Global Warming and its Impact on the Belt and Road

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

With the United Nations issuing a stark warning that the world’s governments have just 12 years to deal with climate change or face serious consequences, the mapping of how global warming and its effects will impact upon the planet is now starting to get worked out.

The problem with doing so, however, is that there is no precedent nor enough data to accurately predict what will occur, which is one reason certain governments remain in denial about it – they require hard, irrefutable evidence. Evidence that clearly is not going to be apparent until it has already occurred. Instead, scientists, politicians and economists must work in the dark, and with often differing agendas over what is important today rather than 100 years hence.

What is known, however, is the expected impact on certain areas, and especially those close to water. Interestingly, this has huge implications for the Belt and Road Initiative, the countries that are part of this, and China’s infrastructure build. It is already apparent that these changes will usher in new technologies to deal with these altered regional dynamics.

Concerning the Belt and Road, there will be huge stressors but also opportunities opening up in Asia. As we reported on Russia Briefing a few days ago, Maersk recently made the first commercial shipping voyage through the Arctic Ocean, sending a new class of container ship, especially designed to deal with ice, from Vladivostok to St.Petersburg. On board were Korean and Chinese electronics and fresh fish from Kamchatka. The journey took 15 days, with a considerable cost saving and less carbon footprint than the alternative routes via the Suez Canal or round the Horn of Africa. But what of the Arctic?

Much of the Arctic and Siberia is part of the Russian Far East, already strategically important for China as supplying oil and gas, and very much part of the BRI. Ports such as Vladivostok are already starting to boom; I touched upon the redevelopment of Russia’s Arctic Ports, a string of ice pearls stretching from Asia to Europe here. Ports such as Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, and Vladivostok are already being developed for future traffic needs, often with Chinese financing. The Northern Sea Passage is a direct route between China and Europe, and is potentially being augmented by projects such as new rail routes being constructed in Finland through to the Arctic to offer a Northern European rail link to the Arctic shipping routes. Part of that maybe the much-discussed Finland-Estonia tunnel underneath the Baltic Sea, which is currently under consideration. If that happens, Northern Europe through to Poland and Germany will be linked directly to the Arctic.

On the other hand, known consequences of Arctic and Siberian warming include the melting of existing permafrost, which would wreck existing infrastructure, with buildings, roads, pipelines, and rail tracks essentially falling apart without solid foundations, and sinking into mud. Who is dealing with this from the technical perspective? The Chinese and the Russians. China has experience of this from the engineering challenges it faced when building the railway to Lhasa. Other Arctic issues are increased coastal erosion and a fast changing topography. It is entirely possible new rivers will be created. On the other hand, plant species will move in a colonize the region, perhaps providing enough root systems to stabilize the ground. The opening up of Siberia and the Arctic will see the demise of certain species, but on the other hand the wealth that lies in the ground in the form of retrievable commodities will ensure that Russia’s position as a regional if not global power will continue. The main problem for Moscow is a political one – it needs Chinese labor to exploit the region. But how to do that without risking making large swathes of the Russian land mass a Chinese colony?

Overall, however, the Arctic and Siberian regions will profit from what is already occurring.

Elsewhere in Asia the view is not so attractive. Glaciers feeding both Central and South Asia are drying up. This is increasing the risk of flooding and the risk of destabilization as land rebounds from the lack of weight of tons of ice upon it. There will be far less fresh water as resources diminish, and even more worryingly, this coincides with large population increases in these same areas. Countries such as Bangladesh, parts of India and Pakistan, and most of Central Asia, including Mongolia, will be badly affected. Desertification will occur placing immense stress on the region. It is estimated that over a billion people will be impacted by 2050. That can create migration issues, and lead to conflict. Maybe a trickle of the displaced will migrate to Siberia, but whether the region can support that is unknown.

Tibet contains the world’s third largest reserve of water. Yet temperatures are rising there four times the average of anywhere else in China. The plateau and much of the surrounding areas will become desertified and virtually uninhabitable. Downstream, the Indus and Ganges Rivers will be hugely impacted, meaning northern India will lose much of its natural irrigation.

But again, there is some good news. Crop yields in South-East Asia are expected to rise by 20 percent by 2050. The downside is that crop yields in Central Asia are expected to decrease by about 30 percent. Humans will migrate. Disease and the potential for epidemics are also expected to increase. The last global epidemic was the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918, which spread from Asia and killed an estimated 50 million people. The WHO is already warning the world is overdue another global epidemic. It may be crass to suggest this, however, a global pandemic that wipes out large quantities of humans would probably be a good thing for Planet Earth right now. Nature sometimes rebalances itself in violent ways. Should a global epidemic occur, human activities resulting in less sanitary conditions will see the species reap what it has been sowing. It is a sobering thought.

However, for those who are critical of China’s territorial claims and building up of small islands and reefs in the South and East China sea, there maybe some payback. Rises in ocean levels are likely to make these bases unviable without huge cost. Increasingly unstable weather will also become a factor, with massive storm surges destroying islands rather bigger than the disputed reefs China has been parking its military on.

The Chinese have been working on solutions to try and prevent this from occurring, and a new science, geo-engineering, is being born. China has in fact already built the world’s largest geo-engineering research facilities at Beijing Normal University.

One project the Chinese are looking at is the dispersal of of spraying particles into the stratosphere to scatter sunlight, or making coastal clouds more reflective. It’s generally believed such methods could offset temperature increases, but there are considerable concerns about potential environmental side effects, the tricky political challenges it raises, and the ethics of deploying a technology that could alter climate on a global scale.

Indeed, due to significant improvements in CO2 efficiency and a clear slow-down in the rise of its annual total CO2 emissions, China is increasingly perceived as a new low-carbon champion and appears to be in a position to take over global climate mitigation leadership. The influential Nature Magazine recently ran an article on how China is attempting to do this, a rare acknowledgment of how China is indeed being responsible for its actions.

While Western powers such as the United States and Australia seem to be looking elsewhere, China is proving to be a champion of change. While the regional impacts of global warming will still occur, it seems increasingly China who is likely to develop the technologies and engineering techniques to keep the worst from happening. With its Belt and Road involvement, the opportunities for scientists, economists, commercial interests, and politicians all under one roof to get things done and create action plans to deal with the problems of climate change may yet be one of the Belt and Road Initiatives most lasting legacies.

This article was originally published on October 11, 2018, and has been updated.


About Us

Silk Road Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the practice Chairman. The firm has 26 years of China operations with offices throughout China, Asia and Europe. Please refer to our Belt & Road desk or visit our website at for further information.