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The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) represents the largest infrastructure and development project in human history, and presents risks and opportunities for ecosystems, economies, and communities. Some risks (habitat fragmentation, roadkill) are obvious, however, many of the BRI’s largest challenges for development and conservation are not obvious and require extensive consideration to identify. In this first BRI Horizon Scan, we identify 11 frontier issues that may have large environmental and social impacts but are not yet recognised. More generally, the BRI will increase China’s participation in international environmental governance. Thus, new cooperative modes of governance are needed to balance geopolitical, societal, and environmental interests. Upgrading and standardising global environmental standards is essential to safeguard ecological systems and human societies.
Horizon Scan of the Belt and Road Initiative
Alice C. Hughes,
*Alex M. Lechner,
Alexander Chitov,
Alexander Horstmann,
Amy Hinsley,
Angela Tritto,
Anthony Chariton,
Binbin V. Li,
Deln Ganapin,
Eugene Simonov,
Katherine Morton,
Kemel Toktomushev,
Marc Foggin,
May Tan-Mullins,
Michael C. Orr,
Richard Grifths,
Richard Nash,
Scott Perkin,
Raphaël Glémet,
Minsun Kim,
Douglas W. Yu
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) represents the largest infrastructure and devel-
opment project in human history, and presents risks and opportunities for
ecosystems, economies, and communities. Some risks (habitat fragmentation,
roadkill) are obvious, however, many of the BRIs largest challenges for develop-
ment and conservation are not obvious and require extensive consideration to
identify. In this rst BRI Horizon Scan, we identify 11 frontier issues that may
have large environmental and social impacts but are not yet recognised. More
generally, the BRI will increase Chinas participation in international environmen-
tal governance. Thus, new cooperative modes of governance are needed to
balance geopolitical, societal, and environmental interests. Upgrading and
standardising global environmental standards is essential to safeguard ecologi-
cal systems and human societies.
Challenges of the BRI
The BRI is the largest and most ambitious global infrastructure initiative ever planned. Spanning
65 countries in its initial phase (with global expansion progressing) and with ve components
(policy coordination, transport connectivity, trade facilitation, currency convertibility, and
people-to-people exchanges; Box 1), the BRI presents a suite of both well-known and novel
challenges and opportunities to natural and social systems. To date, most of the research has
focused on the potential impacts of the transport connectivity component, which involves the
building of roads, railways, and pipelines (the Belt), seaports along maritime shipping routes
(the Road), and special economic zones along these new transport links; and which can be
subdivided into direct impacts (in the vicinity of construction, i.e., habitat loss and fragmentation,
roadkill, and disruption of migratory routes) [1,2], indirect impacts (e.g., supportive infrastructure,
pollution), and displaced impacts (e.g., raw material extraction, climate change). However, a
more holistic approach is needed to identify less obvious but potentially equally important impacts
of a project of this scale and complexity; and few prior studies have included the interdisciplinary
teams needed to assay the consequences of the intersection of social, economic, and
environmental issues, and how associated risks may be appropriately managed (see
Outstanding Questions).
Some media reports
have taken alarmist perspectives on the potential risks posed by the BRI [3],
while other sources highlight its potential to act as a catalyst for green infrastructure development
while enhancing human welfare and environmental health. Either way, careful and well-reasoned
analysis and debate are needed to generate solutions to potential problems, to avoid or mitigate
negative impacts, and to maximise emerging opportunities. Here, we look to the future to identify
frontier horizon issuesthat may have large impacts within a few years but are not yet generally
known to policymakers or academics, and provide suggestions for solutions and approaches
to mitigate them.
We present 11 frontier issues identied in
the rst BRI Horizon Scan.
Issues were submitted by 14 re-
searchers after consulting approximately
250 people in their networks, and scor-
ing, based on impact and novelty, was
conducted using the Delphi process.
Frontier issues include: threats to karst-
based ecosystems via extraction for ce-
ment, BRI expansion to the Arctic, and
the impacts of geopolitical rivalry on envi-
ronmental and social standards and on
building in conict zones.
Other issues include: the potential
spread of microbial species, the growth
of TCM in BRI countries, and opportuni-
ties arising from more inclusive gover-
nance and partnership with local and
indigenous communities.
We highlight the challenges faced in
building the Belt and Road, and the com-
promises that may be made between
sustainability and developmental goals.
Center for Integrative Conservation,
Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical
Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences,
Mengla, Yunnan 666303, China
Center of Conservation Biology, Core
Botanical Gardens, Chinese Academy of
Sciences, Mengla, Yunnan 666303,
University of Chinese Academy of
Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
School of Environmental and
Geographical Sciences, University of
Nottingham Malaysia, 43500 Semenyih,
Faculty of Law, University of Chiang
Mai, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
School of Humanities, Tallinn University,
10120 Tallinn, Estonia
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Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Trends in Ecology & Evolution
TREE 2659 No. of Pages 11
Frontier Issues Identication
An interdisciplinary group of researchers was assembled to identify frontier horizonenviron-
mental and social issues for the BRI using a modied Delphi method (see the supplemental
information online for methods [73]). One hundred issues were initially submitted, then revised
to 63 issues for voting. After voting, 33 issues (19 environmental and 14 social) were retained
for in-depth discussion and onsite voting (Table S1 in the supplemental information online).
Of these, 11 issues were retained, being considered likely to have major impacts within the
next few years but not yet well known to policymakers or academics. These nal-list issues
are approximately half social and half environmental, though most have implications for both.
The top 11 issues were scored similarly by (self-identied) natural and social scientists,
whereas lower ranked issues were more variable. Seven other issues were deemed high im-
pact but insufciently novel, with the natural scientists generally giving these six lower scores
(see the supplemental information online). Two examples are (i) the prospect of Cryptic
PADDD(protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement) driven by BRI routes
fracturing existing reserves or displacing people into protected areas and (ii) the loss of distinct
native crop and livestock breeds/varieties, due to market pressures under globalising systems
that homogenise food systems. The 11 nal-list issues are presented next in descending order
of their combined scores.
WildCRU, Department of Zoology,
University of Oxford, OX1 3SZ, UK
Institute of Emerging Market Studies,
The Hong Kong University of Science and
Technology, Hong Kong, HK-SAR, China
Department of Biological Sciences,
Macquarie University, NSW, Australia
Environmental Research Center, Duke
Kunshan University, Kunshan, Jiangsu,
Nicholas School of the Environment,
Duke University, Durham, North, Carolina,
NC 27708, USA
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
International, 1196 Gland, Switzerland
Rivers without Boundaries International
Coalition, Dalian 116650, China
Daursky Biosphere Reserve, Nizhny
Tsasuchei, Zabaikalsky Province, Russia
School of East Asian Studies, University
of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TD, UK
Schwarzman College, Tsinghua
University, Beijing, China
Mountain Societies Research Institute,
University of Central Asia, Bishkek
720002, Kyrgyz R epubli c
Institute of Asian Research, School of
Public Policy and Global Affairs,
University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, BC, Canada
School of International Studies, Institute
of Asia and Pacific Studies, University of
Nottingham, Ningbo, China
Key Laboratory of Zoological
Systematics, Institute of Zoology,
Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing
100101, China
International Institute for Asian Studies,
2311, GJ, Leiden, The Netherlands
IUCN Asia Regional Office, Watthana,
Bangkok 10110, Thailand
State Key Laboratory of Genetic
Resources and Evolution, Kunming
Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of
Sciences, Kunming, Yun nan 650223,
Center for Excellence in Animal
Evolution and Genetics, Chinese
Academy of Sciences, Kunming, Yunnan
650223, China
School of Biological Sciences,
University of East Anglia, Norwich
Research Park, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, UK
(A.C. Hughes).
Box 1. What is the BRI?
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), formerly known as One Belt One Road (OBOR) or (which is short for: Silk Road
Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road) was ofcially launched in 2013 by Chinas President Xi Jinping as
the modern version of the historical Silk Road, which had for centuries facilitated trade and cultural exchange across Eurasia.
The BRI is primarily intended to increase trade and connectivity amongst China, Central and South Asia, the Middle East,
Europe, and Africa [64], though global expansion is underway. This will be achieved by advancing BRIsve main components:
policy coordination, transport connectivity, trade facilitation (i.e., more efcient border crossings), currency convertibility, and
people-to-people exchanges.
The BRIs initial geographic coverage encompassed 65 countries (including China) across mainland Eurasia, Africa,
and the Middle East, although the BRI brandhas since been applied globally to many other China-nanced projects.
Consequently, it is difcult to delimit the amount of China-sourced nance that will be spent on the BRI, but one estimate
is NUS$100 billion/year 20172027 [65]. To put this in perspective, the EuropeanBank for Reconstruction andDevelopment
estimates the 20182022 infrastructure spending needs of the 36 countries in its remit (largely overlapping with the BRI)
as NUS$320 billion/year, with two-thirds needed for transport connectivity [58]. While there is talk of integration between
the BRI and other regional infrastructural plans, concrete actions are incipient [Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN)China Joint Statement on Synergising the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025].
To full the strategic visions of the BRI, numerous projects aim to generate new high-resolution data and improve the ca-
pacity to plan and understand the impacts of the route. For example, the digital Silk Road(DBAR) has been developed
with an initial budget equivalent to US$32 million [66]. DBAR aims to provide high-quality remotely-sensed data to over-
come present data decits (the digital divide), to apply remotely sensed data as a tool for global targets and challenges,
such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to better inform sustainable development across BRI partner
countries [67]. DBAR also aims to enable scientic cooperation across BRI regions, thus an Alliance of International
Science Organisations of the BRI region has been established, including over 120 nations, in addition to regional alliances
The cultural component of BRI should not be overlooked and has already included over 10 000 scholarships, N240% in-
crease in tourist visits, and 374 training facilities for cultural activities (such as TCM) in BRI countries
Understanding the BRI and associated impacts and opportunities requiresconsideration of all components of the BRI
vision, including not only hard infrastructure but also social, environmental, economic, and technological change. Most
studies have focused on the impact of hard infrastructure to the ecosystems traversed by the BRI [1], which though
signicant are only a part of the environmental and ecological implications of the initiative. As highlighted previously,
BRI has the scope to have global impacts that are less obvious but simultaneously provide opportunities f or new forms
of governance.
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Frontier Issues
Groundwater Pumping Threatening the Viability of Freshwater Ecosystems
Rapid decline of natural river ecosystems was recognised as one of the most acute problems related
to the BRI as changing power and irrigation demands means damming of free-owing rivers across
many BRI regions. Yet surface-freshwater ecosystems (lakes, wetlands, rivers, and streams) are vul-
nerable not only to direct damming but also to loss of baseow supplyfrom groundwater reservoirs.
Baseow supply is essential to maintain continuity of water ow through dry periods and to supply the
cool, clean, oxygenated water that is required for the survival of aquatic food webs during warm sum-
mer months [4]. Long before groundwater storage levels have been substantially depleted, pumping
can reduce groundwater baseows into surface waters by enough to threaten the viability of aquatic
ecosystems [5]. High-resolution modelling now suggests that by 2050, under a business-as-usual
groundwater-pumping scenario, aquatic ecosystem viability will have been or will begin to be threat-
ened in 4279% of watersheds around the world [5]. Because many of these threatened aquatic eco-
systems are in regions traversed by the BRI, such as Central Asia (Figure 1A), groundwater pumping
rates will likely rise due to demand for infrastructure (e.g., concrete), mining, and agriculture. Severe
groundwater depletion can also cause water ows to reverse from surface to underground, resulting
in contamination by metals, nutrients, and pesticides in groundwater reserves, potentially restricting
future groundwater use and harming little-known subterranean biodiversity [6]. Identifying areas
most at risk (Figure 1) and avoiding development of areas already at risk of groundwater depletion
is a simple step to minimise the probability of groundwater depletion; whilst more holistic assess-
ments of alternative sources of power provision may provide less environmentally harmful outcomes
for ecosystems and societies along the route.
Invisible Invasives: Incidental Spread of Fungi, Bacteria, and Viruses
Though the risk of invasive plant and animal species along new transport routes is well
acknowledged, the risk posed by smaller invaders is frequently overlooked [7]. Microorganisms
are omnipresent and important for ecosystem services, such as decomposition, and the vast
majority are unknown, with b1% of expected species described for bacteria and fungi [8]. For
example, a study in Thailand found that 96% of inventoried fungi were undescribed, with their
invasive potentials unknown along the core BRI route [9]. Although few microbial species are di-
rectly pathogenic to humans, they are important [10], and plant-pathogenic microbes may endan-
ger food security across highly-populated developing countries across the BRI [8]. Increased trafc
of people and livestock along BRI routes also increases the risk of spread of diseases. Epidemics in
amphibians [11], bats [12], and saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica)[13] originated in Eurasia and dem-
onstrate the potential impact of disease on species and populations. Local microbial communities
might also be exposed to competitive displacement, with unknown effects on soil functioning and
the possibility of increased pathogenicity, since greater prevalence raises the probability of
resistance development [14]. With enhanced connectivity between regions facilitated by BRI,
biosecurity screenings and more stringent waste-disposal standards will become progressively
more vital to prevent the potential spread of disease to naïve populations.
Cementing Extinction
Sand mining is a known biodiversity threat [15], but the impact of cement production on limestone
ecosystems is often overlooked. About 20% of terrestrial ecosystems are limestone-based karsts
[16]; in Southeast Asia, this equates to approximately 800 000 km
. A single karst formation can
host over 12 known site-endemic species, and it is estimated that 90% of karst cave invertebrate
species are still undescribed [17]. In Southeast Asia, these ecosystems lose about 6% of their
area annually, largely for cement extraction. As a reference measure of cement demand, China
itself accounts for around 63% of annual global cement consumption, at an equivalent of around
1.7 tonnes for each of its 1.34 billion people [18]. Many regions across the BRI preferentially use
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gyEcology &
(See gure legend at the bottom of the next page.)
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cement in road construction, given lower costs and higher durability, which will likely cause a sig-
nicant increase in the mining of karsts for limestone [1]. Consequently, these irreplaceable karst
ecosystems may be some of the most threatened by BRI despite many being distant from BRI
routes, and careful sourcing policies (or the use of alternatives to traditional cement, such as
polymers) will be needed to minimise the impacts of increased cement demand.
Polar/Arctic Silk Road
The thawing Arctic ice cap is enabling marine trafc and increasing extraction pressures for natural
gas, oil, sh, and minerals, creating the so-called Polar/Arctic Silk Road.In 2017, liqueed natural
gas (LNG) icebreaking tankers with cargo capacities of 172 600 m
started operation [19], since
then, over 20 million tonnes of LNG have already been shipped from Russias Yamal LNG plant.
The infrastructure for LNG plants has disrupted ecosystems [20] and impacted indigenous commu-
nities [21]. Increasing trafc in new shipping lanes risks marine mammal collisions and the pollution of
their habitats [22], and the reduction of Arctic sea ice has already been implicated in the transfer of
phocine distemper virus from Atlantic to Pacic marine mammals [23]. Melting ice and permafrost
also release diseases frozen for thousands of years, and measures need to be taken to ensure
the preservation of new long frozen specimens, their screening for potential infections, and to mon-
itor the release of mercury [24]. The precautionary approach has been widely endorsed [25] but can-
not survive this acceleration into new passageways and new trade opportunities[26]. Hence there
is a need for an overarching legal treaty to provide environmental governance in the Arctic, both to
maintain terrestrial and aquatic habitats and to provide adequate biosecurity measures.
Coastal Ecosystems under Threat
Coastal ecosystems tend to fall through the gap when considering terrestrial or marine systems,
yet they are under huge threat as the interface between the maritime and terrestrial components,
subject to increased shipping, new port development, and reclamation as well as pollution. The
EAAF (East AsianAustralasian Flyway, a bird migratory route) spans much of East and Southeast
Asias coastlines, but coastal reclamation and pollution, especially in key breeding grounds
around the Yellow Sea, have already driven the loss of over 70% of some species populations
for the estimated 50 million migratory birds that annually use this route [27]. The development
of ports and reclamation of further coastlines for the maritime component of the BRI could
prove disastrous for these species [28], especially given that around the Yellow Sea 61% of pri-
ority bird sites are unprotected and tidal ats have decreased in area by 65% since the 1950s.
Protected-area shrinkage has also been highest in coastal systems, at 55% loss, relative to
3% average for China [29], reecting the rapid loss and under protection of coastal systems.
Construction of industrial, agricultural, and aquaculture parks as well as new ports is impacting
the coastline via sedimentation, destruction of biota, and pollution [30]. New guidelines for the
sustainable management of these systems and the identication and preservation of key sites
are urgently needed to provide adequate protection for coast-dependent species.
BRI and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Supporting and Stimulating a Market in Wildlife
Promotion of TCM is a central component of BRI people-to-people exchangegoals. Formal agree-
ments have been signed between China and BRI countries on cooperation related to traditional
Figure 1. Spatial Overlaps between Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-Associated Roads (Light Purple) and Railways (Light Blue) in Eurasia and Africa.
(A) Groundwater supply projection for 2020 based on the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) of 2.5, Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP)2 at the Coupled
Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP)5 phase (as projections were almost complete for 2020). (B) Indigenous territories (scale is progress towards providing legal security
for indigenous groups) and state-protected areas. (C) Conict areas and level of conict. Some of these routes already exist but may be rebuilt, upgraded, resurfaced,
enlarged, or have new routes built to replace them. Routes continuous to those built as part of the BRI are expected to receive additional trafc from BRI-facilitated
trade (e.g., some of those in China, India, and the EU). Sources of data and gure construction are detailed in the supplemental information online.
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medicine [31], and TCM training centres are being established along BRI routes [32]. Active
TCM promotion, coupled with its inclusion in the World Health Organizations 2019 International
Classication of Diseases [33], will likely increase demand, use, and access to TCM products glob-
ally. Chinese overseas workers on BRI infrastructure projects might increase demand for threatened
wildlife locally and/or export wildlife products back to China. In addition, the BRIs increased connec-
tivity and access to previously unreachable wild places could facilitate the sourcing of wildlife-based
TCM ingredients from new areas, along with species for pets, ornamentation, and food [34], all of
which increase the risk of new zoonotic diseases arising and/or the transmission of those diseases
along the BRI. Existing international and national legal mechanisms are insufcient to prevent illegal
trade in endangered species between ChinaandthecountriesinvolvedintheBRI[35]. However, if
measures are put in place to develop sustainable supply chains, new markets for some TCM prod-
ucts could also support sustainable development and rural livelihoods [36], potentially supported by
Chinas newly announced supply chain tracking system to ensure ingredient quality and safety
Harmonizing International and National Environmental Standards in BRI Foreign Investment
Mismatches frequently exist between international and domestic legal, environmental, and social
standards (i.e., requirements of environmental or social impact assessments and monitoring as
conditions of nancing). This creates challenges in the setting of locally appropriate standards
and in the forms of investment that should be funded by BRI, even before considering enforce-
ment. The lowering of trade barriers could mean that jurisdictions with laxer environmental regu-
lations become attractive to polluting industries [37], or that competition for reducing costs forces
down international standards. High-level policy on BRI (i.e., greening the BRI [38]) as well as pol-
icies and regulations within China (i.e., ecological civilization) advocate for environmental and so-
cial protection, and green development. However, how these policies translate on the ground
remains unclear, particularly beyond Chinas borders. Little alignment in standards and safe-
guards from the International Finance Corporation, development banks, and Equator Principles
institutions with Chinese nancial institutions has occurred to date. However, China's multilateral
investment bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [39], has adopted environmental and
social safeguards resembling those of other development banks and committed to review them
every three years [40]. There is also the argument that engaging with multiple stakeholders can
help scrutinise contracts, ag bad deals, and empower countries to push for better terms,as
shown in the case of Myanmar, where a US task force facilitated renegotiation of the Kyaukphyu
special economic zone development to protect the human rights of people in the region
International actors are also pushing for the development of a project bank to improve screening
and transparency mechanisms for investment projects [41], suggesting that with the right
impetus, the BRI could propel a global rise in environmental and social standards.
Securing the Inclusive Governance and Management of Territories of Lifeand Recognising the
Role of Culturein Conservation of Biodiversity by Indigenous and Local Communities
Over a quarter of the worlds land, across 87 countries, falls under local collective governance,
overlapping 40% of terrestrial protected areas and numerous key biodiversity areas (KBAs) [42]
(Figure 1B). It is unlikely that any of the global goals of increasing protected area coverage
and management effectiveness can be achieved without including these Territories of Life
(territories/areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities) and their custodians
[43]. BRI projects transect numerous such territories, but the potential social and environmental im-
pacts are unquantied, and laws often provide insufcient protection (Figure 1B). Custodian commu-
nities should be included throughout all stages of planning and implementation to ensure cultural
continuity and sharing of benets, to enable wellbeing [44] and sustainable livelihoods, particularly
in pastoral communities [45]. Multifaceted values of territories and biodiversity require careful
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consideration, and the roles of culture and inclusive conservation within sustainable development
need recognition and inclusion [46]. BRI projects need action plans that protect the rights of
indigenous and local communities and ensure their full participation in environmental management
and other development dialogues relevant to those projects. Common values regarding all
socioecological systems affected by BRI need identication and inclusion [47]toenablemoreplural-
istic societies to develop and prosper together.
The Environmental Consequences of Geopolitical Rivalry over Infrastructure Financing
In response to the BRI, other G20 countries have proposed global and regional development ini-
tiatives, such as the EU Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia [48], the US International
Development Finance Corporation, and the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the
Pacic[49], which could accelerate investment in large physical infrastructure, potentially entailing
less-thorough analysis of alternative, sustainable development options. Such geopolitical rivalry
at the international level, combined with commercial competition for specic projects, could in
turn decrease the appetite of sponsors and nanciers for confronting corruption, scrutinising
governance weaknesses, and addressing environmental and social risks in host countries [50].
Competition with BRI projects might exacerbate debt-fed, large-scale, top-down megaproject
developments and perpetuate low-quality strategic development planning. For example, in
2019, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan announced a commitment to connect 70%
of Papua New Guineas population to a nationwide electrical grid, which was reported as an ex-
plicit counterbalance to China-nanced infrastructure projects in Papua New Guinea [51]. Such
competition could have consequences for the environment, as standards may be compromised
to compete, especially in time-limited projects. This project has been criticised for its failure to
take advantage of greener and cheaper local power generation options. Another example of
such rivalry is the funding of river damming projects by the World Bank, which stopped in 1997
following the World Commission on Dams report on the impact of large dam projects. But this de-
cision was reversed 20 years later due to funding by China and Brazil, despite their well-
recognised ecological consequences [52].
Alternatively, counter-BRIinitiatives could raise standards for more inclusive, environmentally
sustainable, and locally-driven development (i.e., the World Banks Environmental and Social
Framework, Japan and the Asian Development Banks Partnership for Quality Infrastructure)
[53], given that some of these new initiatives emphasise sustainability and high quality.
Regreening the Never Green: Anti-deserticationand Restorationin Natural Ecosystems
Across Central Asia along the route of the BRI, there are efforts to counter desertication through
large-scale planting of drought-resistant and deep-rooted species. However, some of these ef-
forts aim to convert native deserts and savannas into more economically productive systems.
For example, the conversion of one-third of the Kubuqi Desert (Inner Mongolia) to productive
landscapes, with plans for expansion across Central Asia. The Chinese company ELION
that biodiversity has increased in their projects, but third-party supporting evidence or
standardised inventory data do not seem to exist, which raises potential risks of reduced ecosys-
tem functioning and invasion by alien animal and plant species. For instance, tree-planting
campaigns have been used to combat erosion and climate change in other native ecosystems
(e.g., savannas [54]), but when composed of non-native species, they have reduced native bio-
diversity [55], lowered the water table [56], and actively damaged native biodiversity. Yet, these
schemes are still championed to combat climate changedespite often being less effective
than native functional ecosystems and at huge potential cost to biodiversity, as has been demon-
strated with the AFR100 scheme, which aims to afforest native grassy biomes across Africa [57].
These regreening initiativesare being actively explored by arid countries along the route of the
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BRI (Kubuqi Forum 2019
). A BRI-facilitated drive for afforestation as climate change mitigation
and antidesertication measures, based on monocultures and/or on non-native and water-
thirsty species, could reduce native biodiversity by changing the dynamics of natural systems,
especially if conducted with no inventory of native diversity. To minimise ecological risk, better
methods for inventorying native diversity are needed, in addition to policies that target systems
requiring restoration or rewilding, rather than modifying viable native ecosystems for commercial
Willingness to Build Infrastructure in Existing Conict Zones
At the international level, policy frameworks and codes of conduct for undertaking large-scale in-
frastructure projects in conict zones do not exist, and the standard response to conict has been
to restrict investment. Such frozen conictscan break connectivity and drive up inefciencies,
causing large diversion routes to bypass conict zones, as exemplied by the closure of borders
to Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which in turn has resulted in billions of dollars of compen-
satory road building to facilitate trade between Azerbaijan and Europe [58]. In the West, infra-
structure building in conict zones has been thought only to provide a barometer of the
likelihood of transition out of conict [59]. In contrast, since the conictinDarfur,Sudanin
2007, China has advocated economic development as a driver of peace and a primary means
of postconict reconstruction [60]. However, on the ChinaPakistan Economic Corridor (includ-
ing Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), the construction of roads and rails to link Xinjiang in China
with the Indian Ocean has required a large security force to ensure the safety of BRI projects
[61]. The KyaukpyuKunming railway and three new Special Economic Zones in Myanmar inter-
sect with conict zones that are currently occupied by independent army groups (Figure 1C). The
diversion of resources for security reduces the scope for carrying out environmental and social
impact assessments and addressing other critical issues, such as water conservation, wildlife
trafcking, and the modication of infrastructure to avoid environmentally and socially sensitive
areas. Infrastructure projects in such regions could also exacerbate existing social tensions and
environmental challenges. Navigating such challenges is difcult, and may require the develop-
ment of additional funding programs in areas where the cost of security reduces the budget avail-
able for carrying out standardised environmental assessment.
Many of the 100 issues in our initial list were considered high impact but not novel and thus were
not included in the nal list of 11 frontier issues (Table S1 in the supplemental information online).
However, to our knowledge, no holistic interdisciplinary evaluation of even the non-novel impacts
exists for any given geographic region. Although ecological analyses have been conducted [1,50],
analysing environmental impacts is challenging due to the lack of biodiversity data for many BRI
regions, and have largely ignored more complex topics or the interactions between environmental
and social issues.
The Role of China in Shaping Global Environmental Governance
Chinas BRI presents both risks and opportunities for economies, ecosystems, and human soci-
eties. In the current geopolitical climate, we are witnessing a build-up of competition that
threatens to undermine international cooperation. As the centre of global power shifts, conicting
strategic and economic concerns between China and other parts of the world will only become
more pronounced. Therefore, new modalities of global governance must seek to reconcile di-
verging national interests while mitigating friction between different groups of stakeholders, in
the pursuit of improved environmental and social standards. Above all, to ensure long-term
sustainability, social and environmental impact assessments need to be fully integrated into
BRI-mandated projects. In many of these issues, there is a clear trade-off between development
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and sustainability, and though some issues may be effectively managed through nancial policies,
which require environmental impact assessment with oversight, and may only require bilateral or
even just donor-based policy consideration, others, such as provisions to protect against fallout
from geopolitical rivalry, may require more global agreements, such as international conventions.
Issues, such as access to water, are likely to become more pronounced; thus, equitable modes
of governance need to be developed to ensure water access is not impacted by demand from
other countries.
In addition, some issues highlight the importance of the inclusion of diverse voices and the devel-
opment of processes that ensure their role from planning to development. There is also the need
to develop safeguards to protect cultural diversity and local varieties in formerly isolated areas.
Concluding Remarks: Looking to the Future
Many of the issues that we identied in our Horizon Scan, particularly: TCM supply chain
tracking, harmonisation of environmental standards, geopolitical rivalry, and building in con-
ict zones, suggest that China will need to increase its participation in the structures of
global environmental governance. Domestically, China has recently instituted a high-level
policy of achieving an ecological civilization, which includes, as one of its measures, the
denition and protection of ecological redlines, which are the minimal areas needed to
guarantee ecological functioning and biological diversity [62]. This is arguably the largest
ecosystem-service-protection policy in the world, and its implementation, assessment,
and enforcement pose a challenge for Chinas scientists and policymakers, addressed in
part through the science plan [63,66]. Important questions to ask are whether China will
apply the ecological redline concept to the BRI, and if so, how the governance of such an
approach can be instituted in a more complex international environment (see Outstanding
Alternatively, the build-up of economic competition within the international system may
fuel a race to the bottom. Thus, new cooperative modes of governance are needed to
balance a wide range of geopolitical, societal, and environmental interests. Upgrading
global environmental standards is a prerequisiteforensuringamoresustainableandeq-
uitable BRI that can play a role in safeguarding the future of ecological systems and
human societies.
Supplemental Information
Supplemental information associated with this article can be found online at
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Outstanding Questions
What are frontier threats and
opportunities posed by the BRI?
How do we develop frameworks to
identify opportunities and risks for
ecological systems impacted by the
How best can we reconcile
environmental, economic, and social
issues related to human infrastructural
What tools can be used to identify and
quantify costs and opportunities in
these areas to informdecision-making?
What do future infrastructural
developments mean for the ecosystems
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Where connectivity changes local
human dependencies, movements,
and market access, what is needed to
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to mitigate against them to safeguard
cultures, ecosystems, and species?
Will the Belt and Road promote
higher standards for sustainable
development, to realize the vision of
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geopolitical rivalry weaken standards
and drive increased environmental
What techniques are needed to
measure and monitor the impacts and
potential impacts of development,
and how can agendas be shifted to
promote the most environmentally
viable options?
How will China reconcile the trade-offs
between economic and environmental
losses and gains in developing the
Belt and Road?
Although China has developed tools
and frameworks to better enable
sustainable development within its
borders, will these be used beyond its
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how can they be adapted for the
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... Given that ASEAN is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, there are growing concerns over the rapid loss in species over recent decades (Lynam et al. 2016). By buttressing local ecosystems, for example, by protecting native species, could prevent further degradation (Vairavamoorthy et al. 2016;Hughes et al. 2020). Lastly, NBS will help maintain the quality of the environmental asset, which is indispensable to societies in ASEAN, where economic growth is also a big concern for most of the region. ...
... These specific green practices by the case firm to enhance the user's knowledge of green alternatives, including financial ones result in empowering them (Tan et al. 2020). Prior research has also highlighted that such a process develops a competitive pressure for other firms in the same market or value chain that are not yet fully focused on the sustainability dimension (Navaretti et al. 2018). ...
This book aims to fill the literature gap on digital instruments and FinTech in enhancing green finance. Technological innovation can increase transparency, accountability, and speed, decentralize the financial system, improve risk management, increase competition, lower costs, improve efficiency, increase cross-sectoral collaboration and integration, and scale up green finance. Artificial intelligence (AI), distributed ledger technologies (DLT) or blockchain, peer-to-peer lending platforms, big data, Internet-based and mobile-based payment platforms, Internet of Things (IoT), matchmaking platforms including crowdlending, tokenizing green assets are potential means to scale up the green finance for achieving the SDGs. The COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturns, and the uncertainties shrank the new investments in renewable energy projects globally. Low investment in renewable energy projects could threaten the expansion of green energy needed to provide energy security and meet SDG7 and SDG13. Investments in renewable energy projects are scarce because of several risks and a low rate of return. Although several new green financing solutions such as green bonds, green banks, green credit guarantee, carbon taxation, carbon trade, village funds, and community trust funds have been established in different countries, these are insufficient, and alternative ways to finance projects are required. The book provides several high-quality studies on utilizing digitalization, FinTech, financial innovations, and other new technologies to fill the finance gap of green projects to meet the SDG goals. The chapters are written by scholars in diverse countries and regions and include practical policy recommendations.
... According to the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's database, the "Belt and Road initiatives" is the most important food production area globally, and the output of the food accounts for more than 40% of the world's total output (Syed and Ying, 2019). However, these countries have low self-sufficiency and a high import dependence rate on food (Hughes et al., 2020). The increasing number of member countries of BRI has expanded the scope of food trade with more convenient channels, but the increasing dependence on food imports in countries means that the stability of the food supply is vulnerable to the international market (Sternberg et al., 2020). ...
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... These massive infrastructure investments will create itinerant or permanent settlements of colonists, loggers, miners, poachers, agricultural workers, and others, legally or illegally exploiting natural resources in these newly opened landscapes (170)(171)(172). This process will likely further disrupt natural ecosystems on the borders of and within Indigenous Peoples' lands through water, air, and soil pollution, logging, habitat fragmentation, bush-meat hunting, the live primate trade, and the spread of zoonotic diseases and invasive species. ...
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... Xi'an contains 13 counties and districts comprising 178 townships with an area of 10,108 km², extending from 33 • 42'−34 • 45' to 107 • 40'−109 • 49' , and a population of 12.95 million in 2020 ( Xi'an is one of the core economic clusters of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is principally intended to promote commercial associations and connectivity amongst several continents, is considered an influential trade route and indispensable logistics hub for Central, South, and West Asian countries (23). The gross domestic product (GDP) of Xi'an expanded by 5.2% yearon-year in 2020 and reached 1.002 trillion yuan, exceeding the 1 trillion yuan threshold ( ...
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... On the contrary, most of the area is arid and semi-arid and hence more vulnerable to climate change (Li et al., 2015). Also, the consequences of the implementation of BRI may worsen the existing environmental problems (Ascensão et al., 2018;Hughes et al., 2020). ...
... According to the countries that are most mentioned in literatures (Hughes et al., 2020;Lechner et al., 2018;Muhammad et al., 2020) and the "Belt and Road Portal" (, 65 countries are usually regarded as the research objects of the B&R. ...
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... Despite the importance of BRI worldwide, countries along its route are predominantly located in arid, semi-arid, or sub-humid fragile ecosystems (Ng et al., 2020), that are both sensitive and show weak self-recovery (Chen et al., 2016;Hughes et al., 2020;Li et al., 2021). Additionally, these ecosystems exhibit regional differences in resource and environmental conditions, such as unevenly distributed water resources , zonal gradients in soil and vegetation elements (Skokanová et al., 2020;Oiry and Barillé, 2021), and uneven production and consumption (Huang, 2019;Hussain et al., 2020). ...
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The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) significantly contributes to the world economy. However, the central part of the Belt and Road (B&R) is located in fragile ecological zones that are arid, semi-arid, or sub-humid. Using the entropy method, the economic-social-natural ecological niches and their coupling coordination during 2007–2019 along B&R’s 11 countries were explored along with regional differences and spatiotemporal characteristics. The economic-social-natural ecological niches were low, with a fluctuating upward trend. Additionally, the average annual growth rate of the synthesis ecological niche dramatically improved after the BRI. Further, the BRI facilitated inter-country trade and promoted the economic ecological niche. However, the BRI marginally affected the social ecological position, possibly because the social ecological niche was high pre-BRI. The natural ecological niche showed a negative growth after the BRI. Further, the coupling coordination of economic-social ecological niche and natural ecological niche showed an upward trend, transforming from severe discoordination to advanced coordination. Although BRI promoted advanced coordination, it did not affect internal categories. Policy recommendations for sustainable development in China-ASEAN Free Trade Area were provided. This study can assist policymakers to balance economic-social development and environmental protection.
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Recently, The literature has directed concern towards the consumption-based carbon emission (CCE), which is adjusted for trade. This study aims to examine trade, Chinese foreign direct investment (CFDI), and green innovation (GI) to portray the overall impact of the factors influencing CCE in belt and road initiative (BRI) countries over the period 2003 to 2018. By employing the cross-sectional autoregressive distributed lag (CS-ARDL) model, the findings reveal that CFDI and imports positively influence the CCE both in the long run as well as in the short run. The results of GI and exports are found negatively significant in the host countries. The study further employs augmented mean group (AMG) and common correlated mean group (CCEMG) estimators for robustness. Like CS-ARDL, the outcomes of both estimators reveal the same findings that imports and CCE hold a positive relationship in all sample regions. Overall, the study exposes that strategies related to CCE accredited by trade and FDI should recognize their environmental repercussions and implement policies that are environmentally friendly such as green innovation and renewable energy sources to achieve a sustainable development.
With more countries and companies setting net-zero targets, nature-based solutions (NBS) provides a great opportunity for carbon sequestration through forest and wetland preservation, recovery, and reforestation programs. The benefits also extend to preserving biodiversity and providing social co-benefits and equity in communities. This chapter considers the potential of natural assets convertible to carbon credits in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region, which is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Recent developments in establishing a carbon offset market exchange have been based on regional NBS. There will be significant need for FinTech such as financial instruments and associated technological innovations to develop large-scale regional carbon credit markets or voluntary carbon markets. In this chapter, Singapore’s Climate Impact X (CIX) is examined as a case study. Marketplaces and exchanges allow producers and consumers to interact on sustainability metrics and impacts, facilitating sales of carbon credits, biodiversity offsets, and ethically sourced and labelled products. FinTech solutions emerging in the areas of digital exchanges for carbon credits (biodiversity in the future) and e-trading of natural capital-backed digital assets include technologies such as satellite imagery, Internet-of-things data, application program interfaces, data tokens, blockchain for climate impact reporting, and more. Currently, there is a huge opportunity to reduce emissions and conserve existing forestland and wetlands through NBS. However, there remain barriers to making full use of FinTech solutions for NBS and scaling a carbon market in ASEAN such as costs of technology, logistics, MRV (measurement, reporting, and verification), and lack of regulation and regional coordination.
Technical Report
Full-text available
In the present report, I address some of the critical issues related to implementation of the Yamal LNG Project. The data presented in this report are based on a short-term fieldwork in Yamal, conducted in 2016. The report singles out and discusses some of the critical trends observed in the area (ecological impacts, affects on local economy, food security, health, substance, etc.). It also shows what the main concerns of the indigenous population are and it discusses the role of civil society, equal political participation, and indigenous voicing in Yamal.
Full-text available
The chapters describes the east-west overland routes between China and Europe in the contect of China's BRI, and the challenges facing them.
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The paper examines the motivations, financing, expansion and challenges of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI was initially designed to address China’s overcapacity and promote economic growth in both China and in countries along the “Belt” and “Road” through infrastructure investment and industrial capacity cooperation. It took into account China’s strategic transition in its opening-up policy and foreign policy to pay more attention to the neighboring countries in Southeast Asia and Central and West Asia when facing greater strategic pressure from the United States in East Asia and the Pacific region. More themes have been added to the initiative’s original framework since its inception in 2013, including the vision of the BRI as China’s major solution to improve international economic cooperation and practice to build a “community of shared future for mankind”, and the idea of the Green Silk Road and the Digital Silk Road. Chinese state-owned enterprises and policy and commercial banks have dominated investment and financing for BRI projects, which explains the root of the problems and risks facing the initiative, such as unsustainable debt, non-transparency, corruption and low economic efficiency. Measures taken by China to tackle these problems, for example, mitigating the debt distress and improving debt sustainability, are unlikely to make a big difference anytime soon due to the tenacity of China’s long-held state-driven investment model.
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The overexploitation of the world's biomes for natural products calls for the prioritization of biologically important ecosystems for conservation. Here we show that limestone karsts are “arks” of biodiversity and often contain high levels of endemism. Humans have exploited karsts for a variety of products and services, but unsustainable practices have caused population declines and extinctions among site-endemic taxa. Limestone quarrying is the primary threat to karst biodiversity in Southeast Asia, where quarrying rates exceed those in other tropical regions. Several socioeconomic, political, and scientific issues undermine the stewardship of these karsts. Mitigation of these problems will involve (a) better land-use planning to prevent karst resources from being exhausted in developing regions, (b) comprehensive assessments of a karst's economic and biological value before development, (c) improved legislation and enforcement to protect karst biodiversity, and (d) increased research and activities to promote public awareness of the importance of karsts and the threats facing them.
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Climate change-driven alterations in Arctic environments can influence habitat availability, species distributions and interactions, and the breeding, foraging, and health of marine mammals. Phocine distemper virus (PDV), which has caused extensive mortality in Atlantic seals, was confirmed in sea otters in the North Pacific Ocean in 2004, raising the question of whether reductions in sea ice could increase contact between Arctic and sub-Arctic marine mammals and lead to viral transmission across the Arctic Ocean. Using data on PDV exposure and infection and animal movement in sympatric seal, sea lion, and sea otter species sampled in the North Pacific Ocean from 2001–2016, we investigated the timing of PDV introduction, risk factors associated with PDV emergence, and patterns of transmission following introduction. We identified widespread exposure to and infection with PDV across the North Pacific Ocean beginning in 2003 with a second peak of PDV exposure and infection in 2009; viral transmission across sympatric marine mammal species; and association of PDV exposure and infection with reductions in Arctic sea ice extent. Peaks of PDV exposure and infection following 2003 may reflect additional viral introductions among the diverse marine mammals in the North Pacific Ocean linked to change in Arctic sea ice extent.
Conference Paper
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This document is the first outcome of the Cansiglio gathering of academics, environmental experts and practitioners, under the BRI Sustainability Network. The idea for this meeting originated from or anticipated risks posed by the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) for socio-ecological communities around the world. Considered to be the world’s largest infrastructural project comprising a vast array of interconnected land and sea transportation routes, the BRI raises profound questions about the preservation of biodiversity and cultural heritage. New mega-projects that fail to duly consider and address bio-cultural risks and impacts are likely to further aggravate some already recognized challenges surrounding globalization, especially in regard to the search for resilient, sustainable a collective anxiety about emerging food systems in an age of climate crisis. Our collective concern was further coupled with clear awareness that the BRI opens potential windows of opportunity, even as these are contingent upon decisions made based on the kind of progress we want for the future of all humanity. Fundamentally, we must ask ourselves: Does it suffice to do business as usual? Or are we rather called to embark upon a radical, systemic transformation? [...] The document summarizes core values and pathways of action that we believe should orient individual, societal, and scientific engagement to ensure a longer-range future for socio-ecological communities and their coexistence along the BRI routes. The BRI Sustainability Network is currently hosted at the Marco Polo Centre (MaP) for Global Europe-Asia Connections, hosted by the Department of Asian and North African Studies at Ca' Foscari University Venice. Work under the BRI Sustainability Network is on-going, and in time the Cansiglio Declaration may be further amended. For more information, see
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Groundwater is the world’s largest freshwater resource and is critically important for irrigation, and hence for global food security1,2,3. Already, unsustainable groundwater pumping exceeds recharge from precipitation and rivers⁴, leading to substantial drops in the levels of groundwater and losses of groundwater from its storage, especially in intensively irrigated regions5,6,7. When groundwater levels drop, discharges from groundwater to streams decline, reverse in direction or even stop completely, thereby decreasing streamflow, with potentially devastating effects on aquatic ecosystems. Here we link declines in the levels of groundwater that result from groundwater pumping to decreases in streamflow globally, and estimate where and when environmentally critical streamflows—which are required to maintain healthy ecosystems—will no longer be sustained. We estimate that, by 2050, environmental flow limits will be reached for approximately 42 to 79 per cent of the watersheds in which there is groundwater pumping worldwide, and that this will generally occur before substantial losses in groundwater storage are experienced. Only a small decline in groundwater level is needed to affect streamflow, making our estimates uncertain for streams near a transition to reversed groundwater discharge. However, for many areas, groundwater pumping rates are high and environmental flow limits are known to be severely exceeded. Compared to surface-water use, the effects of groundwater pumping are markedly delayed. Our results thus reveal the current and future environmental legacy of groundwater use.
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Aim China's Grain for Green Program (GFGP) is the largest reforestation programme in the world and has been operating since 1999. The GFGP has promoted the establishment of tree plantations over the restoration of diverse native forests. In a previous study, we showed that native forests support a higher species richness and abundance of birds and bees than do GFGP plantations and that mixed‐species GFGP plantations support a higher level of bird (but not bee) diversity than do any individual GFGP monocultures (although still below that of native forests). Here, we use metabarcoding of arthropod diversity to test the generality of these results. Location Sichuan, China. Methods We sampled arthropod communities using pan traps in the land cover types concerned under the GFGP. These land use types include croplands (the land cover being reforested under the GFGP), native forests (the reference ecosystem as the benchmark for the GFGP’s biodiversity effects) and the dominant GFGP reforestation outcomes: monoculture and mixed‐species plantations. We used COI‐amplicon sequencing (“metabarcoding”) of the arthropod samples to quantify and assess the arthropod community profiles associated with each land cover type. Results Native forests support the highest overall levels of arthropod species diversity, followed by mixed‐species plantations, followed by bamboo and other monocultures. Also, the arthropod community in native forests shares more species with mixed‐species plantations than it does with any of the monocultures. Together, these results broadly corroborate our previous conclusions on birds and bees but show a higher arthropod biodiversity value of mixed‐species plantations than previously indicated by bees alone. Main conclusion In our previous study, we recommended that GFGP should prioritize the conservation and restoration of native forests. Also, where plantations are to be used, we recommended that the GFGP should promote mixed‐species arrangements over monocultures. Both these recommendations should result in more effective protection of terrestrial biodiversity, which is an important objective of China's land‐sustainability spending. The results of this study strengthen these recommendations because our policy prescriptions are now also based on a dataset that includes over 500 species‐resolution taxa, ranging across the Arthropoda.
A little-known aim of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is ‘people-to-people cultural exchange’, including active promotion of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in BRI countries. On a global scale, this is likely to increase both TCM demand and the sourcing of wildlife-based TCM ingredients from new areas. Any rapid increase in wildlife demand risks exacerbating illegal and unsustainable trade but, with careful management, BRI–TCM could also present opportunities for well-governed supply chains, creating sustainable livelihoods for rural harvesters. With China reaching out to BRI countries to cooperate on the marketing, registration and promotion of TCM products, there is now a critical short-term window for the identification of these risks and opportunities, and to ensure that sustainability is built into these markets from the start. See here for a read-only open-access version of the paper: See here for a Chinese translation of the full article:
Extensive tree planting is widely promoted for reducing atmospheric CO2. In Africa, 1 million km2, mostly of grassy biomes, have been targeted for 'restoration' by 2030. The target is based on the erroneous assumption that these biomes are deforested and degraded. We discuss the pros and cons of exporting fossil fuel emission problems to Africa.