We Need to Build Wisely
New infrastructure development is essential if we are to meet the food, water and energy needs of a growing global population and deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.
Yet expected public and private investment of $90 trillion in major projects between now and 2030 will double the amount of infrastructure on Earth and could potentially degrade the natural systems on which we all depend.
Making wise choices and pursuing sustainability is critical.
While infrastructure can contribute significantly to socio-economic development, poor choices on design and location of assets with lifespans of 50 to 100 years can lock-in unsustainability for decades.
Developing large ‘transport corridors’ for example, is increasingly seen as a way to stimulate regional integration and economic growth but outcomes are often mixed.
In one study looking at economic benefits of transport corridors in South Asia, the World Bank found impacts across countries on economic welfare and equity are generally positive but that associated impacts on the environment are extremely negative.
Similarly, assessing conflicts arising in infrastructure projects in Latin America and the Caribbean, IDB found 80% faced a delay, more than 50% declared a cost overrun, and 20% were cancelled due to conflicts.
Tellingly, ecosystem degradation was the most prominent environmental conflict driver in 72% of cases, followed by pollution (67%), deforestation (24%), water issues (17%) and climate change (11%), causing some projects to spend millions on environmental restoration and reforestation, even where regulations did not require such action.
Lack of institutional capacity and deficient upfront planning – especially in connection with siting in pristine environments and considering impacts on vulnerable indigenous and local communities – are also key conflict drivers.
Mind The Gap
There is also a global shortfall in infrastructure finance. Current investment is not keeping pace with the SDG 9 ambition to ‘build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation’.
Investment required to deliver mega-projects such as China’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative connecting Beijing with Brussels and branching into South Asian countries, may exceed available financial resources.
Globally we face a cumulative ‘infrastructure gap’ of up to $15 trillion between now and 2040. Above all, what is blocking investment is political, financial and environmental risk. And unless we address this risk, we will fail to secure much needed private sector investment to fill the gap.
As important as the scale of investment, are the ‘how’ and the ‘where’ of infrastructure. Incentivizing sustainability and creating ‘bankable’ projects that reduce risk by addressing environmental impact and utilizing natural services should be at the heart of our approach.
Beyond Climate Change
That infrastructure development is increasingly focused on tackling climate change is welcome but we need to go further.
Nature is worth an estimated $125 trillion to the global economy every year, providing us with a host of infrastructure services such as clean air and water, food, timber, flood protection and climate stability.
Such benefits come from complex living systems that not only need space to flow and develop but that are also under threat – the more we disrupt them, the more we need to spend on inferior, inflexible imitations of natural infrastructure just to stand still.
A road is not just a road. In Brazilian Amazonia, 95% of all deforestation occurs within 5.5 km of a paved or unpaved road, and in the montane forests of Southeast Asia, landslides are two to three times more frequent in terrain with roads than without.
Natural disasters caused by human ecosystem disruption and climate change already cost more than $300 billion per year. Droughts, floods and water pollution cost business $14 billion in 2016 – a five-fold increase over 2015.
Natural infrastructure services can enhance and sometimes replace built solutions while benefitting climate, biodiversity and resilience. Protecting coastal wetlands, for example, could save the insurance industry $52 billion annually through reduced flood damage losses.
In building the infrastructure of the future, we must respect all planetary boundaries, sustain essential ecosystem services and carefully blend infrastructure with natural landscapes.
With approximately 75% of the infrastructure required by 2050 still to be built, we have an enormous opportunity to develop ‘hybrid’ infrastructure that combines natural and built systems in ways that allow people and planet to thrive.
This requires good governance that enables us to make wise choices and develop systemic solutions.
Africa in particular is at a critical juncture with its governments under pressure to provide food, water, energy and transport that meet the needs of a population set to double by 2050. Transport corridors, rapid urban expansion, land use change and agricultural development all present significant challenges.
Investment in projects that ignore the importance of existing ecological infrastructure and its contribution to economy and society risks reducing overall welfare if it sustains growth without poverty alleviation, increases pollution or promotes extractives and uneven development.
No two infrastructure projects are alike. Adopting early and comprehensive strategic planning based on sound science and meaningful social engagement will reduce risk, increase efficiencies, lower costs, spur investment and avoid costly changes.
Achieving sustainability requires an integrated landscape approach that accounts for complexity, assesses direct and indirect impacts, identifies synergies and ensures sustainability.
We need innovative design that reaches beyond urban centers, maintains nature’s connectivity and enables us to secure the services we need without relying on outdated, discredited and damaging approaches.
Practical solutions and good models exist. It is time we put in place the institutional capacity and governance that delivers at scale and drives a shift in global norms.
New Deal for Nature and People
We need a New Deal for Nature and People akin to the Paris Agreement on climate change that values and incentivizes public and private investment in nature.
Working together, as governments, financial institutions, businesses, NGOs and citizens, we might then re-imagine the complex built infrastructure systems we need in ways that empower local communities and that complement, harness and protect the extraordinary wealth of natural infrastructure systems we already have.