Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Best-practice biodiversity safeguards for Belt and Road Initiative’s financiers


With thousands of projects being built along eight transcontinental corridors, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is driving the global infrastructure boom. BRI is likely to have a sizeable biodiversity footprint as its corridors overlap several priority areas for conservation and 150,000 km2 of critical habitat. Biodiversity safeguards for the initiative therefore warrant scrutiny. Biodiversity safeguards are policies or standards (adopted by regulators, project proponents or financiers) that specify biodiversity impact mitigation measures. Here we examine a key source of safeguards—lending requirements of BRI’s financiers. We compare them with International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standard 6, which is often regarded as international best practice and which requires projects affecting ‘critical habitat’ to achieve a ‘net gain’ of biodiversity through impact mitigation. We find that of the 65 financiers identified (35 Chinese and 30 international), just 17 require biodiversity impact mitigation and 12 require a ‘net gain’. Among those with biodiversity safeguards, 16 are international, and despite the Chinese financiers accounting for over 90% of BRI’s financing (by quantum of investment), only 1 of the 35 we identified has biodiversity safeguards. Because most BRI finance is not subject to biodiversity safeguards, we conclude that potential impacts of BRI linear infrastructure projects may remain unmitigated, despite approximately 369,000 km2 of critical and natural habitat occurring within the 25 km buffer zone of such projects. We therefore argue for urgent adherence to best-practice safeguards for all institutions financing the BRI.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: BRI’s key financiers by type.
Fig. 2: BRI’s financiers with published environmental policies, requirements on biodiversity and requirement of net gain in critical habitat.
Fig. 3: Overlap of BRI’s road and rail routes with critical and natural habitat.
Fig. 4: Proportions of critical and natural habitat close to BRI’s transport infrastructure.
Fig 5: Extent of critical and natural habitat close to BRI’s road and rail routes.

Data availability

All non-spatial data generated or analysed during this study are included within the paper (and its supplementary information files). The spatial datasets generated during and/or analysed during the study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request. Figure 3 was created using data from Human Footprint66 ( and BRI routes11 (available here: and country administrative boundaries from Natural Earth (, all of which are free and open access.


  1. 1.

    Egler, H. & Frazao, R. Sustainable Infrastructure and Finance: How to Contribute to a Sustainable Future (UNEP, 2016).

  2. 2.

    BRI Infrastructure Investment Is to Reach $6 Trillion (SCIO, 2015).

  3. 3.

    Belt & Road: Opportunity & Risk: The Prospects and Perils of Building China’s New Silk Road (Baker McKenzie, 2017).

  4. 4.

    Laurance, W. The thin green line: scientists must do more to limit the toll of burgeoning infrastructure on nature and society. Ecol. Citiz. 3, 59–65 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Panda, A. How old Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative exactly? The Diplomat (11 February 2019).

  6. 6.

    Wang, Y. Offensive for defensive: the Belt and Road Initiative and China's new grand strategy. Pac. Rev. 29, 455–463 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Teo, H. C. et al. Environmental impacts of infrastructure development under the Belt and Road Initiative. Environments 6, 72 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (NDRC, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Commerce, 2015).

  9. 9.

    Ruta, M. et al. Belt and Road Economics: Opportunities and Risks of Transport Corridors (World Bank, 2019).

  10. 10.

    Kenderdine, T. Arctic link reveals the full scope of China’s belt and road ambitions. South China Morning Post (20 October 2017).

  11. 11.

    Reed, T. & Trubetskoy, A. Assessing the Value of Market Access from Belt and Road Projects (World Bank, 2019).

  12. 12.

    Lechner, A. M., Chan, F. K. S. & Campos-Arceiz, A. Biodiversity conservation should be a core value of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 2, 408–409 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    The Belt and Road Initiative: WWF Recommendations and Spatial Analysis (WWF, 2017).

  14. 14.

    Hughes, A. C. Understanding and minimizing environmental impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative. Conserv. Biol. 33, 883–894 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Ascensão, F. et al. Environmental challenges for the Belt and Road Initiative. Nat. Sustain. 1, 206–209 (2018).

  16. 16.

    Yang, D. et al. New road for telecoupling global prosperity and ecological sustainability. Ecosyst. Health Sustain. 2, e01242 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Environmental and Social Policies in Overseas Investments: Progress and Challenges for China (WRI, 2013).

  18. 18.

    Embracing the BRI Ecosystem in 2018: Navigating Pitfalls and Seizing Opportunities (Deloitte, 2018).

  19. 19.

    Zhou, L. et al. Moving the Green Belt and Road Initiative: From Words to Actions (WRI, 2018).

  20. 20.

    Gallagher, K. P. & Yuan, F. Standardizing sustainable development: a comparison of development banks in the Americas. J. Environ. Dev. 26, 243–271 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Brauneder, K. M. et al. Global screening for critical habitat in the terrestrial realm. PLoS ONE 13, e0193102 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Losos, E. C., Pfaff, A., Olander, L. P., Mason, S. & Morgan, S. Reducing Environmental Risks from Belt and Road Initiative Investments in Transportation Infrastructure (World Bank, 2019).

  23. 23.

    Performance Standard 6: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Management of Living Natural Resources (IFC, 2012).

  24. 24.

    Reed, T. & Trubetskoy, A. The Belt and Road Initiative and the Value of Urban Land (Unpublished World Bank Working Paper, 2018).

  25. 25.

    Alamgir, M. et al. High-risk infrastructure projects pose imminent threats to forests in Indonesian Borneo. Sci. Rep. 9, 140 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Bruschi, D., Garcia, D. A., Gugliermetti, F. & Cumo, F. Characterizing the fragmentation level of Italian’s National Parks due to transportation infrastructures. Transp. Res. D 36, 18–28 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Coffin, A. W. From roadkill to road ecology: a review of the ecological effects of roads. J. Transp. Geogr. 15, 396–406 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Barber, C. P., Cochrane, M. A., Souza, C. M. Jr & Laurance, W. F. Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon. Biol. Conserv. 177, 203–209 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Laurance, W. F. & Arrea, I. B. Roads to riches or ruin? Science 358, 442–444 (2017).

  30. 30.

    Liu, X. et al. Risks of biological invasion on the belt and road. Curr. Biol. 29, 499–505 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Jeucken, M. & Bouma, J. J. in Sustainable Banking (eds Bouma, J. J. et al.) 24–38 (Routledge, 2017).

  32. 32.

    Biodiversity and Business Risk (World Economic Forum, 2019).

  33. 33.

    Bauer, R. & Hann, D. Corporate Environmental Management and Credit Risk (SSRN, 2010);

  34. 34.

    Callaghan, M. & Hubbard, P. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank: multilateralism on the Silk Road. China Economic J. 9, 116–139 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    World Bank Environmental and Social Policy for Investment Project Financing (World Bank, 2018).

  36. 36.

    EP Association Members & Reporting (Equator Principles, 2019).

  37. 37.

    The Equator Principles: A Financial Industry Benchmark for Determining, Assessing and Managing Environmental and Social Risk in Projects (Equator Principles, 2013).

  38. 38.

    COP 11 Decisions (CBD, 2012).

  39. 39.

    Bennun, L. et al. The value of the IUCN Red List for business decision‐making. Conserv. Lett. 11, e12353 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Broadbent, E. N. et al. Forest fragmentation and edge effects from deforestation and selective logging in the Brazilian Amazon. Biol. Conserv. 141, 1745–1757 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Clements, G. R. et al. Where and how are roads endangering mammals in Southeast Asia's forests? PLoS ONE 9, e115376 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Laurance, W. F. et al. Predictors of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. J. Biogeogr. 29, 737–748 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Linkie, M., Sloan, S., Kasia, R., Kiswayadi, D. & Azmi, W. Breaking the vicious circle of illegal logging in Indonesia. Conserv. Biol. 28, 1023–1033 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Tracy, E. F., Shvarts, E., Simonov, E. & Babenko, M. J. China's new Eurasian ambitions: the environmental risks of the Silk Road Economic Belt. Eurasian Geogr. Econ. 58, 56–88 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Bull, J. W., Gordon, A., Watson, J. E. & Maron, M. Seeking convergence on the key concepts in ‘no net loss’ policy. J. Appl. Ecol. 53, 1686–1693 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Ekstrom, J., Bennun, L. & Mitchell, R. A Cross-Sector Guide for Implementing the Mitigation Hierarchy (ICMM, 2015).

  47. 47.

    Guidance Note 6: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Management of Living Natural Resources (IFC, 2018).

  48. 48.

    Phalan, B. et al. Avoiding impacts on biodiversity through strengthening the first stage of the mitigation hierarchy. Oryx 52, 316–324 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Maron, M. et al. Faustian bargains? Restoration realities in the context of biodiversity offset policies. Biol. Conserv. 155, 141–148 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Igoe, M. Will the World Bank Push China's Belt and Road Initiative in the Right Direction? (Devex, 2018).

  51. 51.

    Memorandum of Understanding on Collaboration on Matters to Establish the Multilateral Cooperation Centre for Development Finance (AIIB, 2019).

  52. 52.

    Larsen, M. L. The Potential of MDBs in Greening the Belt and Road Initiative: The Role of MDB Financing and Capacity Solutions (Green BRI Center, 2019).

  53. 53.

    Green Credit Guidelines (CBRC, 2012).

  54. 54.

    Going Out, But Going Green? Assessing the Implementation of China's Green Credit Guidelines Overseas (Friends of the Earth and BankTrack, 2014).

  55. 55.

    China, UK publish guidelines to make Belt & Road construction greener. China Daily (01 December 2018).

  56. 56.

    Twenty-seven Global Institutions Sign up to Green Investment Principles for the Belt & Road (HKTDC, 2019).

  57. 57.

    GFC and GFI Green Investment Principles for the Belt and Road (GFLP, 2018).

  58. 58.

    Reconnecting Asia (CSIS, 2019).

  59. 59.

    Ghossein, T., Hoekman, B. & Shingal, A. Public Procurement in the Belt and Road Initiative (World Bank, 2018).

  60. 60.

    Horn, S., Reinhart, C. & Trebesch, C. China's Overseas Lending (NBER, 2019).

  61. 61.

    Baniya, S., Rocha, N. & Ruta, M. Trade Effects of the New Silk Road: A Gravity Analysis (World Bank, 2019).

  62. 62.

    De Soyres, F., Mulabdic, A., Murray, S., Rocha, N. & Ruta, M. How Much Will the Belt and Road Initiative Reduce Trade Costs? (World Bank, 2018).

  63. 63.

    Forman, R. T. Estimate of the area affected ecologically by the road system in the United States. Conserv. Biol. 14, 31–35 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Global Critical Habitat Screening Layer Version 1.0 (UNEP-WCMC, 2017).

  65. 65.

    Martin, C. et al. A global map to aid the identification and screening of critical habitat for marine industries. Mar. Policy 53, 45–53 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Venter, O. et al. Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial human footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation. Nat. Commun. 7, 12558 (2016).

  67. 67.

    Watson, J. E. et al. Persistent disparities between recent rates of habitat conversion and protection and implications for future global conservation targets. Conserv. Lett. 9, 413–421 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information




Conceptualization was done by D.N., M.M. and A.M.L. Data were collected and analysed by D.N. and H.C.T. Spatial data were analysed by H.C.T. and A.M.L. The manuscript was drafted by D.N. and M.M., A.M.L. and K.H. helped refine it.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Divya Narain.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table 6, Fig. 1, methods and references.

Supplementary Table 1

Key BRI Financiers identified from Secondary Sources.

Supplementary Table 2

Environmental Policies/Standards of BRI’s Financiers Identified from Different Sources.

Supplementary Table 3

Identifying Biodiversity Impact Mitigation Requirements in Environmental Policies of BRI’s Financiers.

Supplementary Table 4

Biodiversity Impact Mitigation Requirements in the identified Environmental Policies of BRI’s Financiers.

Supplementary Table 5

Comparison of Biodiversity Impact Requirements with International Best Practice.

Supplementary Table 7

IFC PS6 Criteria and Mitigation Measures for Critical, Natural and Modified Habitat.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Narain, D., Maron, M., Teo, H.C. et al. Best-practice biodiversity safeguards for Belt and Road Initiative’s financiers. Nat Sustain 3, 650–657 (2020).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing