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    New Report Calls for Greener Belt and Road Projects Overseas

    China currently lacks a compulsory environmental risk control standard for approving infrastructure projects abroad.

    A China-led international environmental coalition has proposed a “project classification system” for the country’s overseas investments under its flagship Belt and Road initiative (BRI), following opposition to coal-fired power plants it funds abroad.

    In a report published Tuesday, the BRI International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC) suggested grading investments as green, yellow, or red based on their environmental impact. The report was co-authored by domestic and foreign researchers from BRIGC, the U.S.-based World Resources Institute, and other organizations.

    “The guiding document provides a thorough framework for evaluating projects based on international practices,” Christoph Nedopil Wang, a co-author of the report and the founding director of the Green Belt and Road Initiative Center, told Sixth Tone. “This is another important piece of the puzzle for a greener BRI, allowing us to have a clearer understanding of projects with regard to their (potential) environmental harm.”

    First announced in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative aims to boost infrastructure development in partner countries, as well as connect China with Europe and Central Asia via road and rail. The plan — also referred to as One Belt, One Road — now involves trillions of investment dollars in over 100 partner countries, mostly in the energy, mining, and transportation sectors.

    China has invested more resources in wind and solar projects in BRI countries, but it also maintains a high rate of investment in overseas coal plants. At the end of 2018, some 777 power plants outside China were receiving Chinese investment. Researchers have found that the vast majority of that investment is in coal (24.5 GW), gas (20.5 GW), and hydropower (18.1 GW), with relatively little in wind (7.2 GW) and solar (3.1 GW).

    According to the new report, China’s approval process for overseas projects currently lacks an environmental risk control protocol. The report urges the Chinese authorities to reward green projects with better financial support and strengthen oversight of red projects.

    “Green energy like solar and wind has been cheaper than coal plants, so if investors invest in coal-fired power plants, it will not be profitable,” Nedopil Wang said.

    Last year, a court in Kenya suspended a China-backed coal plant, citing inadequate efforts to solicit public opinion and conduct an environmental impact assessment.

    However, some experts say China’s top authorities — including the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, National Development and Reform Commission, and People’s Bank of China — must take the lead in issuing concrete guidelines for greener BRI investments.

    “The study is not so useful for the bank, as it may not follow the recommendation,” Dimitri de Boer, chief representative of environmental charity ClientEarth’s China office, told Sixth Tone. “But if the government issues some formal guidance to these banks, then they will follow it. That’s what needs to happen next,” said de Boer, who also participated in Tuesday’s report.

    In October, China published a guideline aimed at combating climate change by boosting financing for green projects. Though this was a step in the right direction, it didn’t go far enough, according to de Boer, who said more communication and transparency are needed from the Chinese government and domestic financial institutions regarding overseas projects.

    “It’s very important for Chinese organizations to build that kind of trust. This is what really matters,” he said.

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: People Visual)