China's Belt and Road Initiative

China Unveiled Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Five Years Ago.

Since then, countries hailed it as a transformative tool for soft power. Many compared the BRI to the Marshall Plan and welcomed the new idea believing it would expand markets and stabilize the region. Despite the profound potential to promote connectivity and increase commerce, the associated risks are severe and the catastrophic implications -- as it relates to climate change -- threaten the ecosystem of our entire planet.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a project of enormous scale and reach. Considered a gargantuan development project, the purpose of the BRI is to improve China’s trade and transport links to the rest of the world through large-scale infrastructure projects. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the $150 billion a year spending project in 2013 in an attempt to create a 21st-century version of the famed Silk Road. This also includes the estimated $900 billion of loans that China underwrote in 71 countries.

However, the Initiative relies heavily on coal. This emphasis is especially worrying. CoalSwarm, an environmental NGO, estimated Chinese firms are involved in the construction, ownership, or financing of at least 16 percent of all coal-fired power stations under development outside China. By the end of 2016, China was involved in 240 coal-fired power projects in 25 of the 65 countries collaborating with China on BRI projects.

“Chinese banks’ and companies’ investments in coal abroad are a cause of major concern because of their potential to lock in more climate warming emissions in our carbon-constrained world,” said Huang Wei, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “It is a complicated web of involvement, but ultimately all investments in coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, are bad for everyone involved — recipient country, China and the planet as a whole,” Huang told CNBC.

Eco-friendly policies at home, however, do not necessarily translate to green policies abroad.

In 2012, the year the Chinese Communist Party elected Xi Jinping its leader, the party listed “ecological civilization” as one of the five goals in the country's overall development plan at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. In 2016, President Xi called for the Belt and Road to be “green, healthy, intelligent and peaceful.” In a 2018 speech, President Xi urged policymakers at the National Congress of the Communist Party to promote eco-friendly policies that ensure “harmony between human and nature.” Xi continued to promote policies that ensure “green, low-carbon and circular development,” “promote afforestation,” “strengthen wetland conservation and restoration,” and “stop and punish all activities that damage the environment” — in short, “to build an ecological civilization that will benefit generations to come.”

China’s coal consumption prevents achieving goals set in the Paris Agreement because of the Belt and Road Initiative.

In the Paris Agreement, 195 countries agreed to limit the increase in global temperatures by modifying the way firms conduct business. The standout phrase is moving temperatures from pre-industrial levels to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The energy think tank, Climate Tracker, confirmed statements made by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Both estimated at least 59% of coal power worldwide must be retired by 2030 to limit a worldwide temperature rise to 1.5°C. By achieving a temperature rise of only 1.5°C instead of 2.0°C, some of the greatest consequences are curbed.

While it is well-known that fossil fuels are the biggest single contributor to the global rise of carbon emissions, it would be inspiring to witness global actors like China to elevate green practices to a higher level and decrease reliance on the coal industry. To China’s credit, they are taking steps to promote green energy. In 2014 alone, China added 20 gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity, 11 GW of solar and 22 GW of hydro-power capacity. The next year, reforms to the electricity market removed coal’s guaranteed hours. Further, grid operators were encouraged to give priority to renewable energy over coal. These reforms were welcomed by climate advocates, but China’s promotion of coal in BRI projects threaten to undo the global community’s efforts to combat climate change.

China may be promoting “ecological civilization” at home, but it must address the urgent climate consequences of its expansionary agenda. Now.

Cow Leather

Cows account for 70% of the world’s leather production.

Once dairy cows are no longer profitable, they are then sold to be slaughtered and skinned. This practice includes slaughtering unborn calves, their mothers, and even cows that are not used in the supply chain for meat consumption or dairy production. Globally, the demand for leather products is projected to be a $128.61 billion industry by 2022, way higher than the 2018 figure of $95.4 billion. Further, the United States, by 2022, is projected to also capture just more than 10% of the industry or about $13.1 billion. As consumers, we have a significant stake in the health of the leather industry.

From footwear to automobile seats, leather products are intertwined with everyday life. As one may suspect, countries like China, Brazil, Italy, Russia and India are the leading exporters of leather products. In fact, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries and the Council for Leather Exports have found that leather exports in India are ten times greater than its meat exports. The implication is, essentially, cows, in India, are being killed purely for their skin. This is despite the large Hindu population and positive symbolism often association with cows. Clearly, the religious connotations are not superseding market forces.

When firms manufacture leather from cowhides, many deadly toxins are released. In the United States, most leather is produced by chrome-tanning. Chrome-tanning uses chemicals such as tar, formaldehyde, and dyes that produces a lethal byproduct — chromium. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the waste creates “dead zones”. Dead zones are run-off chemicals that result in the “overgrowth of plant life in water systems”. This overgrowth of plant life depletes oxygen levels and alters the ecosystem irreparably.

However, the damage doesn’t stop there. Often, workers in nearby tanneries are at risk for higher rates of cancer due to exposure of these chemicals. For example, in Kentucky, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that residents were five times more likely to develop leukemia than the average person in the United States, simply because they lived in the same vicinity. Similarly, in a medical report, several doctors stated that childhood leukemia could be a preventable disease if public health awareness about the dangers of certain chemicals was more well known.

Even if you consider alternatives — such as, vegan leather —it is still terrible. Although no cows are being slaughtered, it is produced synthetically with use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane. These plastics leach overtime, which are harmful to consumers and the environment. However, the advantage of vegan leather is the ability to source products in a less harmful manner.

To elaborate, better sources do exist to buy leather, whether it be from animal products or faux. In Fez, Morocco, tanning is produced less harmfully. The skin is soaked in a cow urine mixture and then pigeon poop mixture before being colored by natural vegetable dyes and dried in the sun. For vegans, Stella McCartney has pursued Eco Faux Leather targeted to make faux leather from biodegradable, non-toxic materials.

Simply put, we encourage consumers to understand and research products before they buy them. I know I will not be buying leather products anytime soon.