10 Principles That Can Transform Infrastructure Investment

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Sustainable infrastructure investment has great potential to support global goals. Currently, built infrastructure, such as highways, power plants, and office buildings, is responsible for 70% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Built infrastructure can also displace communities and wildlife when designed without the use of sustainable development principles.

A United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, titled “International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure,” calls for a more systematic approach by planners and policymakers to incorporate sustainable infrastructure into long-term development plans, ensuring that “human-made systems work with natural ones.” The publication offers guiding principles for such decision-making.

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Infrastructure systems deliver essential services like drinking water, sanitation, agriculture, industry, and electricity, allowing our economies to function. However, the current infrastructure causes unsustainable patterns of natural resource use that drive climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.

The authors of the UNEP report argue that we “urgently need to rethink our infrastructure systems,” as the lifespan of infrastructure assets is often measured in decades, while infrastructure footprint is measured in centuries. Such long-term thinking tends to lock in any impacts – positive and negative – without thinking of the collective impact of the individual parts on the whole.

Much work has been done to promote sustainability at the individual infrastructure investment level, and pursuit of long-term sustainability at the project level continues. At the same time, however, it is critical to also consider the bigger and broader questions:

  • How do different infrastructure systems fit together?
  • How is the built environment is a component of the natural systems that support life on earth?

The report and its accompanying case studies provide a framework for integrated approaches to sustainable infrastructure. It presents 10 good practice principles, from backing resource efficiency and circularity to fiscal innovation to comprehensive life cycle assessments of sustainability. Alongside the empirical examples, the principles offer a way for policymakers to address the environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainability related to infrastructure. Moving away from siloed planning, linear economies, and “hard” assets, the solutions rationalize balanced, pro-nature, low carbon solutions that reflect public preferences and cutting-edge innovations.

Now Is the Time to Harness Prudent Infrastructure Investments

The world is presented with the opportunity to put infrastructure investment principles into practice. The majority of infrastructure that will exist in 2050 has not yet been built. It will take trillions of dollars of investment per year to build it, and this infrastructure will mainly be built in developing countries. And with a good number of the national COVID-19 related stimulus packages taking an infrastructure focus to boost economic recovery through job creation and demand stimulus, an even greater opportunity is presented to get these infrastructure investments right.

Infrastructure is central to sustainable development, underpins economic growth, and delivers the services that are essential to improve livelihoods and well-being. At the same time, unsustainable, poorly planned and delivered infrastructure can have disastrous effects on the environment and societies.

The International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure are intended to provide globally applicable guidance on the integration of sustainability throughout the entire infrastructure life cycle, with the focus “upstream” of the project level. It aims to assist high-level policy- and decision makers in governments in creating the enabling environment for sustainable infrastructure that is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement.

In general, this guidance emphasizes the importance of infrastructure approaches that respond to needs and demand for services, address sustainability as early in the planning process as possible, and integrate not only all aspects of sustainability but also relevant governance frameworks and different infrastructure systems and sectors across time and space.

10 Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure Investment

The 10 principles that follow are outlined to support integrated, systems-level approaches that can increase governments’ abilities to meet a given level of service needs. The key is to have much less infrastructure that is more resource efficient, pollutes less, is more resilient, more cost effective, and has fewer risks than “business-as-usual” approaches.

Responsive, resilient, and flexible service provisions are required  to meet actual infrastructure needs, allow for changes and uncertainties over time, and promote synergies between infrastructure projects and systems.

Comprehensive life cycle assessment of sustainability, including the cumulative impacts of multiple infrastructure systems on ecosystems and communities over their entire lifespans, can avoid “locking in” infrastructure projects and systems with various adverse effects.

Avoiding environmental impacts of infrastructure systems and investing in natural infrastructure to make use of nature’s ability to provide essential, cost-effective infrastructure services and provide multiple co-benefits for people and the planet.

Resource efficiency and circularity has the potential to minimize infrastructure’s natural resource footprint, reduce emissions, waste and other pollutants, and increase the efficiency and affordability of services.

Equity, inclusiveness, and empowerment, through a balance between social and economic infrastructure investment to protect human rights and promote well-being, particularly positively influence more vulnerable or marginalized groups.

Enhancing economic benefits through employment generation support for the local economy.

Fiscal sustainability and innovative financing can close the infrastructure investment gap within the context of increasingly constrained public budgets.

Transparent, inclusive, and participatory decision-making must include stakeholder analysis, ongoing public participation, and grievance mechanisms for all stakeholders.

Evidence-based decision-making should include regular monitoring of infrastructure performance and impacts based on key performance indicators and the promotion of data sharing with all stakeholders.

The report is accompanied by a set of case studies from Afghanistan, Austria, Chile, Ecuador, Iran, Malawi, Mongolia, Saint Lucia, Singapore, and Zimbabwe.

The principles and case studies were developed as part of the implementation of a resolution on sustainable infrastructure adopted during the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA).

The report includes the Sustainable Infrastructure Tool Navigator, an online platform that connects users with tools for integrating sustainability across the life cycle of infrastructure projects. The platform is intended for public and private sector stakeholders involved in infrastructure development.

The Navigator includes several categories of tools, including:

  • high-level principles
  • impact assessments
  • computer modelling
  • project preparation & planning
  • financial and cost-benefit analyses
  • guidance
  • rating systems

The Sustainable Infrastructure Tool Navigator is free to use.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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