Monday 30th of March, the IIGF Green BRI Center in collaboration with Oxford University Silk Road Society Think Tank presented their work on the policy report “ The Central Asian Way : social and environmental sustainability in the BRI”.

The policy report, launched on Wednesday 31st of March, aimed to identify ways for BRI’ stakeholders to turn risks into opportunities for social and environmental sustainability in Central Asia. With case studies that emphasize the importance of local and regional context in addressing possible risks and opportunities of BRI investment, the report speaks of the importance of transparent coordination intra-regionally and with Chinese investors.

Hosted by Ben Hales, a graduate from Oxford, the meeting begun with the foreword of IIGF Green BRI Center director Dr.Christoph Nedopil Wang.  He underlined the necessity of assessing the impact of investment on the BRI in Central Asia, as the region is triggering several issues of environmental and social concern. Developing tools and recommendations to “do it right” is fundamental to the development of the BRI in the region.

The meeting then proceeded with the presentation of the authors’ findings and their policy recommendations to mitigate the effect of the BRI, with highlights on possible opportunities for a greener development:

  • Julia Irvin presented the diversification of renewable energy in Kazakhstan. The country’s energy grid is old and inefficient, with limited funding for maintenance. However, there are several areas with solar and wind energy potential, representing opportunities for green investment on the BRI. The author strongly advises against hydroelectric power plants considering their political and environmental impact. She recommends that:
    • Greater competition with European firms is needed for funding future solar/wind projects;
    • Solar projects should focus on the south and use parabolic trough high-temperature solar thermal collectors that can be sourced domestically;
    • The next stage of wind projects should focus on Djungar.
  • Minna Ots talked about biodiversity, and the conservation capacity of Kyrgyzstan and China. Some stakeholder groups contest the exploitation of gold mines, as the use of cyanide and chemical product waste threatens several biodiversity hotspot and global ecoregions. The author therefore points out the need to:
    • Develop research and education through BRI scholarships and cooperation with international experts;
    • Enhance finance to boost Kyrgyzstan’s budget as a donor and develop debt-for-nature-swap as Kyrgyzstan’s main lender is China and restructuring part of the debt could help biodiversity conservation actions;
    • Develop protected areas with transboundary conservation and protected area networks with wildlife corridors.
  • Jody Bragger presented on issues regarding wildlife trade on the BRI. The BRI traverse critical snow leopard habitat, causing severe fragmentation and illegal trade, supplying the increasing demand. He talked about the ways to prevents the illegal trade of snow leopards, using the case study of Afghanistan’s wildlife markets during the NATO mission:
    • By helping build a policy network for wildlife conservation success between BRI countries. Suppress the demand for wildlife goods through training of migrant labour and those policing borders ;
    • By building public consensus around the conservation of cultural attractions and snow leopards to generate sustainable forms of income. Encourage ecotourism to allow for payment for ecosystem services, targeting BRI workers as a quick and reliable tourism market.
  • Finbar Kneen talked about corruption issues in countries in Central Asia, noting that governments themselves can sometimes be incentivised to encourage corruption. He  recommends to :
    • Apply cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology, and smart contracting to help limit corruption;
    • Support a  green, sustainable and socially responsible BRI as it goes hand in hand with reducing the impact of corruption, often associated with polluting investments.
  • Clare Blackwell presented the threat of social protest for BRI investment. Protest represents a threat for investors, as a standstill in construction or production poses often costs millions of dollars per week. These protests are often fueled by political and social motivators, such as the disconnection between policies and local needs. Health and safety motivators are others issues that investor need to considers in their overseas project. She therefore recommended ways to prevent the risks of protests:                                        
    • BRI investors should take note of the historical tensions and cultural and political contexts within which they work, prior to their investments;
    • Engage local stakeholders through sharing of project plans before implementation;
    • Conduct and enforce environmental and social impact assessments to protect investment and prevent future risk of backlash.

Overall, the authors recommend that it will take coordination from all stakeholders to ensure the progress of the Green BRI. They advise on the development of policies in the areas of environmental governance, training, technology and financing. It will then be possible for the weaknesses in Central Asia governance to turn into strengths through BRI investments.

The ensuing Q&A session allowed participants of the seminar to provide comments and ask questions. Participants discussed the importance of the role of the private sector. Their commitment to mitigate the impact of their investments on the BRI is urgently needed. Plus, private stakeholders also have to develop their investments in positive actions for the sustainable development of the BRI.

Isabel Hilton, founder and senior advisor of China Dialogue, underlined that tools to improve the BRI and studies such as this report should get the reach and audience necessary for taking concrete actions.

Christoph Nedopil closed the meeting with concluding remarks.

“For the BRI, we have to think bigger than what we are currently doing”.

said Dr. Nedopil Wang

He pointed out that if the report provided policy recommendations that covered many issues of the BRI in Central Asia, there are still difficulties to consider, notably on how to better support Chinese companies abroad to reduce environmental impacts and improve livelihoods. He highlighted the relevance for companies to take responsibility to support the balance between “the role of local government capacity and the responsibility of enterprises”.

Download the report “ The Central Asian Way : social and environmental sustainability in the BRI” here.

The report is published by the Oxford University Silk Road Society Think Tank with the support of the IIGF Green Belt and Road Initiative Center. ‘The Central Asia Way’ policy report analyses the social and environmental impacts, risks, and opportunities for regional partners and China as BRI projects continue to expand into Central Asia. This report maps out the intersection of BRI with Central Asia’s development path, and argues that an opportunity is open to explore innovative responses to the challenges of green governance.

The Oxford University Silk Road Society was established in 2017 by enterprising students keen to explore, research and discuss the countries, cultures, and peoples of the Silk Roads, both modern and historical. Through case studies or holistic reports, the think tank strive to produce rigorous, detailed analysis on the ongoing efforts to improve sustainability in the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and make their own policy recommendations – to governments and private enterprise alike.

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Aurélie Chane-Yook was a researcher at the Green BRI Center at IIGF.

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