Sustainable infrastructure will be key

The climate change debate might still be intensifying in the political arena, but in the global business community there is a growing awareness that the infrastructure projects of the future need to move towards those that factor in sustainability.


A greener and more sustainable approach to infrastructure will not only contribute to mitigate the production of greenhouse gases (GHG), it will also provide further resistance against the effects of global warming.


Water systems, power grids, airports and motorways are some of the sectors in need of upgrades soon to be able to withstand the extreme weather events brought about by climate change, according to experts in this arena.


Essential infrastructure in low-lying areas around the world are particularly vulnerable and city planners, scientists, engineers are coming up with new solutions to adapt to less predictable weather patterns. 


In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that without drastic measures, the earth's temperature will increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius in a little over a decade, with severe consequences on the environment. More frequent flooding and heatwaves might shorten the lifespan of infrastructure systems built for a more predictable environment and increase the cost of maintenance.


Infrastructure disruptions will be more frequent in the developing world. According to Lifelines, a study published by the World Bank last June, damages caused to infrastructure systems in low and middle income countries amount to $18 billion a year. The same study reports that designs for more resilient systems (power, water, sanitation and transport) in those countries would cost between $ 11 billion and $65 billion a year by 2030. While the World Bank suggests a range of actions to tackle the consequences of more frequent and intense natural hazards, the first recommendation is to start new projects with resilient designs and focus on proper maintenance.


The Bali Action Plan adopted in 2007 within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) identified "adaptation" as the corner stone of any future strategy to face climate change and the challenges it poses to infrastructure systems. Together with the other three - mitigation, finance and technology - monitoring and adaptation to adjust and deal with the consequences of global warming continue to be at the core of the interventions in place so far and adapting infrastructure is a fast-growing global business for both public and private entities. 


Adaptation projects include for example more robust roads and railway lines, flood defenses in coastal areas and weather resistant schools and hospitals. 


In an article published in the American magazine “The Conversation” in October 2018, experts say that in the future, given that uncertainty and unpredictability of weather patterns will be the new norm, "agility and flexibility should be central to our infrastructure design".


Some cities around the world have already adopted that approach. In Kuala Lumpur, traffic tunnels can transition to storm water management during intense precipitation. In the U.S. state of Florida, Miami has developed a $500 million plan to upgrade infrastructure, including installing new pumping capacity and raising roads to protect at risk ocean-front property. 


Adaptation will increase resilience of systems, meaning that they will be able to withstand extreme weather events and be restored to normal operation faster. 


For airports in low lying areas close to the sea, adaptation might take the form of building walls to protect runways from rising sea levels or establishing early warning systems for potential flooding. In the U.S. Boston’s Logan Airport is planning to install new flow barriers while San Francisco has opted for concrete walls. 


Governments are aware they will need to lead in the efforts to address the climate crisis, but analysts suggest private capital will play an ever-important role in investing and building more sustainable infrastructure. 


In an article published by the Brookings Institute in December 2018 ("Sustainable Infrastructure Investment, Climate Change and Global Development"), global economist and senior fellow Joshua P. Meltzer writes that while, according to a 2017 OECD report "investing in sustainable infrastructures can be good for growth and the climate (...) allocations of capital into sustainable infrastructure remains low, at around 1 per cent globally, due to higher risks. Without action to reduce these risks, private capital will continue to flow into lower-cost but higher-carbon infrastructure projects".


Governments and multilateral institutions can play a vital role in reducing these risks and by boosting returns, attract much needed private sector capital. 


Development strategists believes this raises a much broader policy question, that lending institutions should refine their mandate to put infrastructure investment that responds to pending climate change challenges higher on the global agenda with the 17 United Nations sustainable development goals (SDG’s) to be met by 2030.