China’s Global Infrastructure Initiative Could Bring Environmental Catastrophe
By Nexus Media, with William F. Laurance
Humans are ravaging tropical forests by hunting, logging and building roads and the threats are mounting by the day.
China is planning a series of massive infrastructure projects across four continents, an initiative that conservation biologist William Laurance described as "environmentally, the riskiest venture ever undertaken."
In a commentary published in the journal Nature Sustainability, he and an international team of researchers urge China to weigh the possibly disastrous consequences of its Belt and Road Initiative. Laurance, a research professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, recently spoke with Nexus Media about the potential dangers, including the impact on climate change. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You used some strong language to describe this project's potential impact on the environment. Why do you feel so strongly about it?
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) simply blows out of the water anything else that's been attempted in human history. As currently planned, it will involve some 7,000 separate infrastructure or extractive industry projects scattered across 70-odd nations, with a total price-tag of $8 trillion. It'll span half the planet—from Asia to Africa, Europe and the South Pacific. It'll affect every facet of human endeavor, in one way or another.
In biodiversity and environmental terms, again, it's the worst thing we've seen anywhere—and in the past forty years, I and my colleagues have seen some pretty horrific stuff in the Amazon, Africa, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
I actually think the BRI will have a greater net impact on ecosystems than it does global warming, at least for the duration of this century. [But it] will also be a major contributor to global warming, by promoting massive land-use changes, deforestation, industrial and transport emissions, and emissions from project construction. It'll use more concrete—a major source of greenhouse gas emissions—than all pre-existing infrastructure projects on the planet.
Why is China investing this heavily in infrastructure?
For the Chinese, this is a part of a long-term gambit to broaden their geopolitical influence and economic might. They see it as a means to influence—both via friendly and, if necessary, more coercive means—other nations to align with their views and support their very ambitious international agendas for Chinese trade, political expansionism and economic dominance.
The BRI will be one of the main means by which China attempts to supplant the U.S. dollar and other major international currencies with the Yuan as the primary currency of global trade.
Sites of planned infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. Nature Sustainability
Can you further describe its effects on climate change?
In terms of climate change, one of the biggest impacts will be all the habitat loss and degradation that will occur as a result of so much infrastructure—new roads and other projects that will open up vast new frontiers for land-clearing, logging, mining, fires, land speculation and other human pressures.
We know that forests and other native habitats store billions of tons of carbon in their biomass, and they also pump out great quantities of water vapor. This vegetation vapor promotes local precipitation, crucial for vegetation growth and limiting fires, and it creates much of the Earth's clouds, which in turn reflect a great deal of solar energy back into space, reducing global warming. And the BRI projects will be slashing across many of the most carbon-rich forests and ecosystems on Earth, especially in the vast tropical and subtropical regions across southern, central, and southeast Asia, the South Pacific and equatorial Africa.
The construction of the avalanche of projects themselves will be a major source of greenhouse gases. Enormous quantities of concrete, metal, minerals and other raw materials will be consumed for project construction. Concrete is one of the most energy and carbon-expensive products that humans create. The lime in concrete, for example, has to be baked at high temperatures, which is very energy consuming.
The BRI projects are so massive that people are even worrying about them consuming enormous quantities of sand—mostly for concrete—which will have major impacts on coastal and river systems. This is the first time I've ever heard people worrying about sand, per se—and it is an indication of just what a massive venture this will be.
Deforestation in Thailand's Chiang Mai Province, 2013. Takeaway
How does this project square with China's climate goals?
In the utter climate-policy vacuum created by the Trump administration, China is stepping up belatedly to take some leadership on climate. But remember how much China's emissions have grown—they've completely blown past the United States, historically the biggest emitter—and now produce more than twice as much greenhouse-gas emissions than the United States.
And that's only considering China's domestic carbon footprint. If you also consider everything China is doing or promoting overseas in terms of extractive industries and large-scale infrastructure, they utterly overwhelm any other nation as climate changers.
In real terms—digging through a great deal of greenwashing—I don't see anything in the BRI that squares with China's stated climate goals. They certainly won't take any blame for the emissions being produced by their activities in other nations—even if it will be their hand on the axe and cement mixer.
What will it mean for biodiversity?
The World Wildlife Fund, in an extremely conservative analysis that only considers the backbone BRI projects, estimates that it will directly impact 265 threatened species, including endangered Saiga antelopes, tigers, giant pandas, gorillas and orangutans.
The major BRI corridors, ignoring all their side-projects, will cut through or broadly overlap with 1,739 Important Bird Areas or Key Biodiversity Areas, as well as 46 biodiversity hotspots or Global 200 Ecoregions.
To a biologist, this is a staggering list—essentially the biologically richest real-estate on the planet. There are way too many notable places to list, but to mention just a few—there are the endangered Central Spine forests of peninsular Malaysia, the enormously rich forests of Myanmar, the species-rich ecosystems of the Himalayas, the vanishing rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and the megafauna of the greater Congo Basin. And that's just making a tiny scratch in the surface.
Dongying in China's Shandong Province was the site of a major afforestation effort from 2011 to 2016. The World Bank
You also say that China's doing a better job environmentally on its own turf than outside its borders. Please elaborate.
China deserves credit for implementing the largest afforestation program in human history, replanting denuded lands with exotic, not-native tree species, and they've put on hold plans to build another 150 coal-fired generating plants, because they already have an excess of domestic energy production.
China is a world-leader in technologies around solar energy, batteries and wind energy, and it has invested hugely in science generally. Their growth as a scientific superpower is nothing short of amazing.
China is also making a few high-profile efforts to conserve wildlife, such as expanding the panda reserves in southwest China and outlawing its huge domestic trade of ivory—although China still has a great deal of blood on its hands from the trade of ivory, not to mention its massive consumption of Pangolins, shark fins, jaguar teeth, tiger pelts and body parts, wild birds and myriad other wildlife products.
This interview was conducted by Marlene Cimons, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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