China’s signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road initiative, has garnered much attention and controversy. Many have voiced fears about how the huge infrastructure project might expand China’s military and political influence across the world. But the environmental damage potentially wrought by the project has received scant attention.
The policy aims to connect China with Europe, East Africa and the rest of Asia, via a massive network of land and maritime routes. It includes building a series of deepwater ports, dubbed a “string of pearls”, to create secure and efficient sea transport.
All up, the cost of investments associated with the project have been estimated at as much as US$8 trillion. But what about the environmental cost?
Coastal development typically damages habitats and species on land and in the sea. So the Belt and Road plan may irreversibly damage the world’s oceans – but it also offers a chance to better protect them.
China’s President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road initiative in 2013. Since then, China has already helped build and operate at least 42 ports in 34 countries, including in Greece, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As of October this year, 138 countries had signed onto the plan.
The Victorian government joined in 2018, in a move that stirred political controversy. Those tensions have heightened in recent weeks, as the federal government’s relationship with China deteriorates.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews recently reiterated his commitment to the deal, saying: “I think a strong relationship and a strong partnership with China is very, very important.”
However, political leaders signing up to the Belt and Road plan must also consider the potential environmental consequences of the project.
As well as ports, the Belt and Road plan involves roads, rail lines, dams, airfields, pipelines, cargo centres and telecommunications systems. Our research has focused specifically on the planned port development and expansion, and increased shipping traffic. We examined how it would affect coastal habitats (such as seagrass, mangroves, and saltmarsh), coral reefs and threatened marine species.
Port construction can impact species and habitats in several ways. For example, developing a site often requires clearing mangroves and other coastal habitats. This can harm animals and release carbon stored by these productive ecosystems, accelerating climate change. Clearing coastal vegetation can also increase run-off of pollution from land into coastal waters.
Ongoing dredging to maintain shipping channels stirs up sediment from the seafloor. This sediment smothers sensitive habitats such as seagrass and coral and damages wildlife, including fishery species on which many coastal communities depend.
A rise in shipping traffic associated with trade expansion increases the risk to animals being directly struck by vessels. More ships also means a greater risk of shipping accidents, such as the oil spill in Mauritius in July this year.
Our spatial analysis found construction of new ports, and expansion of existing ports, could lead to a loss of coastal marine habitat equivalent in size to 69,500 football fields.
These impacts were proportionally highest in small countries with relatively small coastal areas – places such as Singapore, Togo, Djibouti and Malta – where a considerable share of coastal marine habitat could be degraded or destroyed.
Habitat loss is particularly concerning for small nations where local livelihoods depend on coastal habitats. For example, mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass protect coasts from storm surges and sea-level rise, and provide nursery habitat for fish and other marine species.
Our analysis also found more than 400 threatened species, including mammals, could be affected by port infrastructure. More than 200 of these are at risk from an increase in shipping traffic and noise pollution from ships. This sound can travel many kilometres and affect the mating, nursing and feeding of species such as dolphins, manatees and whales.
Despite these environmental concerns, the Belt and Road initiative also offers an opportunity to improve biodiversity conservation, and progress towards environmental targets such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
For example, China could implement a broad, consistent environmental framework that ensures individual infrastructure projects are held to the same high standards.
In Australia, legislation helps prevent damage to wildlife from port activities. For example, go-slow zones minimise the likelihood of vessels striking iconic wildlife such as turtles and dugongs. Similarly, protocols for the transport, handling, and export of mineral concentrates and other potentially hazardous materials minimise the risk of pollutants entering waterways.
The Belt and Road initiative should require similar environmental protections across all its partner countries, and provide funding to ensure they are enacted.
China has recently sought to boost its environment credentials on the world stage – such as by adopting a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. The global nature of the Belt and Road initiative means China is in a unique position: it can cause widespread damage, or become an international leader on environmental protection.
Mischa Turschwell, Research Fellow, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Research Fellow, Griffith University
It’s been a busy couple of months in global energy and climate policy. Australia’s largest trading partners – China, South Korea and Japan – have all announced they will reach net-zero emissions by about mid-century. In the United States, the incoming Biden administration has committed to decarbonising its electricity system by 2035.
These pledges have big implications for Australia. With some of the best renewable resources in the world, we have much to gain from the transition. And this week, the New South Wales government embraced the opportunity.
Its new A$32 billion Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap will, among other things, support the construction of 12 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity by 2030. This is six times the capacity of the state’s Liddell coal-fired power station, set to close in 2023.
The roadmap was developed by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean through extensive consultation with industry and others, including ourselves. While we believe a national carbon price is the best way to reduce emissions, the NSW approach nonetheless sets an example for other states looking to increase renewable energy capacity. So let’s take a closer look at the plan.
The roadmap acknowledges that within 15 years, three-quarters of NSW’s coal-fired electricity supply is expected to reach the end of its technical life. It says action is needed now to ensure cheap, clean and reliable electricity, and to set up NSW as a global energy superpower.
The plan involves a coordinated approach to transmission, generation and storage. By 2030, the government aims to:
deliver about 12 gigawatts of new transmission capacity through so-called “renewable energy zones” in three regional areas by 2030. It would most likely be generated by wind and solar
support about 3 gigawatts of energy storage to help back up variable renewable energy supplies. This would involve batteries, pumped hydro, and “hydrogen ready” gas peaking power stations
attract up to A$32 billion in private investment in regional energy infrastructure investment by 2030
support more than 6,300 construction and 2,800 ongoing jobs in 2030, mostly in regional NSW
reduce NSW’s carbon emissions by 90 million tonnes.
The plan also aims to see the average NSW household save about A$130 a year in electricity costs, although this might be hard to achieve in practice. And regional landholders hosting renewable projects on their properties are expected to earn A$1.5 billion in revenue over the next 20 years.
One of the most innovative aspects of the NSW proposal is that generators will have two options when it comes to selling their electricity.
First, the government will appoint an independent “consumer trustee” to purchase electricity from generators at an agreed price – giving the generators the long-term certainty they need to invest. The trustee would then sell this electricity either directly to the market, or through contracts to retailers.
But the trustee will encourage generators to first seek a better price by finding their own customers, such as energy consumers and other electricity retailers.
This system is different to the approach adopted in Victoria and the ACT, where government contracts remove any incentive for generators to participate in the energy market. Over time, this limits market competition and innovation.
The NSW plan improves on existing state policies in another way – by aligning financial incentives to the physical needs of the system. The Consumer Trustee will enter into contracts with projects that produce electricity at times of the day when consumers need it, and not when the system is already oversupplied.
While this won’t be easy for the trustee to model, this approach is likely to benefit consumers more than in other jurisdictions where lowest-cost projects seem to be preferred, irrespective of whether the energy they produced is needed by consumers.
One shortcoming of the roadmap is it does not financially reward existing low-emissions electricity generators in NSW, nor does it charge carbon-heavy electricity producers for the emissions they produce. This could be corrected in the future by integrating the policy into a nationally consistent carbon price, which transfers the cost of carbon pollution onto heavy emitters.
NSW’s ageing coal-fired power stations are chugging along – albeit with ever-declining reliability. But it’s only a matter of time before something expensive needs fixing. This was the case with Hazelwood in Victoria: the old walls of the boilers had thinned to less than 2 millimetres. The repair cost was prohibitive and the station closed with just five months’ notice. Electricity prices shot up in response to unexpectedly reduced supply.
In NSW, the consumer trustee will be tasked with helping ensuring replacement generation is delivered in a timely way. This means developing new generation capacity well ahead of announced coal plant closures.
This is a helpful development. But ultimately a stronger measure will be needed to ensure coal plants give early notice of their intention to exit the market. The Grattan Institute has previously suggested coal generators put up bonds that are forfeited if they close early. We think this model is worth considering again.
As the world’s largest exporter of coal and LNG, Australia has much to lose as global economies shift to zero emissions. But our renewable energy potential means we also have much to gain.
Australia needs a durable, nationally consistent policy framework if we’re to seize the opportunities of the global transition to clean energy. The NSW roadmap is a significant step in the right direction.
China’s President Xi Jinping surprised the global community recently by committing his country to net-zero emissions by 2060. Prior to this announcement, the prospect of becoming “carbon neutral” barely rated a mention in China’s national policies.
China currently accounts for about 28% of global carbon emissions – double the US contribution and three times the European Union’s. Meeting the pledge will demand a deep transition of not just China’s energy system, but its entire economy.
Importantly, China’s use of coal, oil and gas must be slashed, and its industrial production stripped of emissions. This will affect demand for Australia’s exports in coming decades.
It remains to be seen whether China’s climate promise is genuine, or simply a ploy to win international favour. But it puts pressure on many other nations – not least Australia – to follow.
Coal is currently used to generate about 60% of China’s electricity. Coal must be phased out for China to meet its climate target, unless technologies such as carbon-capture and storage become commercially viable.
Natural gas is increasingly used in China for heating and transport, as an alternative to coal and petrol. To achieve carbon neutrality, China must dramatically reduce its gas use.
Electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles must also come to dominate road transport – currently they account for less than 2% of the total fleet.
China must also slash the production of carbon-intensive steel, cement and chemicals, unless they can be powered by renewable electricity or zero-emissions hydrogen. One report suggests meeting the target will mean most of China’s steel is produced using recycled steel, in a process powered by renewable electricity.
Modelling in that report suggests China’s use of iron ore – and the coking coal required to process it into steel – will decrease by 75%. The implications for Australia’s mining industry would be huge; around 80% of our iron ore is exported to China.
It is critically important for Australian industries and policymakers to assess the seriousness of China’s pledge and the likelihood it will be delivered. Investment plans for large mining projects should then be reconsidered accordingly.
Conversely, China’s path towards a carbon neutral economy may open up new export opportunities for Australia, such as “green” hydrogen.
Solar and wind currently account for 10% of China’s total power generation. For China to meet the net-zero goal, renewable energy generation would have to ramp up dramatically. This is needed for two reasons: to replace the lost coal-fired power capacity, and to provide the larger electricity needs of transport and heavy industry.
Two factors are likely to reduce energy demand in China in coming years. First, energy efficiency in the building, transport and manufacturing sectors is likely to improve. Second, the economy is moving away from energy- and pollution-intensive production, towards an economy based on services and digital technologies.
It’s in China’s interests to take greater action on climate change. Developing renewable energy helps China build new “green” export industries, secure its energy supplies and improve air and water quality.
It’s worth considering what factors may have motivated China’s announcement, beyond the desire to do good for the climate.
In recent years, China has been viewed with increasing hostility on the world stage, especially by Western nations. Some commentators have suggested China’s climate pledge is a bid to improve its global image.
The pledge also gives China the high ground over a major antagonist, the US, which under President Donald Trump has walked away from its international obligations on climate action. China’s pledge follows similar ones by the European Union, New Zealand, California and others. It sets an example for other developing nations to follow, and puts pressure on Australia to do the same.
The European Union has also been urging China to take stronger climate action. The fact Xi made the net-zero pledge at a United Nations meeting suggests it was largely targeted at an international, rather than Chinese, audience.
However, the international community will judge China’s pledge on how quickly it can implement specific, measurable short- and mid-term targets for net-zero emissions, and whether it has the policies in place to ensure the goal is delivered by 2060.
Much is resting on China’s next Five Year Plan – a policy blueprint created every five years to steer the economy towards various priorities. The latest plan, covering 2021–25, is being developed. It will be examined closely for measures such as phasing out coal and more ambitious targets for renewables.
Also key is whether the recent rebound of China’s carbon emissions – following a fall from 2013 to 2016 – can be reversed.
The 2060 commitment is bold, but China may look to leave itself wriggle room in several ways.
First, Xi declared in his speech that China will “aim to” achieve carbon neutrality, leaving open the option his nation may not meet the target.
Second, the Paris Agreement states that developed nations should provide financial resources and technological support to help developing countries reduce their emissions. China may make its delivery of the pledge conditional on this support.
Third, China may seek to game the way carbon neutrality is measured – for example, by insisting it excludes carbon emissions “embodied” in imports and exports. This move is quite likely, given exports account for a significant share of China’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
So for the time being, the world is holding its applause for China’s commitment to carbon neutrality. Like every nation, China will be judged not on its climate promises, but on its delivery.
Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; John Mathews, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Discipline of Politics & International Relations, Macquarie School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University
From an appalling environmental scorecard 20 years ago, China has pioneered a “global green shift” towards renewable energy and recycling. The country’s drive to dominate renewables manufacturing benefits both China and the world, by sending technology prices plummeting.
Many have attributed this success to China’s authoritarian political regime.
Unlike a democracy, this line of reasoning goes, the state can override special interest groups or opposition parties to impose “authoritarian environmentalism”. This allows a rapid and encompassing response to severe environmental threats.
We take a different view. As the chief investigators on an Australia Research Council Discovery Project examining East Asia’s clean energy shift, we are examining why and how some East Asian countries – including China – are pursuing ambitious renewable energy transformations, and what Australia might learn from these countries’ experiences.
We argue China’s success in greening and growing its economy is not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government.
China’s approach to greening shares much in common with democratic countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan. All have ambitious programs to rapidly build domestic clean energy industries and “green” their power generation.
As such, our project emphasises the link between China’s green shift and what we call “developmental environmentalism”.
Developmental environmentalism refers to a state approaching greening as an opportunity to promote national techno-economic competitiveness. It helps explain both the drivers of the green shift and the means of its execution.
The “means” are less about authoritarianism and more about the state’s capacity to induce the private sector into a cooperative relationship.
This type of negotiated relationship between the state and industry is the exact opposite of authoritarianism, which pursues its goals irrespective of the wishes of the private sector. Indeed, the pages of history tell us authoritarian leaders are far more likely to misuse their concentrated economic power, resulting in developmental failure.
China is not alone in its green shift. In fact, some of the world’s most ambitious national greening programs have sprung to life in democratic settings.
The clearest example is Germany and its widely admired Energiewende (“energy transition”). Germany took an early lead in the development of solar devices through government-sponsored industrial programs.
Then in 2011, in the wake of the Fukishima nuclear disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power stations.
Countries around the world are now emulating Germany’s Energiewende.
In one of East Asia’s most vibrant democracies, South Korea, the election of President Lee Myung-bak in 2008 signalled a shift from intensive fossil-fuel development to “low-carbon, green growth”.
Lee’s focus was on greening the economy by investing in renewables and related infrastructure such as smart grids. His successor in 2013, President Park Geun-hye, continued this approach.
Finally, after President Moon Jae-in swept into power in 2017, South Korea committed to scaling down its use of nuclear energy.
Taiwan provides another fascinating example of a proudly democratic country that has followed in Germany’s footsteps. National efforts to establish a renewables industry began in 2009 under President Ma Ying-jeou. These initiatives targeted various clean energy industries for promotion, including generating solar and wind facilities and batteries.
A breakthrough in the country’s highly contentious debate over nuclear energy came with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, who committed to the complete shutdown of nuclear reactors in the country.
These examples provide a clue that China’s ability to green its economy stems from something other than its authoritarian political system. We argue China’s success in greening stems from developmental environmentalism in action.
This does not simply mean a state that is “pro-development” and “pro-environment”. Rather, policymakers see greening the economy as chance to gain a competitive edge over other countries. The pursuit of strategic industry development goals involves nurturing – not displacing, as would occur in an authoritarian setting – “governed interdependence” with the private sector.
Best depicted by the Korean example, developmental environmentalism as a policy initially emerged as a response to threats to national industrial competitiveness. These included acute dependence on fossil-fuel imports, which are highly volatile, and global competitive pressures in the race to gain an early lead in the green economy.
Developmental environmentalism is also a strategic response to domestic challenges, such as the need to drive new sources of economic growth.
If an authoritarian government provides little to no advantage for coordinating a green shift, what lessons might these countries have for Australian policymakers?
The key lesson is it’s not about designing the perfect constellation of policies or about pouring more money into entire industries.
Developmental environmentalism involves the political will to take big risks. Policymakers must target technologies – or segments of the economy – where government support could build national competitiveness.
Of course, this means creating a strategic, long-term approach to industry development, coordinated with the private sector.
Despite political gridlock, Australia is well placed to establish a foothold in the rapidly growing clean energy industry.
As the nation’s leaders engage in a fruitless debate over building new coal-fired power stations, Australian companies with world-class strengths in clean energies are emerging. Nowhere is this growing confidence more evident than in the blossoming of companies that have commercially ready smart microgrid and energy-storage solutions.
It would be a great shame – if not a national tragedy – if these companies were allowed to be picked off one by one by foreign multinational enterprises. This is the sad and familiar story of Australian manufacturing: highly innovative companies – a testament to our wealth of knowledge – are bought out, intellectual property rights absorbed, and manufacturing eventually outsourced. Often, shells of our prized national assets (typically the marketing and sales divisions) are all that remain.
Yet, in the absence of a coordinated national strategy that focuses on building a national value chain or ecosystem of upstream and downstream players – as the Koreans and Taiwanese have done in smart microgrids – this future appears all but settled.
Sung-Young Kim, Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics & International Relations, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Macquarie University
A mysterious rebound in the emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals – despite a global ban stretching back almost a decade – has been traced to eastern China.
Research published by an international team today in Nature used a global network of monitoring stations to pinpoint the source of the rogue emissions. According to these data, 40-60% of the increase in emissions seen since 2013 is due to possibly illegal industrial activity in the Chinese provinces of Shandong and Hebei.
Chlorofluorocarbon-11 (CFC-11) is a powerful ozone-depleting chemical that plays a major role in the appearance, each spring, of the ozone “hole” over Antarctica.
In the past, CFC-11 had been used primarily as a propellant in aerosol products and as a foam plastic blowing agent. The production and consumption (use) of CFC-11 are controlled by the global Montreal Protocol. CFC-11 consumption has been banned in developed countries since 1996, and worldwide since 2010.
This has resulted in a significant decline of CFC-11 in the atmosphere. Long-term CFC-11 measurements at Cape Grim, Tasmania, show the amount in the atmosphere peaked in 1994, and fell 14% by 2018.
However, this decline has not been as rapid as expected under the global zero production and consumption mandated by the Montreal Protocol since 2010.
A 2014 study was the first to deduce that global emissions of CFC-11 stopped declining in 2002. In 2015, CSIRO scientists advised the Australian government, based on measurements compiled by the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE), which includes those from Cape Grim, that emissions had risen significantly since 2011. The cause of this rebound in CFC-11 emissions was a mystery.
An initial explanation came in 2018, when researchers led by Stephen Montzka of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analysed the CFC-11 data collected weekly at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. They deduced that the increased emissions originated largely from East Asia – likely as a result of new, illegal production.
Montzka’s team concluded that if these increased CFC-11 emissions continued, the closure of the Antarctic ozone hole could be delayed, possibly for decades. This was a remarkable piece of detective work, considering that Mauna Loa is more than 8,000km from East Asia.
A still more detailed explanation is published today in the journal Nature by an international research team led by Matt Rigby of the University of Bristol, UK, and Sunyoung Park of Kyungpook National University, South Korea, together with colleagues from Japan, the United States, Australia and Switzerland. The new study uses data collected every two hours by the AGAGE global monitoring network, including data from Gosan, South Korea, and from an AGAGE-affiliated station at Hateruma, Japan. Crucially, Gosan and Hateruma are just 1,000km and 2,000km, respectively, from the suspected epicentre of CFC-11 emissions in East Asia.
The Korean and Japanese data show that these new emissions of CFC-11 do indeed come from eastern China – in particular the provinces of Shandong and Hebei – and that they have increased by around 7,000 tonnes per year since 2013.
Meanwhile, the rest of the AGAGE network has detected no evidence of increasing CFC-11 emissions elsewhere around the world, including in North America, Europe, Japan, Korea or Australia.
Yet while this new study has accounted for roughly half of the recent global emissions rise, it is possible that smaller increases have also taken place in other countries, or even in other parts of China, not covered by the AGAGE network. There are large swathes of the globe for which we have very little detailed information on CFC emissions.
Nevertheless, this study represents an important milestone in atmospheric scientists’ ability to tell which regions are emitting ozone-depleting substances and in what quantities. It is now vital we find out which industries are responsible for these new emissions.
If the emissions are due to the manufacture and use of products such as foams, it is possible that, so far, we have seen in the atmosphere only a fraction of the total amount of CFC-11 that was produced illegally. The remainder could be locked up in buildings and chillers, and will ultimately be released to the atmosphere over the coming decades.
While our new study cannot determine which industry or industries are responsible, it does provide strong evidence that substantial new emissions of CFC-11 have occurred from China. Chinese authorities have identified, and closed down, some illegal production facilities over the past several years.
This study highlights the importance of undertaking long-term measurements of trace gases like CFC-11 to verify that international treaties and protocols are working. It also identifies shortcomings in the global networks for detecting regional emissions of ozone depleting substances. This should encourage expansion of these vital measurement networks which would lead to a capability of more rapid identification of future emission transgressions.
Paul Krummel, Research Group Leader, CSIRO; Bronwyn Dunse, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Nada Derek, Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, CSIRO; Paul Fraser, Honorary Fellow, CSIRO, and Paul Steele, Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, CSIRO