How will China power its global urban expansion?

By Joe Williams, Durham University, UK and Caitlin Robinson, Newcastle University, UK

In June 2019, a tribunal in Kenya halted the development of the country’s first ever coal power station, in what is seen as a victory for environmental and human rights groups. The $2 billion energy project planned for the coastal city of Lamu is being proposed by Chinese investors as part of a series of large infrastructures that are intended to connect centres of industry, trade and resource extraction in Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia (the so-called LAPSSET corridor).

LAPSSET is just one of a number of mega-infrastructure corridors being developed in connection with China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Announced in 2013, the BRI sets out a policy for nearly a trillion dollars of Chinese investment in transport, trade, communications, energy, mining and water infrastructures. So far, over 100 countries across the world have signed up to be part of the BRI.

The Lamu coal project, which may still go ahead after developers challenged the court ruling, illustrates many of the wider controversies that have surrounded the BRI. Some people (including the Chinese government) see the BRI as a way to boost much-needed economic development in poorer countries and foster international cooperation. However, others have expressed concern about China’s growing geopolitical influence and what this may mean for democracies, the possible dangers of developing countries taking on large amounts of debt, and the environmental implications of large, fossil fuel-dependent, projects.

In a recent paper published in The Geographical Journal, we argued that the BRI is driving a particular form of development that a group of geographers have called planetary urbanisation (see also recent GD posts by Shaw and Kumar, and Connolly).  The main idea behind planetary urbanisation is to understand the urban as a process rather than a spatial category in order to challenge assumed distinctions between urban and rural. Urbanization, according to this argument, does not simply refer to the emergence and growth of cities as distinct entities, but rather describes a broader process of geographical change that produces dense clusters (or ‘agglomerations’) of people, things, and finance on the one hand (i.e. cities), and vast areas of extraction or ‘operational landscapes’, on the other hand.

In other words, urbanisation is understood to be driving planetary-scale transformation both in cities and in landscapes that supply the raw materials (food, minerals, energy, water, and so on) on which these human settlements rely. Although this has been a controversial idea, we feel that planetary urbanisation is a useful concept to understand the way the BRI is changing the geographies of development by driving important changes both in urban centres and in areas that have historically been more peripheral.

Large development projects like this require a lot of energy, and some critics have suggested that the BRI is partly an attempt to increase the security of China’s energy imports and guarantee future supplies. Indeed, energy extraction, transmission, and production have become an important part of China’s vision for the Belt and Road. Although the Chinese government claims that the BRI is based on principles of sustainability and green development, research has shown that the majority of existing investments have been in carbon-intensive sectors like coal and liquid natural gas, and are therefore likely to increase pollution and climate change.

In our paper, we mapped the energy projects connected to the BRI. Our map shows more than $300 billion of planned or completed investment in energy projects from liquid natural gas in Russia, oil refineries in Indonesia and coal power in South Africa, to wind turbines in Mongolia and nuclear generation in Romania.

Using the theory of planetary urbanisation, we can see that the BRI is changing the global geographies of energy by opening up new areas of extraction and connecting them via pipelines and transmission cables that span continents to dense areas of industry and consumption. Most importantly, this allows us to understand how seemingly disconnected places and processes – for example, a gas field in the Arctic and the urban expansion of Xi’an, Central China – are in fact deeply connected.

The map shows China’s ambitious attempt to power planetary-scale urban expansion. Yet, as geographers, we are also interested in how large infrastructure projects interact with local contexts. As the example of the Lamu coal plant in Kenya shows, the BRI is not being developed on a blank canvas. All sorts of local politics and social factors can either facilitate or disrupt this vision for global energy development. How and where this will happen is a problem that will occupy geographers for many years to come.

About the authors: Joe Williams is an Assistant Professor of Political Ecology in the Department of Geography at Durham University.Caitlin Robinson is a Research Associate in the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies at Newcastle University

This paper is based on their recent publication in the Geographical Journal: Williams, J., Robinson, C., & Bouzarovski, S. (2019). China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the emerging geographies of global urbanisation. The Geographical Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12332

The article can be read free here: https://rdcu.be/bUzse

If you would like to find out more about these projects, the authors have also made their dataset free to access here.

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