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Sustainability of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

May 2019: Public concerns from the head of the IMF about the environmental and debt sustainability of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are coinciding with new evidence that many BRI projects could pose significant risks for unprotected key biodiversity areas. It suggests that the BRI’s loan governance and environmental planning requires intensive restructuring and rethinking.


Following a public speech in Beijing, the head of the IMD, Christine Lagarde, underlined concerns about environmental and debt sustainability of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. She urged Chinese leaders to consider the financial consequences of their overseas investments in light of 38 BRI loans worth $50bn needing to be restructured over recent years. It coincides with new evidence suggesting that up to 15% of proposed BRI infrastructure projects are in direct proximity of unprotected key biodiversity areas.

Implications & Opportunities

Following increasing public pressure about debt and environmental sustainability as well concerns about corruption in natural resource-rich economies, China presented new green investment principles and confirmed that China was applying debt sustainability criteria recommended by the IMF to reduce the BRI’s risks. Further, experts are proposing to use the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a template to improve governance of BRI loans. However, each project will need to assess trade-offs between conservation and other values as well increase efforts to facilitate adaptive planning that mitigates, minimizes or avoids impacts on unprotected biodiversity areas and eco-fragile regions.


Measures to curb unsustainable financial and environmental practices might only have limited impact on the BRI’s implementation since the loans are issued by competing Chinese agencies and state-owned companies, making their debt spending opaque, and hard to predict. Further, data availability for BRI maps and impacted biodiversity hotspots is limited and often reliant on estimates.


Hughes, A. C. (2019). Understanding and minimizing environmental impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.13317

Financial Times. (2019). China grapples with its BRI lending binge. Retrieved from


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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.