China’s $8 trillion plan to create a new Silk Road with sea and land links across Asia is the “riskiest environmental project in history”, a global expert on major infrastructure projects has said.

The Belt and Road initiative is already underway. It aims to boost trade and economic growth across a vast area of the globe through the building of massive new transport infrastructure and energy projects.

But Professor William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia has warned it could be the riskiest environmental venture ever undertaken.

“China has enormous ambitions, but with that comes enormous responsibilities,” he wrote in the Nature Sustainability journal.

If all goes to plan, the Belt and Road initiative will ultimately span at least 64 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region.

By 2050 the project could involve 7,000 infrastructure projects seeing $8 trillion (£5.9 trillion) in investment, Prof Laurance and his team of researchers wrote.

Last year, a report by the Fitch credit rating agency said $900bn (£660bn) worth of projects were planned or already underway.

The initiative is made up of two main components: the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

The belt is to be an overland corridor linking China to the Middle East, central Asia and continuing on to Europe. Oil pipelines, bridges, tunnels and rail and road links will be built to sustain it.

The road will be made up of sea links between China, east Africa and countries around the Mediterranean.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has warned that the planned corridors overlap with the range of 265 threatened species including saiga antelopes, tigers and giant pandas.

They have also identified that routes overlap with 1,739 designated important bird areas or key biodiversity areas as well as 46 biodiversity hotspots.

“China claims its Belt and Road will be a blueprint for responsible development, but that’s going to require it to fundamentally change the way it does business internationally,” said Professor Laurance. “Too many Chinese firms and financiers operating overseas are poorly controlled by their government – in large part because they are so profitable.”

He added: “In the last two decades I’ve seen countless examples of aggressive and even predatory exploitation by Chinese firms, especially in developing nations with weak environmental controls.”

But the authors add that the project puts China in a position to change how their developers approach projects outside China which could potentially make them world leaders in sustainability.