The most fundamental purpose of the new Silk Road is to decrease the distance travelled by Chinese goods to reach their target market, so that the goods may remain cheap and retain their appeal to the masses. However, low transportation costs of the goods come at a substantial price. Since most goods will be transported using vehicles that emit air pollution, a human health cost will be incurred as a result of this project. In the coming decades, one can predict a rise in respiratory diseases in inhabitants that live along the Silk Road route. The noise generated by machinery during construction of the project, and later, by vehicles responsible for transporting goods, will also be a potential nuisance for people residing along the route.
The infrastructure required for the new Silk Road will require huge expanses of land – which must be cleared of forests, vegetation, fields and farms. This will pose a problem for areas such as Chitral, where there is a scarcity of land. In addition to destroying sources of subsistence for the locals, the construction work will also cause a loss of biodiversity and animal habitats. While people can be relocated and compensated for their losses, the damage done to animal species will be difficult to undo.
The impact of transportation and deforestation combined will emerge as a major contribution to global warming in the long run. Several countries that are a part of the new Silk Road initiative are already experiencing an increase in flooding, rain and heat spells. The new Silk Road initiative could also aggravate natural disasters that result from human activities.
With regards to the steps that have already been taken, China has agreed to share its experience of environmental sustainability and green processes in recent years, so that member countries may get to learn from its experience. Fang Li, assistant secretary-general of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, said in a speech made in April 2015:
"Environmental protection is a shared consensus among all nations [...] as a developing country, we understand that in nations involved in the Belt and Road initiative, there exists the contradictory mentality of environmental protection versus development," Fang said.
China has recognized the fact that several member countries of the new Silk Road initiative may still be stuck in the development vs. environment conundrum. The key is not to choose one over the other, but rather to find a balance between both. Therefore, the possible environmental consequences should not deter member states from making a commitment to the project.
China and the rest of the member countries need to work towards solutions in the early phases of the project. Firstly, stakeholders in the project should switch to more eco-friendly fuels for transportation purposes, in order to reduce the harm inflicted on nearby populations. As part of the social responsibility of this project, investing parties can devote a fraction of the allocated funds towards research pertaining to eco-friendly fuels. People displaced by the infrastructure construction should be relocated at a safe distance (a parameter that minimizes the harm of air and noise pollution emitted by transport and construction machinery) from the new Silk Road. Also, laws requiring the use of catalytic convertors (devices that convert vehicle emissions into relatively harmless products) in vehicles along the corridor could be drafted and passed in the participating countries.
Afforestation should be undertaken to reverse the damage done to forests since the beginning of the project. As an ancillary effort, animal reserves could be set up in areas where the project can potentially cause a loss of biodiversity. These reserves may also help the project by promoting tourism and consequently helping the member states earn revenue from tourists.
On a more positive note, the new Silk Road can be used to overcome the challenges posed by the natural environment for the Asian region. The extensive road network can help overcome barriers to disaster management. Therefore, in response to flash flooding, torrential rains, earthquakes or drought, aid can be dispensed to affected areas more rapidly than before. PRCS (Pakistan Red Crescent Society) has already expressed interest in setting up a rapid response emergency service along the entirety of the route. Such a service will be highly favorable for all states participating in the project; it will also be valuable at times when medical experts, equipment or assistance is needed in any of the member states.
Lastly, there is a need to recognize that “going green” with respect to this project can contribute to economic growth. Being considerate of the environment means to be resource-efficient and to avoid local costs and implications of global warming. It also results in improved investor and consumer confidence (keeping in mind the concerns about environmental implications of consumer and investment choices). Finally, it also results in enhanced agricultural output by reducing the degradation of land and water (highly advantageous for agriculture-based economies like Pakistan). Therefore, the idea of going green is in harmony with an ambitious project like the new Silk Road.
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