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Building a Shared Future for All Life Along the Belt and Road Initiative

Aerial photo of the new 50mw Chinese financed and constructed solar power plant in the northeastern Kenyan city of Garissa that will allow the region to connect to the national grid for the first time.

By Rebecca Ray

This Sunday, May 22, marks International Day for Biological Diversity, and this year the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has chosen a theme of “building a shared future for all life.” China’s role as host of the 15th Conference of the Parties of CBD (CBD COP15) – spread out between the first half in October 2021 and a second-half in the third quarter of this year – reflects its interest in taking a global leadership role on biodiversity conservation.

Indeed, domestically, Chinese biodiversity conservation efforts have been impressive. The new Ecological Conservation Red Line (ECRL) program sets aside 25 percent of national territory for conservation. While many countries have systems of nationally protected areas, China’s ECRL program is notable for the speed at which it was established (about a decade from its proposal), and its reliance on spatial analysis of ecological services – meaning it is informed by communities’ reliance on biodiversity for their lives and livelihoods, recognizing that effective conservation in fact preserves “a shared future for all life.”

However, China has struggled to extend this same ambition overseas along its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Research by the Boston University Global Development Policy Center shows that Chinese policy-bank financed projects are significantly more likely than World Bank projects to be located in critical biodiversity habitats or national protected areas. This difference is particularly important considering China’s traditional deference to host-country central governments on the environmental management of projects. This “country systems” approach is based on the Five Principles of Harmonious Coexistence, but in practice can leave the oversight of ecologically sensitive projects in the hands of young, understaffed, and underfunded environment and culture ministries around the world, even when China’s domestic experience could provide guidance. This imbalance between the scale of the BRI and the institutional capacity of host-country regulatory agencies can bring risks to ecosystems, communities, and even projects themselves.

By hosting CBD COP15, China shows it is eager to take a global leadership role in an area where it has excelled domestically, but lagged internationally. How can China align its overseas footprint with its domestic achievements?

Three potential avenues show promise: China’s offer to extend the ECRL approach overseas, the new Kunming Biodiversity Fund, and new guidance from China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

During the first portion of the CBD COP15 in October 2021, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) declared its interest in exporting its ECRL approach throughout the BRI.  Having developed the technical expertise to identify the biodiversity resources most crucial for preservation, it is reasonable to extend that know-how overseas. In all, this announcement shows China is willing to export its conservation experience in a way that does not conflict with the Principles of Harmonious Coexistence.

One way to fund this work is through the Kunming Biodiversity Fund, also established during CBD COP15. While small (it was established with just 1.5 billion RMB, or roughly $233 million), the Fund would be well-positioned to support staff training or technology sharing efforts. It could also be paired with the recently introduced “Shanghai Model” of debt relief, which envisions coordination of debt renegotiations of Chinese creditors through the People’s Bank of China, incorporating Chinese policy goals in the process, to finance debt-for-nature swaps.

Finally, where Chinese finance is directly invested overseas, updated guidance from the NDRC shows that China is beginning to consider moving beyond a passive “country systems” approach to environmental governance. It specifically instructs investors to consider not just national environmental regulations but local communities’ environmental priorities, highlighting the ecological systems approach that underpinned the ECRL process in China.

These policy developments should not be considered reasons for passive optimism, but rather as footholds for government involvement and civil society advocacy. The expansion of ECRL overseas, the nascent Kunming Biodiversity Fund, and the updated guidance from China’s government are novel ways for BRI host countries to directly engage with China on promoting biodiversity and truly moving towards “building a shared future for all life.”

Rebecca Ray is a Senior Academic Researcher at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center.

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