commitment to sustainable development. This emphasis is key not only to preserving China’s legacy, but also to ensuring global prosperity for decades to come.

Yixiu Wu is a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. Her work focuses on China’s global environmental footprint and One Belt, One Road polices

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