And Now, a Word from Your Planet

The hook for this edition of “A Word from Your Planet” is not just weak, it’s downright imaginary — I’m hanging it on Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP)’s grand plans for our port, which I referenced this week in the Cossitt Heights article.

In fact, I’m hanging it on a particularly imaginary aspect of this imaginary project: the claim that the Port of Sydney would become part of China’s Belt and Road project — a claim made in the Cape Breton Post in August 2015 by Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher, fresh from a 10-day trip to China:

Uncertainty around the Chinese economy and the move this week to devalue its currency, the yuan, has caused some global turmoil. Usher said they saw no impact from that uncertainty during their trip, noting China currently has a “one belt, one road” strategy to bring its goods through the Suez Canal to Europe and North America.

“They are actually looking for East Coast hubs, so the timing actually couldn’t be more perfect, even though they maybe have some market issues,” she said.

Compare that to this definition of the Belt and Road Initiative from a January 2019 article by Isabel Hilton in Yale Environment 360:

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, has been described as the most ambitious infrastructure project in history. It is a plan to finance and build roads, railways, bridges, ports, and industrial parks abroad, beginning with China’s neighbors in Central, South, and Southeast Asia and eventually reaching Western Europe and across the Pacific to Latin America.

Note this definition includes no mention of North America, let alone the east coast of North America, let alone the east coast of Canada.

Just as nobody but our “port developer” Albert Barbusci of SHIP calls the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) — our putative “partner” in the Port of Sydney project —  “Quad C,” nobody else in the world seems to see a role for the east coast of Canada in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This should really concern us.


But that’s a point I’ve made before, today I have a different point that should concern us: the environmental implications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

This was the subject of the Yale Environment 360 article quoted above. As Hilton notes, just building the infrastructure to link the 70 countries that have signed onto the initiative will involve “massive amounts of concrete, steel, and chemicals, creating new power stations, mines, roads, railways, airports, and container ports.” But her greatest concern is reserved for the “the vision of industrial development to follow, and the energy that is planned to fuel it.”

Photo of a coal-fired power plant in Shuozhou, Shanxi, China Kleineolive [CC BY 3.0 (]

Photo of a coal-fired power plant in Shuozhou, Shanxi, China, Kleineolive, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s because much of that energy will be derived from coal, consumption of which China has capped at home while going on a “building spree” internationally:

Chinese companies are involved in at least 240 coal projects in 25 of the Belt and Road countries, including in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Serbia, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. China is also financing about half of proposed new coal capacity in Egypt, Tanzania, and Zambia. While a few of these new plants will use the latest technology — in Bangladesh, for example, China is building the country’s first “clean coal” plant — many are less advanced and are not being planned with the carbon capture technology that would make them less threatening to efforts to control climate change.

In theory, the BRI is meant to be environmentally sustainable. In 2016, as Hilton reports, Chinese President Xi Jinping:

called for the Belt and Road Initiative to be “green, healthy, intelligent, and peaceful” and urged participating countries to “deepen cooperation in environmental protection, intensify ecological preservation and build a green Silk Road.” The government has released guidelines such as the Guidance on Promoting Green Belt and Road, which parallel domestic green finance guidelines…

Those guidelines, however, are “non-binding” and appear to be little applied. Just how little attention China’s leading banks, which are funding the BRI, pay the guidelines can be seen in the projects they’re financing. As Hilton reports, most of the initial projects are energy related:

Since 2000, Chinese-led policy banks have invested $160 billion in overseas energy projects, almost as much as the World Bank and regional development banks. But unlike the World Bank, 80 percent of China’s overseas energy investments went to fossil fuels — $54.6 billion to oil, $43.5 billion to coal, and $18.8 billion to natural gas — compared with only 3 percent to solar and wind and 17 percent to often-controversial hydro projects.

Hilton quotes a recent study by the Beijing-based NGO Global Environment Institute that discovered that “between 2001 and 2016 China had invested in 240 coal power plants along the BRI, with a total generating capacity of 251 GW.” Moreover, 58% of those plants were not built with the modern technologies employed in new domestic Chinese coal power plants but with “low-efficiency, sub-critical coal technology.”

Should all that capacity come online, those 240 plants would emit:

…nearly 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to 11 percent of total U.S. emissions in 2015.

Not only could the world kiss the Paris targets for emissions good-bye, the countries in which the plants are built could end up paying the price China did for its intensive coal use between 1990 and 2015  — “water scarcity, acid rain, and air pollution,” says Hilton.


But here’s the most perverse part of the equation: Hilton says the economic case for coal is becoming weaker by the day as the cost of renewables falls.

She cites a new report from Carbon Tracker that says 40% of China’s coal power stations are losing money. The organization uses:

…satellite images and advanced machine learning techniques to estimate the activity of each coal plant. This enables it to assess each plant’s profitability, calculate when it should close and the potential cost of delaying its retirement.

The flow of Chinese financing for new coal-fired power plants throughout Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. GLOBAL COAL FINANCE TRACKER COALSWARM

The flow of Chinese financing for new coal-fired power plants throughout Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. GLOBAL COAL FINANCE TRACKER / COALSWARM 

According to its estimates, a full 95% of China’s over 1,000 coal plants could be unprofitable by 2040. It also notes that:

It will be cheaper to build new onshore wind farms than operate existing coal plants by 2021. New solar PV will be cheaper than running coal by 2025.

What this means for countries participating in the BRI, says Hilton, is that they could be left with “a high risk of stranded assets”:

If these new coal plants continue to operate, they will they make it much more difficult for poor countries to meet their climate goals under the Paris Agreement, and, far from offering a cheap energy option, they will become a financial burden either to the governments or consumers, even as these plants lock out cheaper and cleaner alternatives. China may be pursuing eco-civilization at home, but it urgently needs to address the global risks it is creating in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Of course, why pick on China when Nova Scotia has its own coal-dependency problem?


Featured image: Coal-fired power plant in Gantang, Qianxi, China by ورنيش كييي CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.



Hey, while we’ve got you here, can we just say thanks for reading the Spectator? We’re always glad to see you.

That said, if you wanted to make us dance a (virtual) jig of joy, please consider subscribing. You can find out more about what we’re all about here, before cruising on over to the Subscriptions Page, where you can choose from a fine selection of possibilities — including a joint subscription with the Halifax Examiner. And right now, if you take out a regular, annual subscription to the Spectator ($100) or a joint annual Spectator/Examiner subscription ($160), you’ll get a free gift — yes, you read that correctly, the Spectator’s got swag!

Prefer to monitor the situation awhile longer? Not quite ready to commit? Why not sign up for our weekly newsletter to find out what’s been newly released from behind the paywall (and give us a chance to win you over)?

Thanks for listening! We now return you to your regularly scheduled web browsing…