Horizon scanning to identify the emerging risks of the Belt & Road Initiative

A new paper, led by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences with collaborators in Oxford and more than 20 other institutions around the world aims to highlight the emerging issues related to the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). The BRI is the largest infrastructure project in human history, connecting China to the world via a network of road, rail and maritime links. While the implications of building a roads directly through pristine habitats may be obvious, there are numerous emerging issues that have not been recognised but which have the potential to have serious implications for environment and society.

The ‘Horizon Scan’ project aimed to explore important issues related to the BRI that have been overlooked or underestimated to date. This involved over 250 experts from all over the world, including several researchers from Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), submitting ideas to the project in late 2019. A group of core experts from different disciplines and sectors then met in Kunming in October 2019 to identify and prioritise the final issues. I was part of this group, due to my research at Oxford on the wildlife trade in China, and how the BRI is likely to expand both the illegal and legal wildlife trade to supply traditional medicine markets.

After three days of discussions in Kunming we identified a final list of 11 core issues that should be prioritised as the BRI develops. These range from issues related to connectivity, the disturbance of delicate habitats, and the impacts of geopolitical rivalries, as well as how they might be mitigated.

One of the core issues in the paper is the spread of invisible invasives, such as viruses, fungi and bacteria, facilitated by better infrastructure links. With the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020, the world has been made acutely aware of how connected we are in the modern age. The BRI aims to strengthen this connectivity to enhance trade and development but the development of sensible biosecurity measures along BRI routes is needed to prevent the spread of these micro-organisms.

This connectivity and the expansion of Traditional Chinese Medicine could drive illegal wildlife trade, but also has the potential to support the expansion of sustainable wild-harvesting of medicinal plants. This issue is the most closely related to my research at Oxford, where I am working with key stakeholders in China to develop strategies to improve the sustainability of Traditional Chinese Medicine trade.

In addition to connectivity issues, we identified certain ecosystems that are likely to be particularly threatened, including limestone karsts destroyed to produce cement, the favoured road-building material in many BRI countries. Karsts have an incredible number of rare, endemic species including cave invertebrates, geckos, bats and orchids, but these ecosystems already lose almost 6% of their area annually. Without careful planning or the use of synthetic alternatives, increased demand for cement may drive many species to extinction. In addition to karsts, the Arctic silk road will place significant extraction pressures on this delicate region, freshwater ecosystems will likely become threatened by increased groundwater pumping, and  coastal ecosystems will come under increasing pressure as BRI countries build new ports and reclaim wetlands to provide land for these projects. Efforts to mitigate environmental impacts of the BRI may also lead to the growth of “regreening” efforts that plant trees in places where they have ever grown, including deserts and other non-wooded systems that are critical for biodiversity.  

From a geopolitical perspective, BRI projects have shown a trend of willingness to build infrastructure in conflict zones, which may present security risks and have wider social and environmental impacts. In addition, BRI projects must adequately consider the importance of indigenous land rights, as well as the role of culture in conservation of biodiversity bringing opportunities for more inclusive governance and partnership with local communities. It is also likely that geopolitical rivalry could make financiers take bigger financial risks, or fund less sustainable targets, as evidenced when the World Bank recommended funding large dams after twelve years due to pressure from new development banks. However, there is also the opportunity that these rivalries could drive the development of higher standards, and that the BRI as a whole could lead to a global rise in environmental and social standards.

Preventing the risks and realising the opportunities of the BRI will require new governance and leadership, approaches such as ecological redlines-which are already a core component of China’s vision of ecocivilisation, and the use of the over $32million Belt and Road science fund to provide the data to develop appropriate priorities and meet sustainability goals. Upgrading global environmental standards, and developing more cooperative modes of governance are prerequisite for ensuring a more sustainable and equitable BRI which helps safeguard the future of ecological systems and human societies.

Paper available here: https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(20)30051-3