Catalyst for green development

The Chinese government recently issued new green guidelines for the Belt and Road.

The policy document from China’s top economic planner and three ministries is very good news for the planet. Aligned with the Paris Agreement on climate change, the guidelines are a great recipe for making the Belt and Road a vehicle for green development.

As all must now be aware, there are three environmental crises: the nature, climate and pollution crises. The guidelines provide the tools to address all of these at once.

The guidelines were issued after President Xi Jinping made three major promises on behalf of China over the past two years: China will peak its carbon emissions before 2030, be carbon neutral before 2060, and will plant trees in an area the size of Belgium every year from now to 2030; it will be a green leader with its emerging great national park system; and there will be no new overseas coal investment by China or by Chinese companies.

All of these promises cut to the core of the threefold planetary crisis. The new BRI guidelines set the path to ensure these promises will be delivered upon in real life.

Five major messages stand out from the guidelines.

First, the Belt and Road will be built on the highest Chinese and global standards for the environment.

Up to now, the normal practice by Chinese investors was to abide by the local laws where they invested. Now the guidelines say that the Belt and Road investment will be based on the generally accepted high standards of the world, or China’s higher standards when applicable.

This is critically important because many developing countries tend to have much lower standards than those generally accepted elsewhere. Now the standards will be lifted to the highest level, which is crucial.

This also addresses a longstanding concern of Western companies which have complained that competition with Chinese companies was unfair. Now the playing field is leveled. This is a fantastic step forward.

Second, the Belt and Road will be based on the Paris Agreement and on the multilateral processes to fight climate change. This will bring more wind and solar investments.

This also means no more new coal investments. The coal projects that are already finalized or close to being finalized should be retrofitted to be as eco-friendly as possible.

However, that should be done without extending the lifetime of coal projects.

Third, there is a private-sector focus in the guidelines. They say that the government should give the guidance, but it is the private companies that will follow through, bringing change to scale.

This focus on the private sector is pivotal to the policy’s success, because China now has so many world-leading green companies that can invest in countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

For example, CATL, a global leader in lithium-ion battery development and manufacturing, remains the single largest supplier of electric car batteries, with one-third of the global market. And BYD, a Chinese green legend, produces 10 percent of the batteries globally as well as electric buses, cars and elevated rails.

In the Green Belt and Road Coalition, we have, with good partners, developed the Green Development Guidance. This green light system is a great step to guide investors and financial institutions to green their investments along the Belt and Road, addressing the triple planetary crisis as one.

Fourth, there is a focus on connectivity to ensure that roads and railroads are built in harmony with nature. It is important to make underpasses and overpasses for wild animals. The China-Laos Railway and the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway in Kenya are brilliant infrastructure constructed by Chinese companies, with a view to abating the impact on nature. We need a more connected world, on grid and energy, on roads and rail.

And finally, there is a focus on technology. That is an essential dimension, because we are moving into the era of artificial intelligence, and China has much to offer in this field.

Compared with 40 years ago, the high-tech sector has now made the computing power of the world 1 trillion times bigger, while the price for storing data is much lower. This is an enormous driving force for change.

It should be no surprise that artificial intelligence can also help in the fight against environmental destruction. The technology is already being used to send natural disaster alerts in Japan, monitor deforestation in the Amazon and design greener smart cities in China.

Chinese companies including Huawei, Alibaba and Tencent can help the world in this digital revolution. Digitalization can cut waste in energy consumption, boost power generation from renewable energy, and make transportation and cities green.

All in all, the guidelines give us exactly what we need: the framework for making the Belt and Road a major vehicle for a green world. The BRI is by far the most important investment venture in our time, embracing more than 130 countries. The greening of the Belt and Road will undoubtedly help us create an ecological civilization.

The author is president of the Belt and Road Initiative Green Development Institute and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.