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Making Infrastructure ‘Visible’ in Environmental Law: The Belt and Road Initiative and Climate Change Friction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 October 2020

Sanja Bogojević
Lady Margaret Hall and University of Oxford, Oxford (United Kingdom (UK)). Email:
Mimi Zou
St Hugh's College and University of Oxford, Oxford (UK). Email:


Infrastructure is often viewed through global and promotional lenses, particularly its role in creating market connectivity. However, infrastructure is heavily dependent on and constitutive of local spaces, where ‘frictions’, or disputes, emerge. Drawing on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a case study, we examine in detail two cases of BRI-related climate change litigation – one in Pakistan, and one in Kenya – that shed light on the frictions arising from what is deemed the most significant transnational infrastructure project of our time. In doing so, this study demonstrates how infrastructure can be made more visible in environmental law and how environmental law itself provides an important mechanism for stabilizing friction in the places where infrastructure is located.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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We are grateful to Elizabeth Fisher and the anonymous TEL reviewers for their constructive feedback. All errors remain our own.


1 This is not to say that environmental law scholars have entirely neglected the subject: see, e.g., Boute, A., Energy Security Along the New Silk Road: Energy and Geopolitics in Central Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fisher, E., ‘Law and Energy Transitions: Wind Turbines and Planning Law in the UK’ (2018) 38(3) Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, pp. 528–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Natarajan, L. et al. , ‘Participatory Planning and Major Infrastructure: Experiences in REI and NSIP Regulation’ (2019) 90(2) Town Planning Review, pp. 117–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Gupta, A., ‘The Future in Ruins: Thoughts on the Temporality of Infrastructure’, in Anand, N., Gupta, A. & Appel, H. (eds), The Promise of Infrastructure (Duke University Press, 2018), pp. 6279CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 74.

3 Easterling, K., Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso, 2014)Google Scholar.

4 We recognize that the ambit of environmental law is vast and captures a broad range of environmental problems: see E. Fisher, A Very Short Introduction to Environmental Law (Oxford University Press, 2017).

5 In the context of building high-speed rail, see, e.g., R (on the application of HS2 Action Alliance Ltd) v. Secretary of State for Transport & Anor [2014] UKSC 3.

6 See, e.g., The Bodo Community & Ors v. The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd [2014] EWHC 1973. The case concerns compensation for injury and losses suffered to the plaintiffs’ health, livelihoods, and land arising from oil spills linked to the construction and the operation of oil pipelines in Nigeria.

7 See, e.g., Wheeler v. Director de la Procuraduria General Del Estado de Loja, Juicio No. 11121-0010. A provincial court in Ecuador found that the local government's roadworks were in breach of the right of Pachamama (rights of nature) protected by the Constitution.

8 This is not to argue that infrastructure is antithetical to environmental interests, as reflected in the conceptualization of ‘green infrastructure’. Deciding the extent to which a project is ‘green’ and what this precisely entails may, however, be tricky to determine: see, e.g., Wolmar, C., ‘What's the Point of HS2?’ (2014) 36(8) London Review of Books, pp. 37Google Scholar.

9 In the words of Wolmar, ‘America … was made by the railroads’: Wolmar, C., The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America (Public Affairs, 2013)Google Scholar. More broadly, see The World Bank, World Development Report 1994: Infrastructure for Development (Oxford University Press, 1994).

10 See, e.g., Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ‘Enhancing Connectivity through Transport Infrastructure: The Role of Official Development Finance and Private Investment’, 31 Aug. 2018, available at:; Bhattacharyay, B.N., Kawai, M. & Nag, R.M. (eds), Infrastructure for Asian Connectivity (Edward Elgar, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 H. Appel, N. Anand & A. Gupta, ‘Temporality, Politics, and the Promise of Infrastructure’, in Anand, Gupta & Appel, n. 2 above, pp. 1–40, at 14.

12 Here we draw inspiration from Tsing, A. Lowenhaupt, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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14 Save Lamu & Ors v. National Environmental Management Authority and Amu Power Co. Ltd, National Environmental Tribunal, NET 196 of 2016, Decision of 26 July 2019 (Kenya).

15 Ali v. Federation of Pakistan (2016), petition available at: (pending before the Supreme Court of Pakistan).

16 State Council of the People's Republic of China (PRC), ‘Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road’, 30 Mar. 2015, available at: For an overview of the initial speeches, delivered by President Xi Jinping, proposing the creation of the BRI, see Dunford, M. & Liu, W., ‘Chinese Perspectives on the Belt and Road Initiative’ (2019) 12(1) Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, pp. 145–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 148.

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18 See Belt and Road Portal, ‘A Glance at Countries that Have Signed BRI Documents with China’, available at: (in Chinese).

19 W. Doig, High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia (Colombia Global Reports, 2018), p. 16.

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23 State Council of the PRC, n. 16 above.

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33 An example is the internal market of the European Union (EU), which is made possible through shared transport infrastructure, in line with Art. 4 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), and which helps further integration, as outlined in Art. 1 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU): TFEU and TEU, Lisbon (Portugal), 13 Dec. 2007, in force 1 Dec. 2009 [2012] OJ C 326/47, available at:

34 Frankopan, n. 22 above, pp. 2–3.

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46 Harvey & Knox, n. 38 above, p. 522.

47 Ibid., p. 521.

48 Xi, n. 21 above.

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53 Appel, Anand & Gupta, n. 11 above, p. 14.

54 Ibid., p. 2.

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56 N. 24 above.

57 On the point of how courts can stabilize legal disputes see Fisher, E., Scotford, E. & Barritt, E., ‘The Legally Disruptive Nature of Climate Change’ (2017) 80(3) The Modern Law Review, pp. 173201CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 Disputes of both a formal and informal character in, e.g., studies on geology: see, e.g., A. Barry, Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline (Wiley Blackwell, 2013), p. 134.

59 State Council of the PRC, n. 16 above.

60 These include a new Eurasian Land Bridge, China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor, China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor, China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor, China-Pakistan Corridor, and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor: ibid.

61 Dunford & Liu, n. 16 above, p. 152.

62 State Council of the PRC, n. 16 above.

63 Ibid.

64 Ibid.

65 For an overview, see Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), ‘Introduction: Who We Are’, available at:

66 This is not to overlook that the BRI project has also been criticized for potentially saddling Malaysia with unsustainable debt: see J. Sipalan, ‘China, Malaysia, Restart Massive “Belt and Road” Project after Hiccups’, Reuters, 25 July 2019, available at:

67 T. Ying, ‘SME Bank Sets Aside RM1b for Local ECRL Contractors’, National Strait Times, 18 Nov. 2019, available at:

68 State Council of the PRC, n. 16 above.

69 Office of the Leading Group for Promoting the Belt and Road Initiative, ‘The Belt and Road Initiative Progress, Contributions and Prospects’, 22 Apr. 2019, available at:

70 Belt and Road Portal, ‘The Belt and Road Ecological and Environmental Cooperation Plan’, May 2017, available at:

71 W. Yuan, ‘China's Green Growth in Tandem with Dynamically Innovative Vision: LSE Economist’, People's Daily Overseas New Media, 26 Mar. 2019, available at:

72 Belt and Road Portal, ‘Guidance on Promoting a Green BRI’, 8 May 2017, available at:

73 Paris (France), 12 Dec. 2015, in force 4 Nov. 2016, available at: (Paris Agreement).

74 UN General Assembly, ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ (21 Oct. 2015), UN Doc. A/RES/70/1, available at:

75 Office of the Leading Group for Promoting the BRI, n. 69 above.

76 UNEP, ‘The Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC)’, available at:

77 Office of the Leading Group for Promoting the BRI, n. 69 above.

78 Green Finance Committee (GFC) of China Society for Finance and Banking, Investment Association of China (IAC), China Banking Association (CBA), Asset Management Association of China (AMAC), Insurance Asset Management Association of China (IAMAC), China Trustee Association (CTA), and Foreign Economic Cooperation Office (FECO) of Ministry of Environment Protection, ‘Environmental Risk Management Initiative for China's Overseas Investment’, 5 Sept. 2017, available at:

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81 UN Secretary-General António Guterres, ‘Secretary-General's Remarks at Opening Ceremony of UN Climate Change Conference COP25’, 2 Dec. 2019, available at:

82 Office of the Leading Group for Promoting the BRI, n. 69 above.

83 L. Zhou et al., ‘Moving the Green Belt and Road: From Words to Action’, World Resource Institute, Nov. 2018, available at:

84 As described in Bodle, R. & Oberthür, S., ‘Legal Form of the Paris Agreement and Nature of its Obligations’, in Klein, D. et al. (eds), The Paris Agreement on Climate Change: Analysis and Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 91106Google Scholar, at 93.

85 R. Peng, L. Chang & Z. Liwen, ‘China's Involvement in Coal-fired Power Projects Along the Belt and Road’, Global Environmental Institute, May 2017, p. 1.

86 D. Ullman, ‘When Coal Comes to Paradise’, Foreign Policy, 9 June 2019, available at:

87 F. Hao, ‘China's Belt and Road Initiative Still Pushing Coal’, China Dialogue, 12 May 2017, available at:

88 Han, M. et al. , ‘Tracking Embodied Carbon Flows in the Belt and Road Regions’ (2018) 28(9) Journal of Geographical Science, pp. 1263–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 1265.

89 Fisher, Scotford & Barritt, n. 57 above.

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92 Ibid.

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95 As discussed in Bogojević, S., ‘EU Climate Change Litigation, the Role of the European Courts, and the Importance of Legal Culture’ (2013) 35(3) Law & Policy, pp. 184207CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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97 See, e.g., Scotford & Minas, n. 90 above; Osofsky n. 94 above; Peel & Lin, n. 96 above.

98 Particularly in terms of committing to emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol: see Bodansky, D., Brunnée, J. & Rajamani, L., International Climate Change Law (Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 168Google Scholar.

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100 New York, NY (US), 9 May 1992, in force 21 Mar. 1994, available at:

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103 Xinhua, ‘Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’,, 30 June 2015, available at:

104 Associated Press, ‘China Launches World's Biggest Carbon-Trading Scheme in Fight against Climate Change’, South China Morning Post, 20 Dec 2017, available at:

105 As the governments of 195 countries unanimously adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015, most BRI countries will also be committed to NDCs under the Paris Agreement.

106 Concerns about the impact that BRI investments may have on NDC commitments under the BRI, however, are real: see M. Jun & S. Zadek, ‘Decarbonizing the Belt and Road: A Green Finance Roadmap’, ClimateWorks Foundation, 4 Sept. 2019, available at:; Reuters, ‘Chinese Belt and Road Plan “May Result in 2.7C Warming”’, Climate Change News, 2 Sept. 2019, available at:

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112 Ullman, n. 86 above.

113 ‘Kenya Vision 2030’, as outlined at: Also, as mentioned in Lamu, n. 14 above, para. 1.

114 Lamu, ibid., para. 96.

115 J. Anderlini, H. Sender & F. Bokhari, ‘Pakistan Rethinks Its Role in Xi's Belt and Road Plan’, Financial Times, 9 Sept. 2018, available at:

116 China Pakistan Economic Corridor, ‘CPEC Vision and Mission’, available at:

117 S. Toppa, ‘Why Young Pakistanis Are Learning Chinese’, The Atlantic, 14 Nov. 2018, available at:

118 National Electric Power Regulatory Authority, ‘State of Industry Report 2017’, p. 7, available at:

119 E. Downs, ‘The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Power Projects: Insights into Environmental and Debt Sustainability’, Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, 3 Oct. 2019, p. 17, available at:

120 Ibid.

121 Lamu, n. 14 above, para. 3.

122 Ali v. Pakistan, n. 15 above, para. 1.

123 Ibid., para. 22.

124 Ibid., para. 33.

125 Ibid., para. 31.

126 Ibid., para. 32.

127 Constitution of Kenya (2010), Art. 69(1)(f), available at:

128 Lamu, n. 14 above, para. 4(g).

129 Ibid., paras 12, 98.

130 Ibid., para. 17.

131 Ibid., para. 19.

132 Ibid., para. 50.

133 Ibid.

134 Ibid., para. 138.

135 Ibid., paras 138, 151.

136 Ibid., para. 73.

137 Ali v. Pakistan, n. 15 above, para. xxvi.

138 Constitution of Kenya (2010), Art. 42(a).

139 Ibid., Art. 69(1)(f).

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142 Soyapi, n. 140, above, p. 152.

143 Ali v. Pakistan, n. 15 above, preamble.

144 Shehla Zia v. WAPDA, Supreme Court of Pakistan, PLD 1994 SC 693 (12 Feb. 1994).

145 Ali v. Pakistan, n. 15 above, para. 44(viii).

146 Ashgar Leghari v. Federation of Pakistan, Case No. W.P. 25501/2015.

147 Declaration of Rebellion, outlined in Farrell, C. et al. (eds), This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook (Penguin, 2019), p. 2Google ScholarPubMed.

148 Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, Ministry of Commerce of the PRC; Research Centre of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council of the PRC; and UN Development Programme China, ‘2017 Report on the Sustainable Development of Chinese Enterprises Overseas’, 8 May 2017, available at:

149 AIIB, ‘Environmental and Social Framework’, Feb. 2016, available at:

150 K. Geary, ‘AIIB Faces Climate Protests at Annual Meeting in Luxembourg’, China Dialogue, 12 July 2019, available at:

151 Ibid.

152 See, e.g., protests on environmental grounds in Sri Lanka against the Chinese-funded Colombo Port City project, as noted by G. Wignaraja et al., ‘Chinese Investment and the BRI in Sri Lanka’, Mar. 2020, p. 20, available at:

153 Brakman, S. et al. , ‘The New Silk Roads: An Introduction to China's Belt and Road Initiative’ (2019) 12(1) Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, pp. 316CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 6.

154 Fisher, n. 13 above.

155 Han et al., n. 88 above.