Balance Between Economic Growth & Environmental Protection in CPEC

Author Name: Hassan Tahir      27 Aug 2020     Government & Politics

China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has brought with it some environmental concerns. The trillion-dollar project encompassing `six continents is designed to accelerate economic growth by focusing on infrastructure developments, economic/industrial zones, road networks and rail lines. But at the same time, it has posed a degree of environmental challenge that now demands a balance between two interdependent phenomena: economic growth and environmental protection.

The more we destroy the environment, the less able it is to support us. But economic growth might at times come at the expense of natural eco systems, especially when heavy industry and infrastructure are involved.

Like the industrial revolution that introduced ‘coal’ as a power source from energy generation to manufacturing, and exploited natural resources for commercial use, China’s BRI might also follow a similar pattern. Since Chinese companies are consuming coal as a fuel for energy production across BRI countries, rough estimates suggest that 33% of total global carbon emission comes from BRI countries.

According to a study authored by researchers at Tsinghua University, Vivid Economics, and Climate Works Foundation, for the greater group of 126 countries signed onto the BRI, emissions are projected to grow from 33% of total global carbon emission to 66% by 2050.

The current environmental problems like unsafe levels of air pollution, climate change, and deforestation have been influenced by industrialization. The Inclusive Wealth Report, led by the UN Environment Programme, clearly shows that out of 140 major nations of the world, 109 are showing a downward trend in their natural resource base over the past two decades. Forest resources are declining in 85 countries, and renewable resources in general are declining in more than 100 countries.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to link six continents that host 60 percent of the total world population. The subsections of the BRI, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are mainly based on road networks and economic zones that slice through Pakistan’s highly eco-sensitive northern areas. This mountainous region has unique biodiversity and is covered with dense forests and glaciers that naturally help in maintaining the country’s climate balance.

Due to increasing urbanization and economic activity in these areas, the region is already experiencing increased temperature, ice melting, flash flooding and scarce rains. The Global Climate Risk Index has placed Pakistan on the fifth spot on the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change in its annual report for 2020, which was released by the think-tank Germanwatch in January this year.

The National Environment Information System (NEIMS) in its 2010 report revealed that the country’s deforestation rate has been estimated at between 0.2 and 0.5 per cent per annum — the highest in the world — accounting for four to six percent decline in its wood biomass per annum.

This percentage of deforestation coupled with infrastructure-building activities are not only increasing the regional temperature but also triggering ice melting and glacier loss. The Hunza meteorological station recorded an average temperature of 24°C in June 2019 that significantly increased to 27.7°C on average in late May this year.

This anomalous temperature caused significant glacier melt, resulting in an increase in the local lake’s area until late May 2020 – following which an outburst occurred in Hasanabad district due to the Shisper Glacier’s surge. Prior to this, in 2010, a landslide occurred in Hunza, causing Attabad lake to submerge a portion of Karakorum Highway (KKH) and wreak havoc on the local population.

Undoubtedly, the underlying aim of CPEC is to ameliorate Pakistan’s infrastructure, road networks, and electricity shortfall, but it may unintendedly impact the country’s natural eco-fabric. Yet President Xi Jinping in his 2016 speech called for the pursuit of green development with intent to conserve the environment, protect biodiversity and tackle climate change.

One way of promoting sustainable growth can be planting saplings through the whole CPEC route and establish green zones like forests. Trees are the best solution for managing the possible environmental drawbacks of CPEC.

Economic growth should not come at the expense of environmental disasters, because our natural capital feeds society and contributes to economic growth. Both Chinese and Pakistani governments should work to ensure sustainable economic growth vis-à-vis the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor in order to preclude any long-term environmental crisis.


The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). He can be reached at

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