Environmental risks vary both among and within different economic corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s initiative to strengthen regional cooperation through infrastructure and investment.

Identifying the most environmentally sensitive areas during the planning of transport routes can help avoid environmental damage while availing of economic benefits that come from the improved infrastructure. This blog, based on a new working paper, provides a simple framework and illustrations of how one environmental risk from the overland (“belt”) part of the BRI might be assessed.

A cursory evaluation of the distribution of forest cover change within these corridors has provided a preliminary indication of areas most vulnerable to one of the most consequential environmental risks: deforestation. Because satellite data of forest cover are not that difficult to obtain, forest cover loss (deforestation) is commonly used as a proxy for a range of environmental impacts on biodiversity, carbon storage, water provision and other eco-services.

Photo: BRI Transport Projects & Forest cover, loss and gain.

Map 1, created by Andrew Jacobson, shows the forest cover in the BRI Geographic realm.

There are six main economic corridors of the belt component of the BRI (Map 2). Putting Maps 1 and 2 together indicates that deforestation risks are especially high in Southeast Asia. Looking more closely would reveal vulnerable areas along the other corridors as well.

Six Main Economic Corridors
Photo: The BRI´s Six Main Economic Corridors

The Different Landscape Settings

To assess deforestation risks along the BRI economic corridors, there are at least three landscape settings, which should be distinguished by their levels of prior development and prior forest loss:

Landscape Setting 1: High deforestation and high prior economic development. In the most economically developed and often deforested regions, the little natural forest remains to be cleared. Hence, minimal forest impact is expected from BRI transport projects within these areas. It is even possible that lowered transport costs could lead to rural transformations that result in reforestation, such as through tree plantations.

Landscape Setting 2: Medium deforestation and medium prior development. In areas that have experienced intermediate levels of economic development and deforestation over the last 15 years, significant forest loss may be expected from BRI projects near existing forests.

Landscape Setting 3: Low deforestation and low prior economic development. Where there has been little economic development and little prior deforestation, the immediate effects of BRI transport projects may be relatively small. These areas generally lack the conditions for rapid economic development, so short-term effects on forest cover may be minor. However, there is an enormous risk and uncertainty concerning the long-term impacts. Should the projects trigger migration and complementary investments, forest clearing could become rampant over time.

Risk of deforestation across landscape settings
Photo: Risk of deforestation across landscape settings

Where to Worry, What to Do 

As described in Table 1, A new road or rail access to frontier forests with “medium” prior development typically leads to the greatest absolute deforestation and eco-service losses, at least in the short term. These forests are close to infrastructure yet not clear, and conditions are ripe for expansion of economic activities. The BRI high-speed rail project that traverses Laos (see photo) is a good example of these conditions and has been flagged for potentially serious environmental impacts.

By comparison, transport access to “intact frontier landscapes” (large, undeveloped wilderness frontiers) does not spark much immediate deforestation, yet can result in future deforestation depending on the dynamics triggered by transport investment. Complementary mitigation policies to avoid losses, such as protected areas that flank roads or rail, may reduce long-term forest losses. Finally, new transport investments connecting major cities through cleared lands—that is, areas with “high” prior development—can pose little deforestation risk, and such investments might have the highest economic benefits.

 Road/rail location trade-offs
Photo: Road/Rail location trade-offs

Heterogeneous environmental and economic impacts within and across BRI economic corridors makes it clear that it matters greatly where new roads and railways are built. Location determines whether a project has positive or negative net benefits, as shown in Figure 1. Integrated planning during the early stages of BRI economic corridor development makes it more likely that these details are considered.