Symposium Concept Note


China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aspires to improve global connectivity through infrastructure investments, is now in its sixth year. Its potential and real impacts on the global environment are attracting steadily more scrutiny: if BRI countries’ development continues as planned while all other countries adhere to a 2-degree scenario, these countries’ greenhouse gas emissions could account for two-thirds of global emissions by 2050. Deforestation, biodiversity and ecosystem risks from BRI investments – as well as their implications for the economic and social welfare of local communities – have also been increasingly documented.

China’s second Belt and Road Forum held in April 2019 in Beijing saw the adoption of a variety of new commitments to an “open, green and clean” BRI to address such concerns. The Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC) housed at UN Environment aims to ensure the BRI supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, while the Green Investment Principles incorporate standards for low-carbon and sustainable development into lending decisions. Other initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Energy Partnership, foster communication between BRI countries on topics with environmental implications. On paper, these actions appear to provide clearer implementation pathways for more nebulous documents, such as the 2017 Guiding Opinion on Promoting the Construction of a Green ‘Belt and Road.’  But the question remains as to whether high- level initiatives can translate into real safeguards to ensure that BRI projects improve livelihoods without irrevocably damaging the global environment and accelerating climate change.

The Chinese government’s newfound resolve to guarantee the BRI’s transparency and sustainability has been accompanied by an increasing diversity of case studies by media, academics and practitioners who are directly interacting with BRI projects as they evolve. As the Chinese government attempts to establish standards for projects to qualify for inclusion under the BRI, it is imperative to account for the history of Chinese overseas investment as a series of relatively unrelated projects and initiatives now unified under the label of the BRI. Critically examining similarities and differences among Chinese overseas investments in various regions and industries – including those that potentially fall outside the bounds of the BRI – is crucial for understanding how better decisions can be facilitated by a variety of stakeholders from government, the private sector, academia, media and other areas to bridge the gap between policy and practice.

Conference Objectives:

While the 2019 Symposium focused on unpacking what the BRI actually is, the 2020 Symposium intends to critically evaluate the effectiveness of attempts to mitigate its environmental impacts. Infrastructure projects vary immensely across geographies in their societal, economic and environmental impacts. However, these differences are often ignored for want of broad, sweeping conclusions about overall trends in China’s global development push. The Symposium will explore the gap between high-level green governance and ground-level environmental consequences, including where best case practices can serve as a model for future projects, as well as lessons learned from cases where absent or neglected safeguards have incited negative consequences. It will also touch on how policies can and should be strengthened to mitigate environmental impacts.

The Symposium aspires to inform academics, practitioners and others in the American environmental community and beyond about the potential environmental consequences of Chinese overseas development and the relevance of the BRI for their own work. A key objective is to analyze how a “one-size-fits-all” narrative of the BRI – whether propagated by government, media, academics or otherwise – fits within the context of actual BRI impacts in local communities and for the global environment. Critical discussions will foster better decision-making in both collaborative and competitive responses to the BRI that aim to ensure its environmental and climate sustainability.