The choices we make on how we travel can have a big impact on the climate. Just ask Greta Thunberg. The Swedish activist shuns flying, which generates roughly 100g of CO2 per km, in favor of the train clocking in at 15g per km.
70% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the construction and operation of infrastructure. Projects can have a lifespan of multiple decades meaning that decisions made now on what type of infrastructure we build will determine whether we are able to resolve the climate crisis or not.
Infrastructure is central to achieving inclusive and sustainable growth and delivering on the sustainable development goals (SDGs): people need safe drinking water, well-run sewage systems, reliable energy supply, and efficient public transport. In many countries, infrastructure to deliver these services is missing or woefully inadequate. Unsurprisingly, citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated about the lack of quality and sustainable infrastructure.
But is there really a difference between sustainable infrastructure and quality infrastructure? What does “sustainable” mean? And what is “quality” infrastructure?
A recent IDB Group publication sheds light on this. It proposes a framework and attributes for sustainable infrastructure to ensure that a project is sustainable over its entire life cycle – from the early planning stage through to the construction and maintenance of the infrastructure asset until it is dismantled or put to alternative use. It also highlights the need to strengthen the way in which projects are chosen and designed at the upstream level, which can depend on how well government laws and regulations work.
The framework contains 66 criteria to guide how the sustainability of a project can be determined across four key pillars:
- Financial and economic (e.g. does the project create jobs and benefit the local economy?)
- Social (e.g. are health and safety standards for workers in place?)
- Environmental and climate change (e.g. level of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, biodiversity loss and resilience to natural disasters)
- Institutional (e.g. transparent procurement of goods and services for maintenance work).
At the G20, infrastructure is also high up on the agenda. Under Japan’s 2019 presidency, the G20 issued the Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment, which rests on six pillars:
- Maximizing the positive impact of infrastructure to achieve sustainable growth and development
- Raising economic efficiency in view of life-cycle costs
- Integrating environmental considerations in infrastructure investments
- Building resilience against natural disasters and other risks
- Integrating social considerations in infrastructure investments
- Strengthening infrastructure governance.
Combined, the IDB’s attributes and framework for sustainable infrastructure and the G20’s quality infrastructure principles overlap well: Economic efficiency includes items such as life-cycle costs, cost-overruns and innovative technologies, and is by and large covered by the IDB’s concept of economic/financial sustainability. Environmental considerations cover ecosystems, biodiversity, and climate; and are a good match with the IDB’s environmental sustainability pillar, except that the G20 separates resilience as an additional principle. Social considerations are broadly in line with social sustainability; and infrastructure governance with institutional sustainability.
There are also some subtle distinctions. For example, among the G20’s quality infrastructure principles, there is a stronger focus on the economic and engineering qualities of a project such as focusing on innovative technologies. Meanwhile, the IDB’s sustainable infrastructure framework focuses more on societal dimensions, highlighting a wider range of social and environmental issues and seeks not just to minimize any damages, but ideally improve on and restore existing issues (e.g. developing brownfield sites into green infrastructure for flood prevention).
Yet overall, sustainable infrastructure is quality infrastructure, and quality infrastructure is sustainable infrastructure. Given the short window to get countries onto low emission development pathways and avoid becoming locked into polluting technologies and inefficient capital, we urgently need to merge these conversations. This is happening but there is plenty more to do. The IDB Group is promoting regional dialogues on sustainable infrastructure, bringing together stakeholders from policy, business, academia, and civil society.
Having a common language can help us find solutions together. Understanding that sustainable infrastructure and quality infrastructure are essentially the same thing, is a crucial step towards accelerating the delivery of more sustainable and high-quality infrastructure.
Photo credit: Luis Echeverri Urrea – Shutterstock.com.
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