When inaugurating the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2017, President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of environment in this project and called for creating green silk roads. The new silk roads may create better conditions to manage environmental resources and thus promote sustainable development principles.

The environmental impact of the BRI

However, several recent studies show that, despite precautions taken when carrying out BRI projects, the new Silk Roads may, in some cases, have some negative externalities on the environment.
We already know that major infrastructure projects such as dam construction can threaten the most fragile ecosystems. But, the BRI could have other consequences. According to a recent study published in the journal “Current Biology”, the new economic corridors of the BRI could favor the development of invasive species

The construction of new roads and the increase of maritime and rail traffic would not only stimulate travelers and goods transportation, but also increase animals and plants “free riders” , moving from one continent to another, and endanger their new environment

Similarly, a study prepared by researchers at Duke University warns against possible deforestation caused by some infrastructure built under the BRI framework, and stresses the need to make land use planning a priority for the BRI.

The results of these studies should not be overlooked or underestimated. Major development projects and trade between China and the rest of the world could have significant environmental consequences.
However, it should not be forgotten that the non-implementation of BRI projects may aggravate certain environmental problems. Thus, thanks to the creation of new infrastructures in the sector of energy, some dirty energy in South Asian megalopolises may be abandoned to cleaner ones and so air quality will improve.

So the question is: in the absence of the BRI, wouldn’t the environmental damage be greater?

Solutions to reduce BRI’s environmental impact

China has not set any deadline for the completion of the new Silk Roads; Beijing has often been criticized for not having given a detailed agenda for the BRI project. But by giving time to the BRI, China has more opportunity to closely study the environmental consequences of its projects, and look at researchers and civil society’s studies about BRI projects. Sometimes perceived as hostile to infrastructure projects, NGOs must still participate in the debate about infrastructure construction to monitor their environmental impact.

Finally, an important point is the use of new technologies and data. The BRI is not only made up of roads, railways, and ports, the BRI is also a digital network, made of fibers and 5G. New technologies and data may optimize BRI projects and reduce their environmental impact.

One of the main challenges facing China and other nations involved in the BRI will be to coordinate every project stakeholder to better consider the different economic, social and environmental dimensions of the BRI.

The BRI’s environmental challenges
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