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Balancing sustainability in BRI

Ever since 2013 when China launched its magnanimous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Western capitals have been viewing this monumental developmental project with scepticism; their response is tainted by an unwarranted wave of negativity and misinformation.

It is common to find these studies riddled with allegations of so-called debt traps, complaints of a lack of transparency and concerns about the environmental impact. It seems as though there is a concerted effort to cast a shadow over this monumental endeavour.

In the prevailing discourse on the BRI, Western think tanks have raised concerns regarding its potential environmental impact along its expansive route. They argue that the BRI must align with the Paris Agreement and prioritise environmental sustainability.

However, it is crucial to evaluate the BRI from a balanced standpoint that recognises its immense potential benefits, as well as China’s steadfast dedication to environmental safety. While it is undeniable that the Belt and Road Initiative’s construction activities may have an impact on the environment, it is essential to acknowledge that similar challenges are prevalent in all the development projects worldwide.

China’s commitment to a green economy and its capacity to address environmental concerns along the BRI route set an example. While these concerns are valid, it is essential to recognise that construction and development projects are ongoing worldwide, irrespective of the BRI’s existence. Hence, the demand for environmentally friendly policies should not be limited to the BRI alone.

China, the driving force behind the BRI, is actively transitioning towards a green economy. This commitment reflects China’s leadership in balancing economic development with environmental responsibility on a global scale.

As the BRI continues to shape the global landscape, its expansion into various dimensions, including the Digital Silk Road, Health Silk Road, and Polar Silk Road, underscores the initiative’s evolving nature and commitment to addressing pressing global challenges.

Among these dimensions, the Green Silk Road stands out as a beacon of hope for a world grappling with environmental crises and the urgent need for sustainable development. The Green Silk Road, a crucial component of the BRI, represents China’s resolute commitment to making its projects greener and more sustainable. The world is increasingly prioritising sustainable development as the need to address climate change and environmental degradation becomes more urgent. The Green Silk Road serves as an effective solution for implementing the UN’s 2030 Agenda. To fulfil these ambitious targets, China recognises the importance of promoting sustainability not only within its borders but also in the regions connected through the BRI.

China has actively promoted the Green Silk Road through the establishment of guidelines and partnership agreements. The Green Investment Principles (GIP) for the BRI, introduced in late 2018, provide a framework for greener investments in BRI participant countries and regions. In mid-2021, China published the Green Development Guidelines for Overseas Investment and Cooperation, as well as the Guidelines for Ecological and Environmental Protection of Foreign Investment Cooperation and Construction Projects. These programmes focus on managing environmental risks associated with overseas BRI projects and supply chains, further underlining China’s commitment to sustainability.

A key aspect of China’s commitment to sustainability within the BRI is the shift away from coal-related investments. Conversely, China has significantly increased its investments in renewable energy, including solar, wind, and hydropower within BRI-involved regions. In 2022, investments in these green energy sectors saw a 50% year-on-year increase. China’s dominance in renewable energy manufacturing, accounting for 72% of global solar manufacturing and 50% of global wind turbine manufacturing, positions it as a crucial contributor to low-carbon technologies for BRI countries and regions.

Collaboration between Chinese officials, local governments, and corporations in BRI-involved regions has also led to the development of green infrastructure. In the sphere of environmental conservation, China has demonstrated its commitment by engaging in approximately 50 agreements with stakeholders within the BRI framework over the past decade.

Moreover, in 2021, China’s total renewable energy use reached 750 million tonnes of standard coal, leading to a reduction of 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, China holds the distinction of being the global leader in the production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles (EVs). This status uniquely positions China to facilitate the delivery of cutting-edge, low-carbon technologies to the Emerging Markets and Developing Economies (EMDEs) engaged in the BRI. Currently, the GIP boasts more than 41 signatories with combined assets exceeding US$49 trillion, providing substantial funding for BRI projects. The Green Silk Road within the BRI represents a forward-looking commitment to sustainability, environmental protection, and global cooperation. Contrary to the negative framing by Western critics, the actual reality of the BRI is quite different from this narrative. China’s dedication to sustainable development through the Green Silk Road offers a compelling vision for the future of global infrastructure and connectivity.

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance contributor based in Karachi, Pakistan.

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