Who gets to be green on the BRI and on whose terms?

“Green development or green washing?” This is a question in the mind of many who watch China’s gradual build up of environmental policies and guidelines for the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI). 

Tyler Harlan, Assistant Professor of Urban and Environmental Studies at Loyola Marymount University,  took a hard look at the question in a paper published in July this year. His research takes a deep dive into the dynamic process of contestation over what exactly “green” means in the context of the Belt and Road and points out that politics and power is never far from the surface in this process. Tyler’s research provides a lens onto the BRI which embraces the shifting definitions and concepts which can sometimes have just as much power to shape the flows of capital as do top-down government policies. As he notes in this interview, the process of discourse being interpreted into action and in turn feeding back into discourse is at the heart of how the Belt and Road and its purported “greenness” is being realised.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (PPDC): In your paper you talked about how the term “green” in “Green Belt and Road” is something which is open to a process of definition. Can you tell us a bit more about the ongoing competition over the definition of the term? To what extent is what we are seeing along the Belt and Road genuine green development or more akin to greenwashing?

Tyler Harlan (TH): The first thing to note here is that the exact meaning of the term “green” is by no means set in stone. It’s up for debate and malleable, like a number of other terms we commonly use in the development space such as “sustainable” and even “development” itself. 

In this sense it can be very easily infused with politics, by which I mean both the act of discourse over BRI at the highest level government — a signal that China is a global environmental player and staking a claim on emerging green industries — and also in terms of micro level politics, such as officials and interest groups mobilising the term “green” toward their own ends. We see this pretty often when it comes to casting a project as green to gain support from local communities, recipient governments, financiers and so on. Those interest groups can range from project developers to Chinese provincial governments to host country governments and project stakeholders.

Looking at the big picture of the Belt and Road, the term “green” seems to be used in two main and very different ways. Firstly, in investing in new and carbon reducing technologies, such as urban transport and renewable energy. Secondly, in terms of mitigating the environmental impacts of infrastructure development, including traditional industrial projects such as coal power plants and mines. The latter focuses on standards and regulations designed to minimise environmental impact, and this leaves open the door for greenwashing as such standards may exist on paper but are not always adequately enforced. That distinction doesn’t always come out in the discussion on green and sustainable development. And I think it is important to highlight as they are very different things leading down very different development pathways.

Hydropower is a particularly interesting form of traditional infrastructure in this regard. It can be included in a country’s Paris Agreement commitments as a way to reduce emissions, a signal on the global level that hydro can be considered “green”. This overlooks, however, the issue of methane emissions from large reservoirs and the differing scale of impacts between large scale and small scale hydro dams, the latter of which often don’t even have reservoirs. So much is open to interpretation, by different groups coming from different perspectives. Having said that, I don’t think Chinese hydro companies going overseas genuinely believe that hydro is fully green and sustainable – the impacts are just too large to ignore. So there is certainly a willful framing of the projects as aligned with the movement to green Belt and Road.

PPDC: In your paper you note that these two very different types of “green” investments are also starkly divided geographically.

TH: That’s right. When you look at the investment data from American Enterprise Institute (AEI), it’s pretty clear that most investments into new, low carbon technologies are going into higher income countries, while investments into mitigated traditional projects are going into lower income countries.

In higher income countries the opportunities available for Chinese capital tend to be in those industries where China has a strategic advantage such as wind, solar, and urban transport. On the other hand, there are a lot of barriers to Chinese capital investing in green and low carbon infrastructure in low income countries, including financial and technical. [Ed: As this blog has previously discussed in regards to renewable energy infrastructure development] Also, until fairly recently there hasn’t been a huge amount of interest in renewable projects in southeast Asia compared to traditional power infrastructure such as hydro and coal. That’s a clear political barrier, but the tide is starting to turn on this. The last year has seen movements toward renewables technologies in a number of key BRI countries, such as Vietnam, Pakistan, Ethiopia and elsewhere, so perhaps we are beginning to see a shift.

PPDC: With “green” such a malleable, contested and, arguably, abused term, have we seen meaningful attempts by Beijing to pin down the definition?

TH: Firstly, I think it is important to note that, with the possible exception of the green finance area, terms such as “green” and “sustainable development” have not really been clarified anywhere. What is happening around these definitions in regards to the Belt and Road is not necessarily unique In any political context, definitions of terms such as these are normally settled on precisely because they are negotiable and compromisable. 

That being said, I don’t think there have been attempts to further clarify what green means since the MEE released its “guidance” for a green BRI in 2017. That document provides not so much a clarification of green as a broad description of what “green” means in various different categories, including everything from renewable energy development to green cooperation mechanisms. 

In the financial space we see a bit more clarity. For example green bond guidelines are targeted at developing new and low carbon infrastructure, while green credit guidelines are directed at environmental regulations around any kind of project, including coal power, mines, roads and so on. But, although focusing on very different approaches to “green” infrastructure, both of these are included under the program of so called “green BRI”, and I don’t really expect to see any further clarifications or alterations on this front. 

PPDC: Your paper also talked about “green cooperation programs” along the BRI. What are these projects and do they hold seeds of potential change in the nature of BRI as a whole?

TH: The green cooperation schemes are all pretty small in scale and could be best categorised as overseas development assistance, but they have been highlighted in the green BRI guidelines as well as at the last Belt and Road Forum in 2019 as positive examples of environmentally sustainable, low carbon projects. The China-ASEAN Cooperation Center and the Lancang-Mekong Environmental Cooperation Center, the two programs I am most familiar with, are both operated out of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) — in fact they share the same office building. They operate a range of projects focusing on training and small scale capacity building in areas such as water and forestry management. 

A training session on climate change and green development for representatives from the Global South, organized by the MEE in 2019

I see potential for these programs. There’s certainly a lot that China can share about environmental protection. However, they tend to be somewhat removed from the broader concerns about greening the BRI. They often work on protection of specific ecologically fragile regions and focus on targeted capacity buildings, often linking their work to poverty alleviation, but don’t touch on the larger environmental impacts being caused by massive infrastructure development. That’s not to criticise their work, but the scale and scope at which they are working should be kept in mind when assessing their potential. 

For my PhD thesis research I attended a number of Belt and Road capacity building training sessions in the small scale hydro sector in China. One thing that was interesting was that the training, alongside offering genuine capacity building, were also being used to foster business ties and the realisation of actual projects, not all of which were small scale hydro, it should be noted. 

PPDC: Zooming out from the green discourse, in a co-authored article published in Political Geography in May, you talk about how the BRI should be understood as a “dynamic and unstable process”, a process of construction by many different actors. How does this approach to the initiative shape your understanding of the BRI and how do you think it could be useful to others in the space?

TH: The main point here is that BRI is not simply a policy pronouncement from Beijing. For example, the very geography of the Belt and Road is extremely dynamic, to the point where the original “maritime silk road” and overland “belt” don’t really make sense as concepts anymore, now that African and Latin American countries are included. What does and doesn’t count as a Belt and Road project is also something up for negotiation. For many years we’ve seen companies adopting the Belt and Road language whether or not it has any connection to BRI policy. These companies adopt that language to their own purposes and in doing so actually shape the way the BRI is implemented on the ground and understood by those who encounter BRI on the ground. That in turn may well feedback to Chinese government activity, including local and up to central government. In this sense, the term Belt and Road is unstable and constantly shifting in its form and meaning. 

My colleagues and I also used the term “relational” to highlight that there is this back and forth between players on the ground and their actions and the top level of government. At the same time there is plenty of framing from host countries around what BRI should be in their jurisdictions.

So it is important to look beyond central government policies to how things are being implemented on the ground and how that implementation in turn filters back up to the top and re-shapes policies, as well as tracing the BRI discourse among multiple actors and various levels of government. 

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