Toxin linked to motor neuron disease found in Australian algal blooms



File 20180503 153873 1srnuq3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Cyanobacterial blooms and algae are common in water bodies around the world. However, Australia is yet to monitor the growth of neurotoxins in our algae.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Brendan Main, University of Technology Sydney

Algal blooms in major Australian rivers are releasing a toxic chemical that may contribute to the development of motor neuron disease (MND).

My colleagues and I tested algae from waterways in New South Wales, and found that a neurotoxin called BMAA was present in 70% of samples, including those from crucial water sources such as the Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers.

This compound is well known overseas, and has been found in waterways in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. But this is the first time it has been detected in Australia. Although its presence has been suspected, it was never specifically tested until now.

Two samples containing BMAA were collected from the Murrumbidgee River, which runs through the NSW Riverina, a hotspot for MND in Australia. Positive samples were also collected in Centennial Park and Botany wetlands in central Sydney, as well as Manly Dam on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.




Read more:
What we know, don’t know and suspect about what causes motor neuron disease


In the past 30 years, Australian rivers have had the dubious honour of hosting some of the largest algal blooms in history. In 1991 a bloom stretched along more than 1,200km of the Darling River, prompting the New South Wales government to declare a state of emergency. The army was mobilised to provide aid to towns.

Since then, southeast Australia has had four large blooms, most recently in 2016. The future isn’t promising either. Rising water temperatures mean blooms are likely to increase in frequency and duration in the future.

Multiple state agencies monitor populations of types of bacteria in Australia, regularly testing water quality and issuing alerts when blooms are present. This testing is necessary because of the impressive number of toxins that cyanobacteria can produce, ranging from skin irritants to liver and neurological toxins. Most of these compounds are relatively fast-acting, meaning that their effects take hold rapidly after exposure.

The neurotoxic compound BMAA, however, is not currently part of regular testing, despite links between long-term exposure to algal blooms and the development of diseases such as MND. BMAA is known to be produced by a type of freshwater and marine bacteria, as well as some species of algae.




Read more:
Watch out, Australia: a red-hot summer means blue-green algae


How BMAA affects our health

Research in America found that regular participation in water-based recreational activity resulted in a threefold increase in the risk of developing MND. Satellite mapping also revealed that lakes prone to algal blooms were often surrounded by clusters of MND patients.

Southwestern NSW has become a focus for MND researchers since 2014, due to the presence of a hotspot for MND cases around the Riverina. The town of Griffith has reported a prevalence of this disease that is nearly seven times higher than the national average of 8.7 cases per 100,000 people. Hotspots like these can help researchers identify environmental factors that contribute to diseases.

This is particularly important in MND, in which only 5-10% of patients have a family history. The other 90-95% of cases are sporadic, occurring without warning. It is possible that BMAA exposure, in association with genetic, or other environmental risk factors, contributes to the high incidence of MND in the Riverina.




Read more:
Exposure to algae toxin increases the risk of Alzheimer’s-like illnesses


BMAA also has a similar structure to the amino acids that make up the proteins in our body. We hypothesise that this contributes to its toxicity and ability to build up in animal tissue and in plants that are exposed to contaminated water.

Similar to mercury, BMAA can accumulate in the food chain, which means that people could be consuming relatively large amounts of it through their diet. A US animal study found that dietary exposure to BMAA resulted in the formation of plaques and protein tangles in the brain, which are hallmark features of neurodegeneration.

Research now needs to focus on tracking and monitoring algal blooms to detect the presence of BMAA, and determining how long it remains in the ecosystem after these blooms occur.

The ConversationThis can potentially help to reduce human exposure to BMAA. Although the factors that cause MND are many and varied, we hope this understanding could ultimately help to reduce the number of people who develop the disease.

Brendan Main, PhD Candidate, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australians will not buy electric cars without better incentives



File 20180504 138586 vfacru.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
We need to plan for electric cars, but at this stage we need incentives – not extra taxes.
byronv2/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Anna Mortimore, Griffith University

The apparently inevitable rise of the electric car has prompted Australia’s top federal infrastructure advisor to warn of falling revenues from the petrol excise.

In a speech yesterday, Infrastructure Australia chief executive Philip Davies highlighted a need for “planning policy” for an “expected rapid uptake of electric vehicles”.

But the reality is that, unless federal policy changes, Australia is extremely unlikely to increase its very small share of electric vehicles. Far from worrying about alternative taxes, international examples suggest subsidies and incentives are required to shift a country towards low-emissions cars.




Read more:
Australia has stalled on car efficiency


The Norwegian example

For a real example of “rapid uptake”, we can look to Norway. More than 50% of consumers chose to buy an electric vehicle in 2017, compared with 40% in 2016.

We know consumers are unwilling to buy electric vehicles if they cost substantially more than conventional vehicles. Norway imposes a high stamp duty on internal combustion vehicles, and exempts battery electric vehicles from both stamp duty and the high 25% Value Added Tax. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have a lower rate of stamp duty. Such financial incentives are high enough to offset the price differences between electric and combustion vehicles.

But financial incentives alone are not enough. Norway also provides total exemption from road tolls, free car ferry travel, free recharge sites, free parking, and access to bus lanes. In effect, consumers in Norway are better off for choosing a battery electric vehicle.

These incentives were crucial for removing the price barrier and influencing demand, raising Norway’s total of electric vehicles in 2017 to 123,200.

It is projected that by 2030, up to 4 million electric vehicles will be on the road in the Nordic states. Norway and Sweden will account for 80% of the growth by 2030.

If Australia wants to achieve its estimated 230,000 electric vehicles by 2025 (and more than a million by 2030) it’s clear we need additional federal policy measures.




Read more:
Sustainable shopping: with the right tools, you can find an eco-friendly car


Australians want electric – at the right price

According to Australian surveys, half of consumers are prepared to buy an electric car, but are concerned about price, range, and infrastructure. Although state and territory governments are supporting infrastructure and introducing policies to reduce stamp duty and registration for zero- and low-emitting vehicles, more is needed.

Federal government policy has not addressed the major barrier to sales: the high price sticker of electric vehicles relative to equivalent combustion vehicles, and the long time it takes for petrol savings to “pay back” the price difference.

For example, the hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander, which emits just 41 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre, is listed in the manufacturer price guide at A$55,490. The petrol-fuelled model, which emits 211g of CO₂ per km, costs A$41,000. How many people will pay an extra A$14,490 for a low-emission car, with a nearly identical alternative available?

This is particularly important for low-end battery electric vehicles and PHEV with the longest driving range, as incentives seem to be less important for users of high-end battery electric cars like the Tesla Model S.

Without significant reductions in purchase price – through policy reform of taxes like the luxury car tax, and other incentives – it’s highly unlikely there will actually be a “rapid uptake” of electric vehicles in Australia. Low consumer demand will discourage car manufacturers form increasing the supply of electric or hybrid options in Australia, creating a vicious cycle.




Read more:
Could Australia become a dumping ground for high-emission vehicles?


The Australian Institute’s Emission Audit for December 2017, found that over the past two years emissions from road transport fuels has grown at twice the rate of GDP. This is actually offsetting any falling electricity generation emissions.

The ConversationTo put it bluntly, if Australia doesn’t get on board the global transition to low-emission vehicles, we risk not meeting our 2015 Paris Agreement commitment to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Anna Mortimore, Lecturer, Griffith Business School, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A crisis too big to waste: China’s recycling ban calls for a long-term rethink in Australia


Monique Retamal, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney, and Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney

Australia’s recycling industry is in crisis, with China having effectively closed its borders to foreign recycling. Emergency measures have included stockpiling, landfilling, and trying to find other international destinations for our recycling – but none of these are sustainable long-term solutions.

To manage this problem sustainably, we need a mix of short and longer-term planning. That means taking a broader approach than the strategies agreed by state and federal environment ministers at last month’s emergency summit.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


There is a wide range of potential strategies to address the crisis, shown in the diagram below. We have highlighted those that were endorsed at the ministers’ meeting, but there are many other options we could be considering too.


UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, Author provided

Waste management is planned around “the waste hierarchy”. This sets out our options for dealing with waste, in order from most to least preferable for sustainability. To be effective, the government’s strategies need to follow this established hierarchy.


UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures

This means that waste strategies should prioritise avoiding, reducing, and reusing, before recycling, energy recovery, and finally disposal to landfill as a last resort. So how do the ministers’ strategies stack up?

Top of the pile

The ministers agreed to reduce waste through consumer education and industry initiatives. These types of initiatives are important and sit at the top of the waste hierarchy, but the announcement is so far lacking in detail and targets.

Local councils have been running recycling education initiatives for a long time, with mixed success. Going beyond this to waste reduction is even harder and there are few successful examples. To do this well would require substantial investment of time and resources to identify and trial effective approaches to waste reduction. Education alone, without incentives and regulations, is unlikely to deliver sufficient change.

The ministers also endorsed a new target of making 100% of packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. While this target is commendable, we should be prioritising reduction and reuse over recycling and composting when designing packaging.

The industry-led Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has already adopted “closing the loop” (improved recovery) as a performance criterion in its new Packaging Sustainability Framework, but incentives to prioritise reusable packaging are still needed. Refillable returnable glass bottles are common in Europe. Support from government and businesses for local pilots of these and similar schemes would help overcome barriers to implementation.

These “top of the hierarchy” approaches are all long-term and need serious attention to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.

Bottom of the heap

While we’re working on avoidance and reuse, we need to improve our domestic recycling system.




Read more:
The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn’t actually recycled


There are several ways to do this:

Increase domestic recycling capacity

The ministers also agreed to work together on expanding and developing our recycling industry. To do this, we need to focus on improving sorting, and reprocessing recyclables into materials that can be used for manufacturing. The recycling industry is advocating for new reprocessing facilities, but we need to develop local markets for recycled material at the same time to make sure we depend less on export markets.

Develop local markets

For recycling to happen, there needs to be a market for recycled content. The ministers agreed to advocate for more recycled materials in government procurement, such as recycled paper, road base, and construction materials. Procurement guidelines will be needed to ensure this goes ahead. Governments could take this a step further, and incentivise businesses to use recycled content in their products too.

Labelling products to indicate recycled content would also help generate demand from consumers.

Improve the quality of collected recyclables

This is an ongoing challenge, but will be essential for any future recycling pathways. Initiatives to achieve this were not detailed in the meeting. This will require upgrading our sorting facilities, and potentially improving our kerbside collection systems too.

Industry reports have suggested that re-introducing separate bins at the kerbside – or at least separating paper from glass – would greatly improve the quality of mixed paper compared with current co-mingled recycling. It would eliminate glass shards, which make re-milling paper much more difficult.


Adapted from Assessment of domestic Waste and Recycling/NSW DEC

Container deposit schemes also provide an excellent opportunity to collect better-value recycling streams. South Australia developed its scheme way back in 1977 and similar schemes are finally being rolled out in New South Wales (“return and earn”), and will soon be followed by Queensland and Western Australia.

Labelling products with recycling instructions may also help with collection quality. Industry organisations APCO, Planet Ark and PREP Design recently launched a labelling scheme to help packaging designers increase the recyclability of their packaging, and to give consumers information on how to recycle it.

Waste to energy?

Finally, the ministers also identified the potential to develop “waste to energy projects” through existing energy funding channels. This strategy falls lower down the hierarchy than recycling, as materials are no longer available to recirculate in the economy.

Waste to energy projects can be complementary to recycling in processing genuine residual waste (contaminants separated from recyclables at sorting centres), to achieve very high levels of diversion. This is already required under the NSW EPA energy from waste policy. However, waste to energy is not a solution to a recycling crisis and should not be used to deal with recyclables that can no longer be exported to China. It is not a short-term option either, because Australia does not have a mature waste to energy sector, and investment needs to happen at the right scale to ensure that it is complementary to recycling.




Read more:
The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem


Most of the strategies currently being pursued are sound in principle, although many of them need clearer plans for their funding and implementation, as well as ambitious targets.

We need a comprehensive range of short- and longer-term strategies if we are truly to get to grips with the recycling crisis. We should be wary of “silver bullets” such as waste to energy, or new export contracts that could undermine more sustainable long-term solutions.

The environment ministers agreed to update the National Waste Policy this year, incorporating circular economy principles, which is encouraging. This will be their opportunity to coordinate a nationally consistent response that promotes the development of resilient markets for recycled content, and reusable and re-manufactured products.

The ConversationThis will need to go beyond the current strong focus on recycling, and embrace the upper levels of the waste hierarchy. The next step will be to develop properly funded plans for implementing these changes.

Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The carbon footprint of tourism revealed (it’s bigger than we thought)


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Travel is getting cheaper, but more carbon-intensive.
Renato Podestá Castilho/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Dr Arunima Malik, University of Sydney and Dr Ya-Yen Sun, The University of Queensland

The carbon footprint of tourism is about four times larger than previously thought, according to a world-first study published today in Nature Climate Change.

Researchers from the University of Sydney, University of Queensland and National Cheng Kung University – including ourselves – worked together to assess the entire supply chain of tourism. This includes transportation, accommodation, food and beverages, souvenirs, clothing, cosmetics and other goods.

Put together, global tourism produces about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, much more than previous estimates.

Adding it all up

Tourism is a trillion-dollar industry, and is growing faster than international trade.

To determine the true emissions produced by tourism, we scanned over a billion supply chains of a range of commodities consumed by tourists. By combining a detailed international trade database with accounts tracking what goods and services tourists bought, we identified carbon flows between 160 countries from 2009 to 2013.

Our results show that tourism-related emissions increased by around 15% over that period, from 3.9 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO₂-e) to 4.5Gt. This rise primarily came from tourist spending on transport, shopping and food.

World map showing bilateral embodied carbon movements. In 2013, international travel was responsible for 23% of the global carbon footprint of tourism.
[The carbon footprint of global tourism] (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0141-x)

We estimate that our growing appetite for travel and a business-as-usual scenario would increase carbon emissions from global tourism to about 6.5Gt by 2025. This increase is largely driven by rising incomes, making tourism highly income-elastic and carbon-intensive.

Whose responsibility is it?

In the study, we compared two perspectives for allocating responsibility for these emissions: residence-based accounting and destination-based accounting. The former perspective allocates emissions to the country of residence of tourists, the latter to the country of destination. Put simply, are tourism-related carbon emissions the responsibility of travellers or tourist destinations?

If responsibility lies with the travellers, then we should identify the countries that send the most tourists out into the world, and find ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their travel.




Read more:
Can you be a sustainable tourist without giving up flying?


On the other hand, destination-based accounting can offer insights into tourism spots (like popular islands) that would benefit most from technology improvements and regulations for reducing the carbon footprint of tourism.

Tracking emissions under destination-based accounting over a specific period could help researchers and policymakers to answer questions about the success of incentive schemes and regulations, and to assess the speed of decarbonisation of tourism-related sectors.




Read more:
Sustainable shopping: is it possible to fly sustainably?


So how do countries rank under the two accounting perspectives? The United States is responsible for the majority of tourism-related emissions under both perspectives – many people travel both from and to the US – followed by China, Germany and India.

But on a per-capita basis, the situation looks rather different. Small island destinations have the highest per-capita destination-based footprints. Maldives tops the list – 95% of the island’s tourism-related emissions come from international visitors.

Tourists are responsible for 30-80% of the national emissions of island economies. These findings bring up the question of the impact of tourism on small island states.

Islands as tourist destinations

Small islands depend on income from tourists. At the same time, these very tourists threaten the native biodiversity of the islands.

Small island states typically do not have the capacity to embrace technology improvements due to their small economies of scale and isolated locations.

Sustainable tourism on islands.
Author provided

Can we lend a helping hand? Directing financial and technical support to these islands could potentially help with efforts to decarbonise their infrastructure. This support would be a reflection of the share of consumer responsibility, especially from developed nations that are “net travellers”.

Maldives, Mauritius and other small islands are actively exploring ways of building their renewable energy capacity to reduce the carbon intensity of local hotels, transport and recreational spots.

Creating awareness at multiple levels

We hope that our study provides a starting point for conversations between the public, companies and policymakers about sustainable tourism.




Read more:
‘Sustainable tourism’ is not working – here’s how we can change that


The ConversationUltimately real change will come from implementing regulations and incentives together to encourage low-carbon operations. At a personal level, though, it’s worth looking at the carbon-cost of your flights, choosing to offset your emissions where possible and supporting tourism companies that aim to operate sustainably.

Dr Arunima Malik, Lecturer in Sustainability, University of Sydney and Dr Ya-Yen Sun, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn’t actually recycled



File 20180503 153884 180g652.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
These are already 100% recyclable – the trick is to actually recycle them.
Srisakorn Wonglakorn/Shutterstock.com

Atiq Zaman, Curtin University

Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers last week agreed on an ambitious target that 100% of Australian packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. This is no doubt sensible, given the turmoil sparked by China’s crackdown on waste imports.

Having a 100% target is fantastic. But this does not mean that all of the waste we generate in 2025 will necessarily find its way to one of these destinations.

For one thing, the definitions of different waste categories vary by state and territory, so there is no commonly accepted working definition of what constitutes “recyclable, compostable or reusable”.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


In practice, these terms depend largely on the infrastructure available. Single-use plastic bags are a good example of a product that is technically recyclable but which is not accepted in most councils’ kerbside recycling collection. That’s because they are often contaminated with food waste and many councils lack the machinery to process them.

On its own, the new 100% target is not enough, because it doesn’t guarantee that recyclable or reusable items will definitely be recycled or reused. To really make a difference, we also need policies and market incentives to ensure that these things end up where we want them to.

Driving recycling

We can see this principle in action by looking at the issue of drink containers. Glass and plastic bottles are already 100% recyclable, yet there is a stark difference in recycling rates between states that do have container deposit schemes, and those that don’t.

In South Australia, which has had container deposit legislation for more than 40 years, almost 80% of drink bottles are recycled. But in Western Australia, where similar legislation is only at the discussion stage, the rate is just 65%.

Despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ attempt at a National Waste Account in 2013, little nationwide data are available, thanks to a lack of a consistent reporting framework across different jurisdictions.

Plastic not fantastic

In sectors where not all waste is fully recyclable, the problem is more complex still. Of the seven categories of plastic packaging, only three are economically viable to recycle: PET (soft drink bottles); HDPE (milk bottles); and PVC (shampoo bottles). The other four – LDPE (garbage bags); PP (microwaveable cookware); PS (foam hot drink cups); and other plastics – are less economically viable and so are recycled at much lower rates. While these plastics will still be allowed under the new target as they are technically recyclable, the new target might prompt a switch to less problematic materials.

Globally, around 78 million tonnes of plastic is used every year, but only 14% is collected for recycling, while 14% is incinerated and the remaining 72% ends up in landfill or as litter in the environment.

The fate of the world’s plastics.
Author provided

The problems are no less vexing for other types of waste. With market rates for many types of recyclable paper having dropped to zero in the wake of China’s import restrictions, it will be hard to see how some products will be recycled at all, if left purely to economic forces.

Retailers may have to embrace more innovative solutions to improve the quality of recycling waste, such as reverse vending machines, which accept items such as aluminium cans and plastic or glass bottles – as long as they are cleaned and sorted. However, without creating a local waste market or government incentives, we cannot expect retailers to buy their packaging back.

And this is before we even consider the complexities of composting and reuse. Compostable waste as a whole is already facing problems due to a high contamination rate, and lack of separate bin for recycling organic waste in many local councils. Reuse, meanwhile, needs us to tackle the eternal problem of people’s perceptions and behaviour about using old packaging again.

Will some kinds of packaging disappear?

Under the product stewardship initiative, which calls on producers and retailers to take care of the waste produced after consumption of goods, it seems more likely that some materials will simply be phased out of the product supply chain altogether.

The impending plastic bag bans in several states and leading supermarkets offers a chance to replace them not with heavier, more durable plastic, but with biodegradable, renewable and eco-friendly natural materials such as hemp.

In turn, this would boost hemp production (alongside the legalisation of hemp-based medicine and food products in Australia). This could lead to the opportunity for manufacturing industry to produce environmentally friendly biodegradable plastics. Hemp-based biodegradable plastic would significantly safeguard the environment, even if we failed to achieve a 100% recycling of biodegradable plastic packaging. Similarly, glass or aluminium might be used instead of plastic, and are more easily recycled.

Even more innovatively, we might even see the arrival of edible packaging derived from the milk protein casein, formed into film rather like plastic cling wrap, which can be used to package foods such as butter or cheese.




Read more:
The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem


We need a better target

We’ve established that it’s not enough simply to set a target of making 100% of our waste recyclable, compostable or reusable. To really feel the benefits we need a follow-on target, such as actually recycling 100% of our packaging by 2030.

For this to work, we would need three things:

  1. legislation, regulations or incentives for manufacturers to develop new packaging types;
  2. an increase in public participation rates in recycling; and
  3. the development of a strong domestic market for recyclable materials.

The ConversationFinally, we should remember that waste prevention is better than waste management. Everyone – from governments, to manufacturers, to retailers, to consumers – should focus first on generating less waste in the first place. Then the fiendish problem of what to do with our waste will be all the smaller.

Atiq Zaman, Lecturer, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




Read more:
How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

Ambitious but ‘nightmarishly complicated’

The BRI is an ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture, and far less organised than many believe. The hundreds of road, port, rail, and energy projects will ultimately span some 70 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. It will link those nations economically and often geopolitically to China, while catalysing sweeping expansion of land-use and extractive industries, and will have myriad knock-on effects.

Up to 2015, the hundreds of BRI projects were reviewed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is directly under China’s State Council. Many observers have assumed that the NDRC will help coordinate the projects, but the only real leverage they have is over projects funded by the big Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China – which they directly control.

China’s Belt & Road Initiative will sweep across some 70 nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Most big projects – many of which are cross-national – will have a mix of funding from various sources and nations, meaning that no single entity will be in charge or ultimately responsible. An informed colleague in China describes this model as “anarchy”.

Tapanuli Orangutan

The dangerous potential of the BRI becomes apparent when one examines the Tapanuli Orangutan. With fewer than 800 individuals, it is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It survives in just a speck of rainforest, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, that is being eroded by illegal deforestation, logging, and poaching.

All of these threats propagate around roads. When a new road appears, the ape usually disappears, along with many other rare species sharing its habitat, such as Hornbills and the endangered Sumatran Tiger.

A Tapanuli Orangutan.
Maxime Aliaga

The most imminent threat to the ape is a US$1.6 billion hydropower project that Sinohydro (China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation) intends to build with funding from the Bank of China and other Chinese financiers. If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings.

It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives. Other major lenders such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank aren’t touching the project, but that isn’t slowing down China’s developers.

What environmental safeguards?

China has produced a small flood of documents describing sustainable lending principles for its banks and broad environmental and social safeguards for the BRI, but I believe many of these documents are mere paper tigers or “greenwashing” designed to quell anxieties.

According to insiders, a heated debate in Beijing right now revolves around eco-safeguards for the BRI. Big corporations (with international ambitions and assets that overseas courts can confiscate) want clear guidelines to minimise their liability. Smaller companies, of which there are many, want the weakest standards possible.

The argument isn’t settled yet, but it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want to exclude its thousands of smaller companies from the potential BRI riches. Most likely, it will do what it has in the past: issue lofty guidelines that a few Chinese companies will attempt to abide by, but that most will ignore.

The Greater Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra is the last place on Earth where Orangutans, Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos still persist together.

Stacked deck

There are three alarming realities about China, of special relevance to the BRI.

First, China’s explosive economic growth has arisen from giving its overseas corporations and financiers enormous freedom. Opportunism, graft and corruption are embedded, and they are unlikely to yield economically, socially or environmentally equitable development for their host nations. I detailed many of these specifics in an article published by Yale University last year.

Second, China is experiencing a perfect storm of trends that ensures the harsher realities of the BRI are not publicly aired or even understood in China. China has a notoriously closed domestic media – ranked near the bottom in press freedom globally – that is intolerant of government criticism.

Beyond this, the BRI is the signature enterprise of President Xi Jinping, who has become the de-facto ruler of China for life. Thanks to President Xi, the BRI is now formally enshrined in the constitution of China’s Communist Party, making it a crime for any Chinese national to criticise the program. This has had an obvious chilling effect on public discourse. Indeed, I have had Chinese colleagues withdraw as coauthors of scientific papers that were even mildly critical of the BRI.

President Xi Jinpeng at the 19th People’s Congress, where the BRI was formally inscribed into China’s national constitution.
Foreign Policy Journal

Third, China is becoming increasingly heavy-handed internationally, willing to overtly bully or covertly pull strings to achieve its objectives. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University has warned that Australia has become a target for Chinese attempts to stifle criticism.

Remember the ape

It is time for a clarion call for greater caution. While led by China, the BRI will also involve large financial commitments from more than 60 nations that are parties to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including Australia and many other Western nations.




Read more:
China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world


The ConversationWe all have a giant stake in the Belt and Road Initiative. It will bring sizeable economic gains for some, but in nearly 40 years of working internationally, I have never seen a program that raises more red flags.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.