Advanced search

The Belt and Road Initiative in North Eurasia: Changing Geographies and the UNECE Multilateral Environmental Agreements

Full Text:


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched by China in 2013 to increase economic and transport connectivity along the Eurasian continent and beyond, has posed unprecedented environmental and social risks, many of which are transboundary in nature. International legal tools contained in Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) can play an important role in mitigating such transboundary risks across space and time, as well as reduce the negative impacts of large infrastructure projects, such as are being developed under the auspices of the BRI. However, the adoption of MEA policy tools has been very uneven across the continent. Three conventions in particular, the 1991 Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment, the 1998 Aarhus Convention, and the 1992 Helsinki Water Convention (the UNECE MEAs) - have the least amount of ratifications by BRI countries. In this paper we discuss these three conventions and demonstrate their relevance in addressing the transboundary risks of large infrastructure projects which require complex coordination and long-term planning.

Extended ratification of these UNECE MEAs by nations along the BRI corridors should significantly assist in positively changing geographies by minimizing BRI environmental risks and threats on a transboundary and national dimension, but simultaneously (i) create a more unified approach towards sustainability across the BRI, (ii) raise involvement (and likely subsequent) support within communities for BRI projects, (iii) help to reduce related economic risks throughout Eurasia.

About the Authors

Fiona Cheremeteff
WWF Russia; Eversheds Sutherland/ Konexo, Consultant
Russian Federation

Building 3, Nikoloyamskaya Street 19, Moscow 109240; 1 Wood Street, London

Evgeny Shvarts
Head of Center for Responsible Use of Natural Resources, Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences
Russian Federation

Staromonetniy Lane 29, 119017 Moscow

Eugene Simonov
Daursky Biosphere Reserve / Coordinator, Rivers without Boundaries International Coalition
Russian Federation

Nizhny Tsasuchei, Zabaikalsky Kray

Guido Broekhoven
WWF International, Head of Policy Research and Development, WWF European Policy Office

Belgium, 123 rue du Commerce, 1000 Brussels

Elena F. Tracy
University of Illinois
United States

Research Associate, Virtual Research Open Lab, East European and Eurasian Center

Ekaterina Khmeleva
WWF Russia, Director of Green Economy and Governance Moscow
Russian Federation

Building 3, Nikoloyamskaya Street 19, Moscow 109240


1. Albuquerque F.W. (2021) China and EU to Harmonise Green Taxonomies, Nordsip , April 2, 2021.

2. Ascensao L., Fahrig A.P, Corlett R.T., Jaeger J.A.G., Laurance W.F. and Pereira H.M. (2018). 'Environmental Challenges for the Belt and Road Initiative, Nature Sustainability, Vol 1, May 2018, 206-209, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0059-3.

3. Aung T.S., and Fischer T.B., Shengji L. (2020). Evaluating environmental impact assessment (EIA) in the countries along the belt and road initiative: system effectiveness and the compatibility with the Chinese EIA, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 81 (January):106361, DOI: 10.1016/j.eiar.2019.106361.

4. Aung T.S., and Fischer T.B. (2020). Quality of environmental impact assessment systems and economic growth in countries participating in the belt and road initiatives, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, DOI: 10.1080/14615517.2020.1818520.

5. Azizi D., Biermann E. and Kim R.E. (2019). 'Policy Integration for Sustainable Development through Multilateral Environmental Agreements, an Empirical Analysis, 2007-2016, in Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 25(3), 445-475 (Brill Nijhoff).

6. Bandiera L. and Tsiropoulos V. (2019). 'A Framework to Assess Debt Sustainability and Fiscal Risks under the Belt and Road Initiative, unpublished working paper, World Bank, Washington DC.

7. Bird J., Lebrand M., Venables A.J. (2020). The Belt and Road Initiative: Reshaping economic geography in Central Asia?, Journal of Development Economics, 144, May 2020, DOI: 10.1016/j.jdeveco.2020.102441.

8. Bowman M. and Redgwell C. (eds) (1996). International Law and the Conservation of Biological Diversity, International Environmental Law & Policy Series, III (Kluwer Law International).

9. Bowman M., Davies P and Goodwin E. (eds) (2016). Research Handbook on Biodiversity and Law, Research Handbooks on Environmental Law (Edward Elgar Publishing)

10. Bosselmann K. (2017). The Principle of Sustainability: Transforming Law and Governance, 2nd ed. (Routledge)

11. Boyle A. and Freestone D. (eds) (1999). International Law and Sustainable Development: Past Achievements and Future Challenges, Oxford University Press

12. Broer B. (2018). The EU's Connectivity Strategy: An Answer to China's Belt and Road Initiative? September 21, 2018, EU-Asia Centre Publications.

13. Carrai M.A. (2021). Adaptive governance along Chinese-financed BRI railroad megaprojects in East Africa, World Development, 141, 105388, DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105388.

14. Carter N., Killion A., Easter T., Brandt J., and Ford A. (2020). Road Development in Asia: Assessing the range-wide risks to tigers, Science Advances, April 29, 2020, 6(18), eaaz9619, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz9619.

15. Chaudhuri P. (2019). Opinion: India Nudges China toward Belt and Road changes, Geopolitical Intelligence Services reports online, January 4, see <,politics,2762.html.

16. Cheremeteff F. and Broekhoven G. (2018). Greening the Belt and Road Initiative: the Role of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, WWF Paper.

17. Contartese, C. (2017). 'Convention on the Protection and Use ofTransboundary Watercourses and International Lakes 1992 (The UNECE Helsinki Convention), in Multilateral Environmental Treaties, edited by Fitzmaurice, M., Tanzi, A., and Papantoniou, A., Elgar Encyclopedia of Environmental Law, Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 257-268.

18. De Chazournes L.B., Leb C. and Tignino M. (2015). The UNECE Water Convention and Multilateral Environmental Agreements», chapter 5, 60-7, in Tanzi et al, DOI: 10.1163/9789004291584_006.

19. De Mulder J. (2011). 'The Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment: A Matter of Good Governance, RECIEL 20(3), 232-247.

20. Devlaeminck D. (2018) 'The Legal Principle of Reciprocity and China's Water Treaty Practice' in Chinese Journal of Environmental Law, 12, 2, 195-222.

21. Du Q. (2009). 'Public Participation and the challenges of environmental justice in China, in Environmental Law and Justice in Context (2009) by Ebbesson, J., & Okowa, P. (eds), 139-157.

22. Dupuy P.-M., and Vinuales J.E. (2018). International Environmental Law, Second edition, Cambridge University Press

23. Ernst & Young (2015). Navigating the Belt and Road - Financial sector paves the way for infrastructure (August 2015)

24. Flores D. (2018). ADB chief warns of Belt and Road debt trap, Nikkei Asian Review, May 3, 2018.

25. French D. (2005). International Law and policy of sustainable development, Manchester University Press

26. Friends of the Earth United States (2017). Investing in a Green Belt and Road? Assessing the Implementation of China's Green Credit Guidelines Abroad, Washington DC, December 2017.

27. Fulton S. and Wolfson S. (2015) 'Strengthening national environmental governance to promote sustainable development, in Global Environmental Law at a Crossroads, edited by Percival, R.V., Stanton, R.F., Lin, J., and Piermattei, W., IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Series (Edward Elgar)

28. Gillespie A. (2011). Conservation, Biodiversity and International Law, New Horizons in Environmental and Energy Law series (Edward Elgar Publishing).

29. Grimsditch M. (2015). Financial platforms that may support projects in the «One Belt One Road» route, October 20, Inclusive Development International (IDI), and see IDI (2016) «Making Inroads: Chinese Infrastructure Investment in ASEAN and Beyond».

30. Halvorssen A. (2010). International Law and Sustainable Development - Tools for Addressing Climate Change», 39 Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 397 (2010-2011) 397.

31. Hardiman R. (2020). Environmental Considerations of the Belt and Road Initiative», in The Belt and Road Initiative by Leandro, F.B.S.J. and Duarte, P.A.B. (eds) (Palgrave, 2020), 173-201

32. Hughes A.C., Lechner A.M., Chitov A., Horstmann A., Hinsley A., Tritto A., Chariton A., Li B.V., Ganapin D., Simonov E., Morton K., Toktomushev K., Foggin M., Tan-Mullins M., Orr M.C., Griffiths R., Nash R., Perkin S., Glemet R., Kim M. and Yu D.W. (2020). Horizon Scan of the Belt and Road Initiative, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, March 12, DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2020.02.005.

33. Hughes A. (2019). Understanding and minimizing environmental impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative, Conservation Biology, 33(4), 883-394.

34. IDI (2016). «Making Inroads: Chinese Infrastructure Investment in ASEAN and Beyond»

35. Kim R.E. and Bosselman K. (2015). 'Operationalizing Sustainable Development: Ecological Integrity as a Grundnorm of International Law) in Review of European, Comparative and International Environmental Law, 24(2), 194-208, Special Issue: Public Participation and Climate Governance, July 2015.

36. Knox J.H. (2003). Assessing the Candidates for a Global Treaty on Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment, 12 New York University Environmental Law Journal 153

37. Koivurova T. (2007). The Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention), Chapter 9, in Making Treaties Work: Human Rights, Environment and Arms Control, edited by Ulfstein, G., with Marauhn, T., and Zimmermann, A (Cambridge University Press, September 2007), DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511494345.

38. Koivurova T. (2012). 'Could the Espoo Convention become a Global Regime for Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment?' in Warner, R. and Marsden, S. (eds) Transboundary Environmental Governance: Inland, Coastal and Marine Perspectives (Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, 2012)

39. Kolosov V., Suocheng Dong, Portyakov V.Y, Chubarov I.G., Tarkhov S.A., and Shuper V. (2017). The Chinese initiative «the belt and road»: A geographical perspective, Geography, Environment, Sustainability, 10(1), 5-20, DOI: 10.24057/2071-9388-2017-10-1-5-20

40. Lechner A.M., Faith Ka Shun Chan and Campos-Arceiz A. (2018). Biodiversity conservation should be a core value of China's Belt and Road Initiative, Nature Ecology & Evolution, January, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0452-8.

41. Losos E., Pfaff A., Olander L., Mason S. and Morgan S. (2019). Reducing Environmental Risks from Belt and Road Initiative Investments in Transportation Infrastructure, Policy Research Working Paper 8718 (WPS8718), World Bank Group, January 2019

42. Marsden S. (2015). The Helsinki Water Convention: Implementation and Compliance in Asia, Nordic Environmental Law Journal, (2), 119129.

43. Marsden S. and Brandon E. (2015). Transboundary Environmental Governance in Asia: Practice and Prospects with the UNECE Environmental Agreements (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham)

44. McBeath J, and Bo W. (2008). China's Environmental Diplomacy, American Journal of Chinese Studies, 15(1), 1-16.

45. Morgan R.K. (2012). Environmental impact assessment: the state of the art, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 30(1), 5-14, DOI: 10.1080/14615517.2012.661557

46. Morgera, E. and Razzaque, J. (eds) (2017). Biodiversity and Nature Protection Law, Elgar Encyclopaedia of Environmental Law series, Volume III (Edward Elgar Publishing).

47. NDRC (2017). Measures for the Administration of Overseas Investment of Enterprises, NDRC Order,11, published December 26 Robinson N. (2017). 'Biodiversity in International Environmental Law through the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in Routledge Handbook of Biodiversity and the Law by McManis, C.R., & Ong, B. (eds)

48. Sands P (ed) (1993). Greening International Law, Earthscan Publications Ltd

49. Sands P (1994). 'International Law in the Field of Sustainable Development', 65 British Year Book of International Law 303.

50. Sands P. (1999). International Courts and the Application of the Concept of «Sustainable Development», Max Planck UNYB 3, 389, Max Planck Institute

51. Sands P, & Peel J., with Fabra A. and MacKenzie R. (2015). Principles of International Environmental Law, 3rd edition, 5th printing, Cambridge University Press

52. Schrijver N. (2007). 'The Evolution of Sustainable Development in International Law, 328 Recueil des cours de l'Academie de droit international de la Haye, 217-412.

53. Schrijver N. and Weiss F. (eds) (2004). International Law and Sustainable Development: Principles and Practice, Developments in International Law, 51, August 2004, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

54. Shvarts E., Simonov E. and Progunova L. (eds) (2012). Environmental Risks to Sino-Russian Transboundary Cooperation: from «Brown» Plans to a «Green» Strategy (WWF-Russia, Moscow, 2012)

55. Shvarts E., Simonov E., Mucklow Cheremeteff F., Broekhoven G., Khmeleva E., and Dolinina Y. (2018) Abstract of Presentation «International Environmental Law and China's BRI development: Environmental Challenges, Risks and Opportunities, «Practical Geography and XXI Century Challenges», International Geographical Union (IGU) Thematic Conference to the Centennial of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2018, Moscow, Russia, June 4-6, 2018, 292-293

56. Simonov E. (2018).'China's green Belt and Road tested at the Russian border, China Dialogue, May 31,2018, see <>and

57. Simonov E.and Egidarev E. (2017). Intergovernmental Cooperation on the Amur River Basin Management in the 21st Century, International Journal of Water Resources Development, Special issue «Hydropolitics and Conflict Management in Transboundary River Basins: China and its Neighbors»

58. Simonov E. and Withanage H. (2019). A Briefing on the Belt and Road Initiative, Friends of the Earth Asia-Pacific, Technical Report Tanzi A., McIntyre O., Kolliopoulos A., Rien-Clarke A. and Kinna R. (2015).The UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use ofTransboundary Watercourses and International Lakes: Its Contribution to International Water Cooperation (Brill Nijhoff), DOI: 10.1163/9789004291584.

59. Teo H.C., Lechner A.M., Walton G.W., Chan F.K.S, Cheshmehzangi A., Tan-Mullins M., Chan H.K., Sternbert T. and Campos-Arceiz A. (2019). «Environmental Impacts of Infrastructure Development under the Belt and Road Initiative», Environments, 6(72), DOI: 10.3390/environments6060072.

60. TRT World (2021). G7 endorses global infrastructure plan to rival China's Belt and Road, TRT World, June 12, 2021, online at

61. Tracy E.F. (2021). «Road, rail and pipelines and the risks posed for biodiversity» in Griffiths, R.T. and Hughes, A.C. (eds) In the Way of the Road. The Ecological Consequences of Infrastructure (The International Institute of Asian Studies Publishing, The Netherlands).

62. Tracy E.F., Shvarts E., Simonov E. and Babenko M. (2017). «China's new Eurasian ambitions: the environmental risks of the Silk Road Economic Belt», 56-88, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 58(1), 56-88, DOI: 10/1080/15387216.2017.1295876.

63. United Nations (1992). Agenda 21, Earth Summit 1992, United Nations Conference on Environment & Development Rio de Janerio, Brazil, June 3-14, 1992.

64. Verhoeven S.I. (2020). «EU Legal Obstacles to the Belt and Road Initiative: Towards a Chinese-EU Framework on the Belt and Road Initiative», in The Belt and Road Initiative by Leandro, F.B.S.J. and Duarte, P.A.B. (eds) (Palgrave, 2020), 282-316.

65. Wang Yiwei (2015). One Belt and One Road: Opportunities and Challenges, ISBN: 7010147884, 9787010147888.

66. Wei Shen and Lei Xie (2018). Can China Lead in Multilateral Environmental Negotiations? Internal Politics, Self-depiction, and China's contribution in Climate Change Regime and Mekong Governance, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 59, Nos. 5-6, 708-732

67. Williams J., Robinson C., Bouzarovski S. (2019). China's Belt and Road Initiative and the emerging geographies of global urbanisation, The Geographical Journal, 186, 1, March 2020, 128-140, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12332.

68. Wintour P (2021). G7 backs Biden infrastructure plan to rival China's belt and road initiative, The Guardian, June 12

69. World Bank (2019a). Belt and Road Economics: Opportunities and Risks ofTransport Corridors, World Bank Group, June 18, , see <>.

70. World Bank (2019b). Millions Could be Lifted Out of Poverty, But Countries Face Significant Risks, June 18, 2019, Press Release, 201, see <>.

71. Wouters P (2015). 'Enhancing China's Transboundary Water Cooperation - What Role for the UNECE Water Convention?, chapter 31, 451-465, in Tanzi et al, 2015, DOI: 10.1163/9789004291584_032.

72. Wouters P and Chen H. (2013). China's 'Soft-Path' to Transboundary Water Cooperation Examined in the Light of Two UN Global Water Conventions - Exploring the 'Chinese Way', May 25, 2013, 22 Water Law.

73. WWF (2017). The Belt and Road Initiative: WWF Recommendations and Spatial Analysis, WWF Briefing Paper, May 2017.

74. Xiaoyi J. (2015). 'China's participation in major international environmental agreements', pp 395-426, in Qin Tianbao (ed) Research Handbook on Chinese Environmental Law (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015).

75. Li Y. and Shapiro J. (2020). China Goes Green. Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet (Polity Press: Cambridge, UK)

76. Yixian Sun (2016). The Changing Role of China in Global Environmental Governance, Rising Powers Quarterly, 1(1), 43-53.

77. Zhang K. (2017). Right to information about, and involvement in, environmental decision making along the Silk Road Economic Belt, The Chinese Journal of Comparative Law, 51,58-78, DOI: 10.1093/cjcl/cxx004.

78. Zhang X., and Zhang S. (2017). China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor and environmental protection cooperation, R-Economy, 3,161-166, DOI: 10.15826/recon.2017.3.3.018.

For citation:

Cheremeteff F., Shvarts E., Simonov E., Broekhoven G., Tracy E.F., Khmeleva E. The Belt and Road Initiative in North Eurasia: Changing Geographies and the UNECE Multilateral Environmental Agreements. GEOGRAPHY, ENVIRONMENT, SUSTAINABILITY. 2021;14(3):94-109.

Views: 188

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

ISSN 2071-9388 (Print)
ISSN 2542-1565 (Online)