Will China’s new “Silk Road” bring a new golden age of trade or trample lands and people?

The economic powerhouse claims its Belt and Road Initiative will deliver growth without the usual environmental consequences.

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“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains […] On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” 

The above description is from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, in which a father and son navigate their way through a post-apocalyptic landscape. The setting here is American, but its vision of environmental collapse is one with global reach – and is something Theresa May should perhaps bear in mind as she returns from trade talks in China this week.

Central to China's trade agenda is its new “Belt and Road Initiative”. It may sound rather dry, but the scheme is in fact the most ambitious infrastructure enterprise in the modern world.

The trillion-dollar initiative will create a vast loop of new, Chinese-funded, transportation and energy projects, encompassing over 68 partner countries; through Central Asia to Eastern Europe, and then back around the Horn of Africa and on to South Pacific.

At the opening of The Belt and Road Forum last year, President Xi Jinping heralded the project as a second “Silk Road”, conjuring up images of the ancient trade routes which first gifted the West with paper, gunpowder and precious thread.

The hope is that the scheme will usher in a new, global golden age of peace and prosperity; one in which other emerging economies can follow China’s path to industrialised growth (while also providing new markets for Chinese companies to serve).

Yet many remain sceptical. In Sri Lanka, for instance, where China has already invested heavily in new ports and roads, many of the projects are under-used while the government struggles to repay its Chinese loans.

Furthermore, despite assurances from President Jinping that the new routes will be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, there are concerns that Chinese-driven foreign development could also export ecological disaster.

paper published in the Land journal by researchers at the University of Oxford, has looked into the scheme’s potential impact on the central Asian republics of Kazakstan and Kyrgystan.

It is here that the Belt and Road Initiative’s vision of “grand integration” could first meet “with uncontrolled forces”, its authors write:

These could be in the form of climate, earthquakes, droughts, famine, terrorism, conflict, or revolution—all have happened in Central Asia. Any of these can change Chinese hubris into humbleness as the New Silk Roads careen their way through Central Asia.

One of the article’s authors, Dr Troy Sternberg, tells me that the scheme risks extending China’s legacy of environmental mismanagement: China’s economy may have boomed in recent years, but its cities are famed for their smog and about 400 million people (nearly a third of the population) live on mismanaged, desertified land.

Many of the partner countries are already highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In Kazakstan, the diversion of water resources to new infrastructure and energy projects could have devastating effects on local herders and farmers.

Similarly, giant new roads risk dividing communities, endangering animal migration routes and undermining the economies of small towns that once served as stopping points.

It is also Chinese labourers who will be paid to build the projects, not local people. There is no certainty that host countries will gain the types of infrastructure they most need: Kazakhstan urgently needs more water for agriculture - but instead China plans to build hydropower dams for energy, the report says. Nor is there any assurance that new developments along the route will last. Speaking of the glittering new town of Horgos, a free trade zone on China’s border with Kazakhstan, Sternberg wonders if the Chinese “will simply build it, use it for a time, and then drift off somewhere else?”

And all this is before the wider environmental consequences of the initiative are taken into account. Foreign infrastructure projects will both extend China's market for its highly polluting steel and concrete industries, as well as help partner nations to extract and export more of their ecologically sensitive resources – from minerals and timber, to coal.

Sternberg says the scale of the potential impact creates an urgent need for environmental impact assessments, moves to protect the rights of local people, and the involvement of communities in planning decisions. A recent report from WWF and HSBC echoes this call, advising the global finance sector only to invest in "future-proofed environmentally friendly" infrastructure, where impacts are monitored.

But there is also hope that this time might be different; that the mistakes of both China and the West's industrialising pasts don't have to define the future.

Despite being the globe’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, China now leads the world in renewable energy investment; it is replanting a “Great Green Wall” of trees in an effort to stop the spread of its NorthWestern desert (though there are concerns that this too has been mishandled); and has built a nationwide network of monitors to track pollution levels.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China has published a statement of “Guidance on Promoting Green Belt and Road”, which includes promises to “formulate environmental protection standards” and to “prioritise infrastructure and capability building projects for energy conservation, emission reduction, and eco-environment protection”.

Such promises may presently have little backing them up in practice - but the more China chooses to weild green stewardship as a tool of soft power, the more foreign governments and NGOs can hold its ecological missteps to account.

Plus, in a world where the American administration has vowed to slash aid to emerging economies, those nations must turn to someone for support and loans. It is now down to China to “make right again” what it has previously got so wrong. If it can suceed in doing so, and successfully rewrite the road to industrial development as green, then the Belt and Road Initiative will truely be the world's greatest journey yet.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.