Timber being trucked through the northern Laos province of Louang Namtha on its way to the Chinese border.

Timber being trucked through the northern Laos province of Louang Namtha on its way to the Chinese border. Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images


The Dark Legacy of China’s Drive for Global Resources

As China pursues a startling array of energy, mining, logging, agricultural, and infrastructure projects on virtually every continent, it is having an unprecedented environmental impact on the planet.

For the past 35 years, I’ve worked as an ecologist in the Amazon, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region on an array of environmental issues, mostly revolving around tropical forests, biodiversity, and the drivers of land use and climate change. I’ve seen many things — some good, some amazing, some heart-rending. But I’ve never seen a nation have such an overwhelming impact on the earth as China does now. 

Across the globe, on nearly every continent, China is involved in a dizzying variety of resource extraction, energy, agricultural, and infrastructure projects — roads, railroads, hydropower dams, mines — that are wreaking unprecedented damage to ecosystems and biodiversity. This onslaught will likely be made easier by the Trump administration’s anti-environmental tack and growing disengagement internationally. 

To be fair, China is also engaged in green activities, such as investing heavily in solar and wind energy, cracking down on its notorious air pollution, and replanting millions of acres of its denuded lands. And it’s in the process of banning the domestic sale of ivory, which should slow the epic slaughter of Africa and Asia’s elephants. But China’s burnishing of its green credentials is in many ways being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of environmental degradation that its policies and corporations are causing worldwide.

The country’s international resource push began in earnest in 1999, when China’s “Going Global Strategy” liberalized investment policies and provided financial incentives to encourage overseas investments and contracts. Bulging with foreign reserves and with Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s official blessing that “to become rich is glorious,” China’s international investments — and their impact on the natural world — exploded.  

China’s most profound environmental impacts revolve around its drive to acquire minerals, fossil fuels, agricultural commodities, and timber from other nations. This often involves deals to build large-scale roads, railways, and other infrastructure to move natural resources from interior areas to coastal ports for export. The rapid pace of such activities continues despite a recent slowdown in the Chinese economy, with major projects now being planned in the developing world.

From 2004 to 2014, the China Export-Import Bank played a leading role in funding $10 billion in East African railway projects, many of which were constructed by Chinese corporations. The Chinese are now helping fund and build major rail networks in Kenya and Uganda, one leg of which is planned to pass through Nairobi National Park.

Even in the remote interior of the Congo Basin, Chinese companies are heavily involved in road-construction, mining, and logging projects, as I recently observed in Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. China also is proposing a 3,000-mile railway that would slice completely across South America, cutting through remote forests and savannas to transport soy, timber, and other goods to the Pacific coast, where they can be shipped to China. The $60 billion price tag has given Peru pause, but the project is still under discussion.

It is difficult to find a corner of the developing world where China is not having a significant environmental impact.

China is the world’s biggest financer and builder of hydroelectric dams, many of which are being constructed in biologically diverse regions where the dams and their associated roads and power lines will open up new lands for exploitation. China is involved in the planning, financing, or construction of major dams in Africa, including the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, now nearing completion. A consortium of Chinese companies is bidding to help construct the Grand Inga dam project on the Congo River, a series of dams that could become the largest hydroelectric project in the world. Although construction could begin later this year, the Democratic Republic of Congo has so far done no environmental impact studies.

The scale of China’s international ambitions is stunning, as evidenced by the country’s “Belt and Road” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” schemes. These two initiatives would involve the creation of a massive network of transportation and other infrastructure projects designed to accelerate development and advance China’s economic and political interests. They will stretch across Asia to Europe and Africa, providing access to 64 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its gross domestic product.

Developing nations clearly need better infrastructure, and Chinese investments are yielding sizeable benefits in some countries, such as the recently opened passenger line between the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and the port of Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. Unfortunately, Chinese companies and investors rarely advance the type of equitable economic and social development, improved governance, and environmental sustainability that would promote stable, long-term growth in developing economies. An in-depth report by the Global Canopy Program, a UK scientific group, concluded that Chinese companies and financial organizations are among the worst enterprises in the world in terms of driving tropical deforestation.

China has long been a black hole for the illegal wildlife trade, the biggest global consumer of everything from pangolins, to tiger parts, to shark fins and rhino horn. The promised ban on public trading of ivory in China is a good sign, but it’s only one facet of a thriving illegal wildlife trade that drives intense levels of poaching internationally. And China is a heavy consumer of illegal timber, despite belatedly taking steps to staunch the flow into its markets. In western Africa, rosewood forests are being illegally denuded, almost exclusively to feed high demand in China. The impacts are even heavier across the Asia-Pacific region, where native forests from Siberia to the Solomon Islands are being overexploited to feed Chinese timber markets.

More generally, there is little demand in China for eco-certified palm oil, timber, beef, seafood, and agricultural products, weakening global efforts to manage these resources more sustainably. And although China is one of the world’s biggest importers of palm oil — a major driver of tropical deforestation — the Chinese government charges import tariffs on environmentally certified palm oil, further undercutting domestic demand for its use.

Of course, China is not alone in promoting its own economic interests over those of other countries and their environmental health. This is a story that goes back to the colonial era and beyond, when European nations ruthlessly exploited resources and local populations from Africa, to South America, to India. More recently, Western corporations — such as Shell Oil in Nigeria, Union Carbide in India, and Texaco in Ecuador — have caused numerous environmental crises.

The difference with China is one of scale. With nearly one-fifth of the world’s population (1.35 billion people), a highly competitive business culture, little tolerance of criticism, and a stunning capacity to make decisive shifts in course, China is unmatched as a global force. No nation has ever changed the planet so rapidly, on such a large scale, and with such single-minded determination. It is difficult to find a corner of the developing world where China is not having a significant environmental impact. 

The factors that might restrain a U.S. or European country in foreign resource-development projects — intense press criticism, or laws governing foreign business practices — are largely lacking in today’s China. For example, while U.S. companies are bound by the anti-bribery laws in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, there is no comparable legislation governing the conduct of Chinese business people and corporations. Europeans in Africa frequently complain about the scale of Chinese graft. “They go straight to the top officials and bribe them lavishly, and then nobody can stop them,” a Dutch forester in the Republic of Congo told me. “We used to offer small ‘gifts’ to many people, but now the money is all concentrated at the top and corruption is out of control.”

The Tekeze Dam in northern Ethiopia while under construction. The project, funded and constructed largely by Chinese companies, began operating in 2009. 

The Tekeze Dam in northern Ethiopia while under construction. The project, funded and constructed largely by Chinese companies, began operating in 2009.  International Rivers/Flickr

According to a major World Bank analysis of nearly 3,000 projects, Chinese foreign investors and companies often predominate in poorer nations with weak environmental regulations and controls, causing those nations to become “pollution havens” for Chinese enterprises.

The magnitude of China’s international resource exploitation is only likely to increase. The Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is heavily capitalized and is moving rapidly to fund overseas projects with “streamlined” environmental and social safeguards. Alarmingly, last year the World Bank announced that it was softening its own environmental and social safeguards, in a move that was widely seen as an effort to remain competitive with the AIIB. As I argued recently, the AIIB and other Chinese development banks could force a “race to the bottom” among multilateral lenders — with potentially grave consequences for the global environment.  

Over the last decade Chinese government ministries have released a series of “green papers” outlining lofty environmental and social guidelines for China’s overseas ventures and corporations. The Chinese government readily admits that compliance with its guidelines is poor, but accepts no blame for this. Instead, it insists that it has little control over its corporations and blames the host nations themselves for not controlling Chinese corporations more carefully.

The truth is that while China’s private firms enjoy significant autonomy from the Central Communist Party, China is among the most centrally controlled societies in the world. If China really wanted to reign in its freewheeling corporations, it could easily do so by making some strong official statements and visibly punishing a few extravagant sinners. It hasn’t done this for one simple reason: Despite their often-egregious environmental activities, China’s corporations operating overseas are enormously profitable. 

Domestically, China’s environmental impact is also profound. In terms of climate change, for instance, in recent years China has blown past the United State as the world’s biggest carbon polluter — and now produces twice the greenhouse gas emissions of the U.S., as well as larger amounts of dangerous air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Yes, China is investing in new wind and solar technologies, but it is plowing far more cash into big hydropower, coal, and nuclear energy projects.

In addition to its monolithic Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest hydropower project, China is building or planning to build 20 mega-dams along its stretch of the Mekong River, which could have serious impacts on biodiversity, fisheries, and water users in downstream nations, such as Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. 

If China really wanted to reign in its freewheeling corporations, it could easily do so.

Many have lauded China’s incredible tree-planting spree, which began in 1978 and has reforested roughly 100,000 square miles, mostly in western China. Yes, those trees are storing carbon, helping to stabilize soils and reduce sediment runoff into streams, and producing wood for China’s domestic sawmills. But nearly all of the planted trees are monocultures of exotic species such as eucalyptus and aspen, which have little value as habitat for native wildlife. Further, in southern China, large expanses of biologically rich rainforests have been cleared for exotic rubber plantations

China is paying increasing attention to its air, water, and soil pollution, which is among the worst in the world, especially in scores of cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Xingtai. But progress has been limited and large expanses of eastern and central China have become unhealthy places for people and biodiversity alike. China’s leaders and scientists acknowledge that its impressive biodiversity has suffered greatly.

As China’s environmental impact continues to grow domestically and internationally, the Trump administration — with its anti-environmental agenda and nationalist, inward-looking nature — has already pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China and its overseas investment banks are leaping into the Pacific vacuum.

The Trump Administration seems barely cognizant of these pressing realities. And that leaves conservationists in a very tough bind. We never expected Trump to get elected, much less to support our views. But the weaknesses of the Trump administration could be leading to a broader U.S. decline that will hasten environmental degradation worldwide. 

For me, the worst-case scenario plays out something like this: Two years ago, I was discussing with a researcher from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cambodia whether the society should advise a German development bank on how to build a paved road through the heart of the Seima Forest, a haven for rare wildlife. He hated to do it, but he didn’t see much choice. “If we don’t help the Germans,” the scientist said, “a Chinese corporation will just come in and blast the road through anyway — and that would be an ecological disaster.”