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How can the Belt and Road Initiative and environmental interests be combined without conflict?

This image was taken from the Living Asia website where this article was originally published

There are high hopes for investments, infrastructure development related to the Chinese mega-initiative Belt and Road in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. However, the environmental aspects of such cooperation remain unclear. What if we consider the potential cost of not paying enough attention to environmental issues? The experts of the Socio-Ecological Fund and international experts invited by the fund discussed this issue during a press event.

Why do we emphasize the environmental aspect when discussing the Belt and Road initiative, and why is it relevant to discuss those issues for the countries of our region? Niva Yau, Fellow researcher of the Research Institute of Foreign Policy, elaborated on it:

“The Belt and Road Initiative is vast; it will lead to China increasing its efforts in some areas and taking them in new directions. It pushes the Central Asian countries to the forefront of Chinese foreign policy. China endeavors to meet environmental standards, but – what does it mean for the Belt & Road countries? It means that China exports the industries that can negatively affect the environment to the countries that do not have specific laws in this regard. Thus, researchers need to monitor Chinese contribution to the project and actively work with civil society to ensure transparency of the project.”

Today, the situation around this topic is paradoxical: on the one hand, the concern about the possible environmental consequences of the project is obvious – most of us heard about the potential transfer of environmentally problematic industries to Kazakhstan. However, on the other hand, there is no ground for this concern. According to Timur Umarov, an expert of the Carnegie Moscow Center, “it seems that the Belt and Road Initiative is too distant from the public, but actually, it is not…sometimes, citizens find out about some projects with Chinese investors when the projects are already in progress. Nevertheless, Central Asian countries do not have any alternatives to cooperation with China.” So, what about the state? What is its position? Vadim Ni, head of the Socio-Ecological Fund, defines it as follows:

“I would call the attitude of government agencies to this topic somewhat cautious: officials are afraid to “scare away” the investors. The governments were even vocal about it when discussing 55 Chinese projects planned for implementation in Kazakhstan. In particular, as the Deputy Minister said bluntly, they do not want to publish the list of the planned projects because Chinese companies may be unhappy about it. However, after several inquiries of the media and activists, it was possible to disclose the list of projects, but without specifying the Chinese companies involved in them. Therefore, public organizations take on the responsibility of ensuring free access to information and compliance with environmental standards.”

Compliance with standards is perhaps the cornerstone in this case. To illustrate, today, Kazakhstani standards, primarily those that regulate public access to environmental information, are higher than Chinese ones. This is the result of Kazakhstan’s participation in the Aarhus Convention. So, now, if a foreign investor comes to us from a country where the standards are lower than ours, it is necessary to insist on following our legislation, – Vadim Ni emphasizes.

“We managed to get access to information on 55 Chinese projects in Kazakhstan. It is available today. But, unfortunately, there is still no specific information about the Chinese companies involved in the projects. We had also studied the issue of transferring agricultural lands for lease, even before it was prohibited by law. It turned out that it happened once in the East Kazakhstan region. In that case, the illegal use of pesticides was confirmed with the help of a parliamentary inquiry. Also, we sent a request for an environmental impact assessment for the construction of a cement plant implemented in the Kyzylorda region by a Chinese company. We faced difficulties: the minutes of the hearings and the conclusion of the state ecological expertise were obtained, but the document in which environmental risks were assessed was not. We do not associate it only with the fact that the project belongs to the Belt & Road Initiative; the problem is also about the reform in assessing legislation on environmental impact assessment, which leads to a decrease in EIA standards.”

Meanwhile, the authorities have recently been paying considerable attention to environmental issues in China; they even talked about the construction of an “ecological civilization.”

The essence of this policy, published in 2015, is quite simple: it describes how to make an ecological revolution in all areas of social development to make these areas consistently compatible with the way environmental systems function. It was assumed that the entire management system would be transferred to an environmental direction by 2020. In practice, it is reflected in the prohibition of industrial felling in natural forests … Increased imports from neighboring countries made up the huge shortage of wood raw materials – says the coordinator of the international movement “Rivers without Boundaries” Yevgeny Simonov.

Another consequence of the Chinese green policy is the export of polluting industries the same way Western countries once did. A significant part of the industries was moved from China to other countries because it is prohibited to produce such products anymore, or it becomes too expensive due to environmental requirements. For Kazakhstan, we are talking, for example, about the construction of hydroelectric power plants.

Interest in hydroelectric power plants construction has recently been growing in the country as some think that hydroelectric power plants are an example of green energy. The spread of this position became evident at the press conference on the Belt & Road initiative’s environmental aspects held by the Socio-Ecological Fund: journalists have repeatedly asked questions similar to statements – is it good to build a hydroelectric power plant with the participation of Chinese companies? Evgeniy Simonov commented on it:

“Hydroelectric power plants, regardless of who they are built by, are a huge and insoluble problem. Most of the stations under construction change the input systems on which they are constructed irreversibly: they change the river flow, temperature and chemical regimes, and conditions for both local flora and fauna and geomorphological processes for river formation valleys and the activities of the local population. These changes are unfavorable for a significant part of the population and river ecosystems. Now the Central Asian region faces the problem of scarcity of water resources. So, the resources need to be used wisely – there are too many demands for water both from society and natural systems. Today, electricity without emitting greenhouse gases can be obtained by many other methods that might be even cheaper than hydroelectric power plants. However, unfortunately, there are a lot of people interested in building corporations. This is one of the most corruption-intensive types of infrastructure. China is now planning its construction very carefully: the country also concluded that hydroelectric power plants do more harm than good, but it was able to stop the flywheel only in relation to small and medium-sized hydroelectric power plants – large state-owned companies are interested in large ones. But there are now only 25 hydroelectric power plants mentioned on the list. However, many Chinese companies have gone overseas, so they are out of competition here – they take on projects that no other firms do because they have higher environmental and social standards and are more sensitive to local corruption. Chinese firms are only starting to acquire it. But hydroelectric power plants are harmful regardless of whether they are built by Chinese or Swiss companies; it is just that the Chinese still make them frequently.”

In addition, the expert shared an interesting fact: over the past year, China has built a hydroelectric power station with a capacity of 8 gigawatts, 56 gigawatts of wind power plants, and about 48 – solar. The gap will only continue to grow further.

To sum up the discussion of the Belt and Road Initiative’s environmental aspects organized by the Socio-Ecological Fund, we can conclude that: it is necessary to insist on adherence to Kazakhstani environmental standards and study the neighbors we are not really familiar with.

This article originally appeared on Living Asia in Russian.