Climate Impacts

The Belt and Road Initiative will have enormous climate impacts in the decades ahead. Due to the BRI’s vast scale, focus on infrastructure development and role in the power sectors of dozens of countries, among other factors, the choices made under the Belt and Road Initiative will have a significant impact on the world’s ability to meet the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.[87]

There are no comprehensive analyses of the climate impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative. Such an analysis would be challenging for several reasons. First, there is no clear definition of what constitutes a Belt and Road project. Second, emissions data with respect to most Belt and Road projects are lacking. Third, defining “baselines” or counterfactuals to analyze what might happen in the absence of a Belt and Road project is often difficult at best.

Nevertheless, several studies help to indicate the nature and scale of the BRI’s climate impacts:

  • One study found that “most Chinese deals in energy and transportation are still tied to traditional sectors and do not show a strong alignment with the low-carbon priorities included in BRI governments’ NDCs.” (“NDCs” are the climate action plans submitted by national governments to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as “Nationally Determined Contributions.”) This suggests that many BRI projects are already making it more difficult to meet national and global climate goals.[88]
  • Another study found that foreign power plants supported by Chinese financial institutions between 2001 and 2016 release almost 600 million tons of CO2 per year (more CO2 than all but seven countries in the world) and that if these plants operate for 30 years on average, lifetime CO2 emissions from the plants will be almost 18 Gt (roughly half of global emissions in 2017).[89]

The “lock-in effect” of BRI infrastructure may have especial significance with respect to climate change. Coal-fired power plants built as part of the Belt and Road Initiative may last for decades, even as costs for lower-carbon power sources such as solar and wind power with energy storage continue to fall. Once built and placed in service, assets such as coal-fired power plants can be very difficult to retire.

The Belt and Road Initiative has tremendous potential to help mitigate climate change and contribute to low-carbon development. The Green Cooling and Green Lighting Initiatives announced at the Second Belt and Road Summit highlight this potential. The Green Investment Principles for the Belt and Road Development adopted by all major Chinese banks have the potential to help channel funding away from high-carbon development and toward lower-carbon development. Mobilizing the networks and connectivity developed through the BRI toward low-carbon development goals more broadly could have very high impact. To date most development under BRI has been on a higher-carbon path, but there is considerable potential for dramatically improved results.[90]


[87] See Isabel Hilton, “How China’s Big Overseas Initiative Threatens Global Climate Progress,” Yale Environment 360 (January 3, 2019); Simon Zadek, “The critical frontier: Reducing emissions from China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Brookings (April 25, 2019); Kelly Sims Gallagher, “China’s Belt and Road is a conduit for polluting investments,” Financial Times (August 9, 2018); Elizabeth Economy, “Why China is No Climate Leader,” Politico (June 12, 2017).  The goals set forth in the Paris Agreement include limiting the increase in global average temperatures to “well below” 2°C/3.6°F over pre-industrial levels and achieving global net zero emissions in the second half of this century.   Paris Agreement Articles 2.1(a) and 4.1.

[88] Lihuan Zhou et al., Moving The Green Belt And Road Initiative: From Words To Actions, World Resources Institute/Boston University Working Paper (2018) at pp.1, 26.

[89] Kelly Sims Gallagher, “The Carbon Consequences of China’s Overseas Investments in Coal,” The Fletcher School, Tufts University (2016), at p.49 (country emissions data); BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 67th ed. (June 2018).

[90] See Helena Wright, “Why China should green its overseas finance,” China Dialogue (May 14, 2019); Simon Zadek, “The critical frontier: Reducing emissions from China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Brookings (April 25, 2019).

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