Blog | 26 Nov, 2019

With over USD 60 trillion of new infrastructure in the next 20 years, how can nature thrive amongst the concrete?

A guest blog by Sophus zu Ermgassen, who makes the case for safeguarding biodiversity in the face of rapidly expanding infrastructure development.  

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Photo: Chantal van Ham/IUCN

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline humanity’s vision to deliver social and economic prosperity for all, without harming non-human life on Earth. As part of this vision, we have committed to rapidly expanding the world’s infrastructure (i.e. transport, energy, telecommunications and residential) networks, which can in the right circumstances be a key driver of economic development, poverty alleviation and prosperity.

In the next two decades, it is predicted that we will spend over USD 60 trillion on new infrastructure, and by 2050, we may add 3-4.7 million km of new roads to the global network – enough to encircle the Earth 75-117 times. Our blue planet is turning grey.

This transformation brings major risks to the planet’s ecology. The great acceleration of infrastructure networks over the last half-century has coincided with sharp declines in Earth’s biodiversity, with wildlife populations declining by on average 60% over that time period. Around one-sixth of all species under risk of extinction on the IUCN Red List are threatened by infrastructure development. Furthermore, massive new infrastructure projects are planned for some of the world’s largest remaining biodiversity hotspots, including the Amazon basin, and the tropical forests of the Congo basin and Southeast Asia, which are also invaluable stores of carbon.

The question is:  can we unite the SDGs and expand the world’s infrastructure without destroying biodiversity?

Along with colleagues from the IUCN and The Biodiversity Consultancy, we argue in a recent article in the journal One Earth that it would require nothing less than a complete transformation in our model of infrastructure planning for such an ambition to be realised.

Around the world, there is a class of policies that have emerged with the aspiration of resolving potential trade-offs between infrastructure and biodiversity: so-called ‘no net loss’ policies. These policies stipulate that economic development activities should leave biodiversity at least as healthy as it was before the initiation of those activities.

At the scale of individual infrastructure projects, this is often operationalised through the application of a mitigation hierarchy approach to development impacts on biodiversity, a sequential process whereby impacts to biodiversity are avoided, minimised, and as a last resort, offset, to achieve no net loss in biodiversity overall. We investigated the extent of these and related compensation policies around the world to explore progress towards mitigating the impacts of the global infrastructure boom.

We found that many countries have existing legal architecture to make this happen. We found that 101 countries around the world had legal provisions for compensating for the impacts of biodiversity loss, and for 37 of these, biodiversity compensation for the impacts of certain types of development activities was compulsory. Furthermore, nearly half of the world’s biodiversity, which is threatened by infrastructure development, fell within these countries. So far, so good.

However, other trends were much less promising. Of the 101 countries, less than a quarter required that biodiversity compensation be used as a ‘last resort’ after efforts have been made to avoid and minimise biodiversity loss in the first place, and only a tenth applied international ‘best practice’ principles for offsetting biodiversity impacts.

These patterns are troubling, because offsetting biodiversity loss without doing it properly can have serious negative consequences for biodiversity. Offsetting often fails to fully replace the biodiversity that was lost in the first place, especially if the initial damage was to forest biodiversity, which is notoriously difficult to restore. Offsetting biodiversity loss without taking the maximum precautions to avoid losing it risks further endangering valuable species and ecosystems.

Additionally, in the past, offsetting has been implemented without properly integrating social justice implications, which must be addressed in the future for no net loss to be a morally acceptable strategy.

In order to build on the legal frameworks associated with these compensation policies and move towards truly achieving no net loss of biodiversity, a cascade of changes would be needed through planning processes. Perhaps most importantly, in most countries biodiversity compensation legislation only applies to a small subsection of overall infrastructure impacts – to achieve no net loss, these policies need to apply to all infrastructure impacts at the landscape scale.

There is also a strong case that much infrastructure would not go ahead if economic cost-benefit analyses took proper account of the full suite of economic costs, especially the environmental and long-term maintenance costs. To protect biodiversity, we most likely need less but higher quality infrastructure. Nevertheless, given the extraordinary scale of the ongoing global infrastructure boom, it seems likely that no net loss policies have an important role to play.

Can biodiversity thrive alongside the global infrastructure boom? Unlikely, unless our business-as-usual infrastructure development pathway is fundamentally changed. Given the stakes for our planet’s biodiversity, this is change we must strive for.

Note:  Sophus zu Ermgassen is the lead author of the One Earth article, “The Role of “No Net Loss” Policies in Conserving Biodiversity Threatened by the Global Infrastructure Boom,” published in November 2019.  He is also a PhD candidate at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), University of Kent.