China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious effort to increase trans-continental connectivity and cooperation mainly through infrastructure investments and trade. On the one hand, this globally unparalleled initiative is expected to foster economic growth, but on the other hand, it can have substantial environmental implications. The BRI creates new challenges and opportunities for environmental governance as new actor constellations emerge in BRI host countries to plan and construct large infrastructure projects. Although China has outlined its vision of building a “green Belt and Road”, it remains unknown how it unfolds on the ground.
As an example of a BRI project with clear environmental implications, we present a case study of the Bar-Boljare highway in Montenegro. Based on expert interviews, we elucidate the complex web of actors and contractual arrangements involved, and demonstrate how internal and external actors exert influence on domestic environmental governance in this EU candidate country in the Western Balkans. We find that Montenegro has substantial agency over the environmental governance of this BRI project, but shows little concern over the environmental impacts of the project. Environmental issues could have been prevented during the spatial planning phase, but important governance instruments such as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) were of limited effectiveness due to its fast and late completion, lack of assessment of alternative routes, and the limited enforcement of the provisions therein. International institutions like the EU or UNESCO have drawn on their normative power in environmental governance to demand greater environmental safeguards from Montenegrin authorities. This case is illustrative of a larger set of BRI projects which run the risk of falling short on sustainability due to a lack of environmentally sound and transparent planning and implementation.
Figure: Construction site at the river Tara. Photo taken by the first author on road R-13 near Mateševo on February 22, 2020. Source: Coenen, J., J. Newig & P. Meyfroidt (2022). Environmental governance of a Belt and Road project in Montenegro–National agency and external influences. Land Use Policy 119:106136.
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Coenen, J., J. Newig & P. Meyfroidt (2022). Environmental governance of a Belt and Road project in Montenegro–National agency and external influences. Land Use Policy 119:106136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2022.106136