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Experts See Environmental Risk from China’s Small Island BRI Efforts 

FILE - Tourists sit on a boat in English Harbour, Antigua and Barbuda, on Sept. 18, 2022.
FILE - Tourists sit on a boat in English Harbour, Antigua and Barbuda, on Sept. 18, 2022.

Investments under China’s Belt and Road Initiative can pose environmental risks to small island nations already vulnerable to harm from climate change, an expert told VOA in late November.

Despite contributing less to human-caused climate change, the islands are often at the front lines of the some of the most severe impacts: Tuvalu plans to build a digital version of itself as it is sinking; economic damage from tropical cyclones in Caribbean developing island nations have seen a “dramatic increase,” according to a 2022 study; Jamaica’s farmers are suffering from droughts, floods and pests.

Small island states called for China to pay into a climate loss and damage fund for developing countries at the COP27 United Nations climate summit this month, although China said it would not do so.

Large-scale infrastructure projects on such islands, common under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, increase risks to the environment, according to Kalim Shah, assistant professor at the University of Delaware specializing in governance in small island states.

Island nations “are very heavily natural resource-bound,” he told VOA by video call November 21.

“There’s very little room for mistakes on these large projects, if you want to avert irreversible environmental impacts,” he said.

As of the end of last year, China’s investment in Pacific Island nations reached $2.72 billion, an official statement said. Its BRI partners in the region include the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu.

A University of Hawaii at Manoa study found that a majority of the BRI projects in the Oceanic islands are infrastructure, including roads, bridges and highways, and mainly aimed at boosting tourism, particularly Chinese tourism. Other projects include power plants, mines, schools and other technology centers.

In the Caribbean, China has invested over $10 billion in Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba and the Bahamas from 2005 to 2022, focused on tourism, transportation, agriculture and energy, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker.

Environmental controversies

However, a few of these projects have come under scrutiny for poor environmental standards. In 2019, Papua New Guinea ordered a Chinese-owned nickel processing plant to close, claiming the company, Metallurgical Corporation of China, had breached the country’s environment safety laws. This came after the plant had a nickel spill that is believed to have contaminated the Basamuk Bay.

Despite environmental concerns over removing mangroves that can shield the north Antigua and Barbuda from natural disasters, the construction of beaches and two hotels by Chinese company YIDA International went ahead, according to local media.

Projects like these “might be tempting economically, but eventually it is going to be a huge potential for negative environmental impacts,” said Shah.

China’s BRI projects around the world are on track to create carbon emissions that would raise world temperatures by more than 2 degrees if no decarbonization efforts are made, Decarbonizing the Belt and Road, A Green Finance Roadmap, a 2019 report, said. BRI environmental implications have prompted the United Nations to form the Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition to boost green investment and encourage knowledge exchange on green development of the BRI.

Green BRI

In 2017, China published guidance on promoting a green BRI, which included urging companies to adhere to international environmental standards. Last year, China said it had launched an initiative for a Belt and Road partnership on green development with more than 30 countries, including small island states like Fiji, Maldives and Solomon Islands. China has also set up multiple climate information centers in its BRI partner countries.

Scrutiny on the move to shift BRI projects to low carbon emissions will be inevitable, according to James Ellsmoor, CEO of social enterprise and digital agency Island Innovation.

“I think that [scrutiny] was inevitable that with such a huge amount of money being invested in global infrastructure, that carbon emissions were going to be held to some level of scrutiny,” Ellsemoor told VOA by phone.

A 2020 report by researchers from China’s Fuzhou University and Zhejiang University said that the BRI “has not yet placed sufficient focus on climate change adaptation or issues specific to small islands.”

Ellsmoor added, “There will need to be some level of accountability out there to make sure that mitigation is incorporated on some level into these infrastructure projects. I’d like to see more climate change adaptation projects to funded as part of BRI because they are critical for small island nations.”

A separate 2020 article in the journal Environmental Policy and Governance said that the green BRI structure relies mainly on voluntary self-governance and initiatives. The researchers say that while the effectiveness of BRI’s environmental governance needs China’s commitments, BRI countries’ willingness and capacity to enforce environmental laws and regulations is also important.

Small island states have only started to develop their own environmental legislation over the last decade, Shah said.

“[Infrastructure] projects very easily passed environmental impact assessments… because these systems are not fully developed. You would be very hard pressed to find cases that go to the highest domestic courts [in small island nations] on compliance or noncompliance with environmental regulations. There’s very little precedence that has been developed.”

Shah added that both China and small island nations are equally responsible for the environmental impacts of the BRI projects in such states.

*Published with support of Climate Tracker’s COP27 Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship.